- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 10, 2009

JERUSALEM | An American envoy sought to assure anxious Israeli leaders on Tuesday that U.S. support for the Jewish state remains firm, despite a growing rift over Israeli construction in West Bank settlements and the Obama administration’s approach to peace efforts.

George Mitchell’s comments appeared aimed at tempering a very public disagreement with the new Israeli government and could reflect U.S. awareness that pushing peace forward will not be easy if Israelis mistrust President Obama.

The Mideast envoy’s latest swing through the region, which is also set to include stops in the West Bank, Lebanon and Syria, comes after Mr. Obama’s landmark speech to the Muslim world last week.

The address, in which Mr. Obama promised to work aggressively to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, has put Israeli leaders on edge, fearful that they are headed toward a policy clash with their closest and most important ally. In particular, Mr. Obama pressed his call for a halt to Israeli settlement construction on lands claimed by the Palestinians and the need for a Palestinian state.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has conspicuously refused to embrace these goals, leading to one of the most public disagreements between Israel and the U.S. in years.

Israeli newspapers have been filled with commentators saying that Mr. Netanyahu is on a collision course with Mr. Obama and quoting anonymous Netanyahu aides as saying they believe Mr. Obama is out to get their boss. Mr. Netanyahu plans to respond to Mr. Obama’s address in a major policy speech on Sunday.

Apparently seeking to calm Israeli nerves, Mr. Mitchell said the U.S. commitment to Israeli security is “unshakable,” adding, “We come here to talk not as adversaries and in disagreement, but as friends in discussion.” He spoke with Mr. Netanyahu at his side before their meeting Tuesday evening.

At the same time, Mr. Mitchell said the United States is sticking by its goals. At an earlier meeting with Israel’s president, Shimon Peres, he called for an immediate resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and called on both sides to honor commitments of the “road map” peace plan.

The road map called on Israel to freeze all settlement construction and for the Palestinians to dismantle militant groups as steps toward the creation of an independent Palestinian state. Neither side has fully carried out its obligation.

It remains unclear whether Mr. Netanyahu will soften any of his positions in Sunday’s speech. He and Mr. Obama spoke late Monday, and Mr. Obama said he is looking forward to the address, according to statements from Mr. Netanyahu’s office and the White House.

The U.S. demands have left Mr. Netanyahu with few options. The Israeli leader cannot alienate Israel’s closest ally, but any move toward recognizing Palestinian statehood or freezing settlements would mark a departure from Mr. Netanyahu’s long-standing commitment to Israeli control of the West Bank. Such a move could also destabilize his coalition government, dominated by settlement hawks.

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