- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 4, 2009

TEL AVIV | Excluded from President Obama’s first Middle East trip as president, Israel is worried that ties with its most important ally are more tense than at any other time in nearly two decades.

At issue beyond Mr. Obama’s itinerary is a serious disagreement over Israeli settlement policy. The Obama administration appears to have scrapped an agreement between Israel and the George W. Bush administration that permitted Israel to increase the number of settlers in communities that Israel wants to retain if the Palestinians establish an independent state.

Mr. Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton have said repeatedly that Israel must halt all settlement expansion to increase the chances for Arab-Israeli peace. On Monday, Mr. Obama told National Public Radio that the United States has to be more “honest” with Israel and that the direction the Middle East is going is “profoundly negative.”

In an apparent gesture to Mr. Obama, Israel on Wednesday dismantled a military checkpoint near Ramallah that had been a major obstacle to Palestinian travel in the West Bank, the Associated Press reported.

“Israel does not seek stagnation,” government spokesman Mark Regev told the AP. “We want to see momentum in the process between us and the Palestinians.”

However, Israeli government press director Daniel Seamen earlier reacted angrily to the Obama administration’s refusal to permit what Israelis call “natural growth” - allowing the adult children of the 300,000 settlers to build new homes adjacent to their parents.

“I have to admire the residents of Iroquois territory for assuming that they have a right to determine where Jews should live in Jerusalem,” he said.

Elliott Abrams, who played a prominent role in U.S.-Middle East policy as deputy national security adviser in the Bush administration, said an agreement reached during that administration allowed Israel to build “up, not out” in the settlements and came in the context of Israel’s decision to withdraw unilaterally from Gaza in 2005.

He agreed with many nervous Israelis that relations between the United States and Israel have not been so fraught since 1992, when the administration of George H.W. Bush punished Israel over settlement growth by withholding guarantees for loans to aid a wave of Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

“We are asking an Israeli government to do what no Israeli government can do: freeze natural growth,” Mr. Abrams said. “Only the Israelis are being asked to put something on the line, while the others are floating about. There is a new attitude in Washington.”

Gilad Erdan, a parliament member from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party, told Israel Radio that there is a “disagreement. Of course, the administration is coming with more far-reaching demands than in the past. We believe that we can convince them.”

Mr. Erdan added, “To demand from the prime minister do things that governments with much more left-wing platforms didn’t do is, in my eyes, is excessive.”

Yitzhak Herzog, a Cabinet member for the centrist Labor Party, said friends can disagree but Mr. Netanyahu’s government must honor the commitments of his predecessor to evacuate illegal settlement outposts in the West Bank. “We have international commitments, and we should honor them,” Mr. Herzog said.

The Obama administration appears to have accepted the view of Palestinians, other Arabs and the Israeli peace camp that allowing building to continue in the West Bank seriously reduces the chance to establish a viable Palestinian state.

Under the rubric of natural growth, the number of settlers has grown by 50 percent over the past decade even though Israel has not officially established any new settlements.

The fact that Mr. Obama is visiting Saudi Arabia and Egypt but didn’t schedule a stopover in Israel on this regional trip also has raised eyebrows, even though government officials aren’t complaining in public.

Some in Israel see the shift in White House views as profound.

Pinchas Wallerstein, a former head of the settler council who lives in the town of Ofra - a settlement deep in the West Bank - said Mr. Obama is reorienting American policy to favor the Arabs.

“He has decided to stop the relationship between Israel and America,” Mr. Wallerstein said. “He doesn’t count Israel as an American ally in the Middle East. Israel is a problem for him.”

However, Richard N. Haass, who was in charge of Middle East affairs on the White House National Security Council in 1992 and later served in the George W. Bush administration, said Israel was overreacting.

“These are early days,” said Mr. Haass, who now heads the Council on Foreign Relations and is the author of “War of Necessity, War of Choice” - a new book that compares the Iraq wars of the two Bush administrations in which he served. “No one is going to the mattresses here. … The Israel relationship with [George W.] Bush had a high comfort level, but being comfortable is not enough. The question is how productive and constructive it turns out to be.”

• Barbara Slavin contributed to this report from Washington.

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