- 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.

“She got annoyed, but we never made it a crisis,” said Mr. Abrams, now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “This crisis is manufactured by the [Obama] administration.”

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley insisted that only members of the Israeli government — but not U.S. officials — have used the word “crisis.”

Mr. Crowley said Mrs. Clinton had proposed that Israel take specific steps to demonstrate that it is still committed to the peace process during a 43-minute phone conversation with Mr. Netanyahu on Friday. He did not list those steps, but Israeli media reports have cited reversing the housing decision and including so-called “final status” issues, such as borders, refugees and the future of Jerusalem, in indirect talks Mr. Mitchell has been trying to start between Israelis and Palestinians.

Mr. Mitchell, who was initially scheduled to leave for the region on Sunday, delayed his departure because a response from Mr. Netanyahu had not arrived. When the administration did not hear from him on Monday, it decided it made no sense to send the envoy, because he has to be in Moscow with Mrs. Clinton later in the week for a meeting of the international Quartet — the United States, the United Nations, Russia and the European Union.

“We’ll see what the next days hold, and we’re looking forward to Sen. Mitchell returning to the region and beginning the proximity talks,” Mrs. Clinton said. His “legendary patience will win the day as the process gets started again, because there is just too much at stake for both the Palestinians and the Israelis.”

Meanwhile, hundreds of Palestinian protesters clashed with Israeli riot police in East Jerusalem on Tuesday, and at least 40 Palestinians and 15 Israeli police were reported injured. The Islamist militant group Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip and wants Israel’s destruction, urged Palestinians to regard Tuesday as “a day of rage.”

• Nicholas Kralev can be reached at nkralev@washingtontimes.com.

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