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Obama loses trust of Israel backers
President Obama's harsh criticism of West Bank settlements during his heavily publicized June speech to the Arab world in Cairo continues to reverberate here, undercutting his popularity and heightening tensions with some pro-Israel advocates in the United States.
Navigating the complex relationship with Israel is a delicate task for any administration, but relations are especially delicate now as Mr. Obama is making a major push to build trust with the region's vast Muslim population and coordinate a diplomatic drive to halt Iran's nuclear programs.
During his June speech, Mr. Obama questioned the legitimacy of the settlements, saying they violated previous agreements and undermined the peace process, prompting a hawkish public response from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
A recent poll sponsored by the Jerusalem Post underscored the extent of the rift: Just 6 percent of Jewish Israelis surveyed said they now consider Mr. Obama's administration to be "pro-Israel." Fifty percent said Mr. Obama was "pro-Palestinian, and 36 percent said he was "neutral."
Otniel Schneller, deputy speaker of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, warned that Mr. Obama's approach could stymie the peace process.
"He doesn't understand the conflict. He thinks he understands it," Mr. Schneller told The Washington Times. "The formula is very easy. If they will continue to push us to give the Palestinians more than 90 percent of the West Bank, there will not be any peace in the future, ever."
Mr. Schneller, a modern Orthodox Jew, lives in the West Bank settlement of Ma'ale Mikhmas. He is one of an estimated 300,000 Jewish settlers, many of whom have built homes in the region as an expression of religious conviction.
The United States has always maintained close ties with Israel, an alliance strengthened during the Cold War, when Israel provided vital intelligence about Russian military capabilities to U.S. agents. Cultural and religious ties also bind the two countries.
Pro-Israel groups in the United States initially expressed concerns about some of Mr. Obama's views as he began his White House bid. However, after he secured the Democratic nomination, a number of American Jewish leaders began to coalesce behind him.
Now, several leading Republicans said they think rising anti-Obama sentiment here could translate into inroads for Republicans who have been seeking support from American Jews. Virginia Republican Rep. Eric Cantor, No. 2 in the House Republican Party hierarchy and the only Jewish Republican in an elected national position, appealed to Jewish voters in the Israeli press, telling them they have a place in the Republican Party.
Mr. Cantor earlier this month led a delegation of 25 House Republicans, many freshman members, on a one-week tour of Israel sponsored by the American Israel Education Foundation, an arm of the powerful lobbying group American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). AIPAC maintains an annual budget of nearly $60 million and an endowment of $130 million.
Last week, 29 House Democrats were following suit, completing an ambitious schedule that included meetings with Mr. Netanyahu, President Shimon Peres, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.
"There is much discussion, I think, within the scene in American politics about the American Jewish vote, about potential gains for the Republican Party among many minorities, as well as the population as a whole," Mr. Cantor said in Jerusalem during a press conference.
The discussion of any true shift in allegiances, though, may be premature just six months into the new administration, many observers said.
"I do not think that the relationship has been damaged yet," said George S. Naggiar, chairman of the American Association for Palestinian Equal Rights.
However, Mr. Naggiar noted that "because the United States wants to maintain an image of power and credibility among Arabs and Muslims and because Israel's refusal to end settlements will undermine that image, such refusal has the potential to damage the U.S. relationship with Israel."
Mr. Naggiar said American Jews, while strongly linked with the Democratic Party, are not single-issue voters and only a small minority are fiercely devoted to maintaining and expanding Jewish settlements.
But Jeff Daube, director of the Zionist Organization of America's Israel office, said he thinks the president's positions have taken a toll.
"There is no doubt that it has damaged the relationship," Mr. Daube said of Mr. Obama's call to halt settlements.
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