WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama Thursday ratcheted up what might be America’s toughest bargaining position with Israel in a generation, demanding anew that Israel stop expanding its settlements in the disputed West Bank as a key step toward making peace with its Arab neighbors.
Obama made the demand after a White House meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, building on unusually blunt language the day before from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
“Each party has obligations,” Obama said of the so-called Road Map to Peace, to which Israel is a party. “On the Israeli side, those obligations include stopping settlements.”
He said he made that point to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when they met earlier this month, noting that the conversation “only took place last week” and that Netanyahu must work through domestic politics, but added: “We don’t have a moment to lose.”
Even before Obama sat down with Abbas, however, Israel’s government sent the message that it will continue construction in the settlements. “Normal life in those communities must be allowed to continue,” government spokesman Mark Regev said Thursday, adding that normal life included new construction.
Obama also urged the Palestinians to do their part by ensuring security in the West Bank and curbing anti-Israel rhetoric in schools. However, his renewed push on Israel – coming hours after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government signaled that it will keep building in the settlements – suggested an ambitious and perhaps high-risk strategy that could either fuel peace talks or leave Israel angry and the U.S. looking weak.
“What we’re seeing from the Obama administration is an uncharacteristically tough policy on settlements without a corresponding detailed strategy to justify it. It looks like a significant fight with the Israelis,” said Aaron David Miller, a veteran of Arab-Israeli peace efforts in administrations of both parties.
“They’ve essentially issued an ultimatum to Israel. It’s a game of chicken, an Obama-Netanyahu game of chicken.”
Clinton signaled the raised stakes when she said Wednesday that Obama wanted new construction in the settlements stopped and rejected Israel’s insistence that it needed to allow for such things as “natural growth.”
“He wants to see a stop to settlements,” Clinton said. “Not some settlements, not outposts, not ‘natural growth’ exceptions. That is our position. That is what we have communicated very clearly.”
“Her comments,” Miller said, “were about as tough and as shrill as I’ve heard from any senior American official on this issue since Baker told Congress, ‘When the Israelis are serious, have them call me.’ ”
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