U.S. Gets Stern With Israel

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The Israeli prime minister's trip to the White House shows how much U.S.-Israeli relations have changed under President Obama. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu even stayed an extra day in Washington to try to smooth things over with the Americans. The White House has kept a tight lid on the meeting, but it's clear the U.S. is not letting up the pressure.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

President Obama surprised many commentators by the way he treated Israel's prime minister at the White House this past week. And as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports, it's clear that the administration isn't ready to brush aside a dispute with Israel over housing projects in east Jerusalem.

MICHELE KELEMEN: The Israeli media say Netanyahu was ambushed and humiliated at the White House. There were no photos or statements, and the White House has only said that the president asked Netanyahu to take some steps to restore confidence in U.S. efforts to promote peace between the Israelis and Palestinians.

A former U.S. ambassador to Israel, Daniel Kurtzer, said this was a confident President Obama, hot off his health care victory and with a foreign policy win under his belt, as well: a new arms control treaty with Russia.

Professor DANIEL KURTZER (Former U.S. Ambassador, Israel): This is an invigorated President Obama, so I think everybody's got to sit up and pay attention. This is now the President Obama of late March 2010, and I think the president's getting his sea legs.

KELEMEN: Kurtzer notes that the administration has been careful to keep its demands quiet and is not making public threats to Israel, such as holding up aid.

Prof. KURTZER: It is using good, old-fashioned jawboning. You know, this is our policy. This is our approach. We are a player. We have interests, and we expect a friend and ally of Israel to be paying attention.

KELLY: Israeli commentators are worried about this daylight between the U.S. and Israeli positions. Ehud Ya'ari, a fellow with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says even those who supported President Obama in Israel are getting worried about this crisis.

Mr. EHUD YA'ARI (Washington Institute for Near East Policy): People feel that this administration is seeking to maintain distance from Israel, to maintain some sort of ongoing strain and tension, if not a continuous crisis in order to serve probably broader objectives in the Middle East.

KELLY: By continuing to press Israel, the Obama administration has surprised many analysts in the U.S. as well, including Robert Malley of the International Crisis Group.

Dr. ROBERT MALLEY (International Crisis Group): The stance taken by the Obama administration is bold. It's refreshing. It's new. It's - but there's still this nagging question: Is it wise?

KELEMEN: And how does it fit into a larger strategy?

Dr. MALLEY: And it may simply be that the president feels that settlement construction - wherever it is, in disputed areas and areas that are under occupation - is inconsistent with a peace process that's designed to share that territory.

KELLY: Malley says that's probably only part of the story. The U.S. also seems to be testing Netanyahu, as it tries to see what sort of concessions the Israelis and Palestinians are ready to take on core issues dividing them. That's the much bigger fight ahead.

Ambassador Kurtzer says he's never been a big believer in the indirect talks the U.S. is promoting, but he says the atmosphere is changing.

Prof. KURTZER: You know, if we get the talks started now, they will have been started on the basis of a much more invigorated American diplomatic approach. And that may mean that we put our foot down on the gas a little bit harder and, you know, shape the talks a little bit better.

KELEMEN: Questions remain about whether President Obama's approach has enough support at home. Robert Malley says, for now, the response has been fairly muted.

Dr. MALLEY: The reaction to the U.S. position has not been as strong as one might have expected, and certainly would have been the case in the past. You know, on the issue of settlements, this seems to be a growing consensus in the U.S., that this has to stop and that we need to find a way resolve the question of the borders of the Palestinian state.

KELLY: Former Ambassador to Israel Kurtzer agrees, saying Netanyahu should not be fooled by the cheers he received when he addressed the pro-Israel lobby, AIPAC. Kurtzer says support for Israel remains high in the U.S., though there are lots of doubts in Congress about Netanyahu's settlement policy.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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