- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Obama administration on Tuesday came under congressional pressure to end its diplomatic row with Israel over its housing-expansion plans in occupied East Jerusalem, with legislators from both parties expressing concern about the future of the relationship and the peace process.

Even though U.S. Middle East envoy George J. Mitchell canceled a trip to the region, the administration dismissed suggestions that the dispute — which began with Israel’s announcement of 1,600 new housing units just as Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. arrived in the Jewish state last week — had become a crisis.

“I don’t buy that,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told reporters. “We have an absolute commitment to Israel’s security. We have a close, unshakable bond between the United States and Israel, and between the American and Israeli people, who share common values and a commitment to a democratic future for the world.”

Still, Mrs. Clinton, who expressed “dismay and disappointment” with Israel’s decision, demanded that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu prove his commitment to the peace process with actions.

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At the same time, members of Congress urged the administration to stop rebuking Israel publicly, and some even suggested that it had overreacted to the housing announcement, which they said is less important than regional threats, such as Iran’s nuclear program.

“A zoning dispute over 143 acres of Jewish land in Israel’s capital city should not eclipse the growing threat we face from Iran,” Reps. Mark Steven Kirk, Illinois Republican, and Christopher Carney, Pennsylvania Democrat, wrote in a letter to President Obama.

“To promote Middle East peace and defend America and Israel’s national security, we urge your administration to refrain from further public criticism of Israel, and to focus on more pressing issues affecting this vital relationship, such as signing and enforcing the Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act, when it comes to your desk,” they said.

Rep. Howard L. Berman, California Democrat and chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said the administration “had real justification for being upset with the timing of the settlements announcement.” However, “we need to disentangle bilateral relations from the peace process,” he said.

Rep. Nita M. Lowey, New York Democrat and chairman of the House Appropriations State, foreign operations and related programs subcommittee, urged Mr. Mitchell “to return to the region as soon as possible.”

“The stakes are too high and the threats are too urgent to allow the unfortunate recent exchange between Israel and the United States to derail ongoing diplomacy,” she said in a statement. “I stand firm in my commitment to maintaining Israel’s qualitative military edge and a strong U.S.-Israel relationship.”

Mr. Obama has had testy relations with Mr. Netanyahu since taking office more than a year ago. He publicly demanded that Israel freeze settlement activity while sitting beside Mr. Netanyahu in the Oval Office last March. Israeli officials said the prime minister was surprised by the president’s rebuke, and he has not heeded the administration’s call, except for some limited and temporary settlement suspension.

Israel has been the staunchest U.S. ally in the Middle East for decades, and its cooperation on counterterrorism has been vital to the United States since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in New York and Washington. The United States also relies on Israeli intelligence on matters such as Iran’s nuclear pursuits.

After Israel’s announcement last week, Mr. Biden was an hour and a half late for dinner with Mr. Netanyahu and was reported by Israeli media to have told him that Israel’s actions endanger the security of U.S. troops in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Elliott Abrams, the top Middle East expert at the National Security Council in the George W. Bush White House, said the Israelis made similar housing announcements during visits by Mr. Bush’s secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice.

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