Israel Urges Obama to Allow Jewish Settlements

Tension between Israel and United States rose on Tuesday as Israel tried to overlook its ally’s criticism and urged U.S. President Barrack Obama to respect settlement agreements his predecessor allowed.

Tel Aviv tried to play down the latest blunt criticism from Washington after Obama vowed to adopt a more "honest" tone with the Jewish state.

Israel instead urged the new U.S. administration to honor previous settlement agreements it had with former president George W. Bush.

On the eve of his high-profile Middle East trip that will take him to Egypt and Saudi Arabia but not Israel, Obama said in an interview that Washington had to be more frank with its staunch ally.

"I think there have been times where we are not as honest as we should be about the fact that the current direction … in the region is profoundly negative, not only for Israeli interests but also U.S. interests," Obama told National Public Radio.

But some Israeli officials played down Obama’s words, reiterating their confidence in his support of Israel and asking him to respect settlement expansion. "What mattered to us in Obama’s comments is the fact that he forcefully repeated his strong support of Israel," a senior Israeli official told AFP.

"Moreover we think that it is necessary to always be frank and honest between friends and it is perfectly normal that an American president be firm in his positions," the official said on condition of anonymity.

"While the American president demands a freeze of (settlement) construction, including kindergartens, he is avoiding understandings reached with Israel with president Bush," Environment Minister Gilad Erdan told army radio.

Erdan, an MP with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party, was referring to a 2004 letter from Bush to then prime minister Ariel Sharon.

Bush had said during his presidency that given the existence of major Israeli settlement blocs in the occupied West Bank, it was "unrealistic" to expect Israel to fully withdraw from the territory it captured from Jordan in the 1967 war.

But Obama’s administration has taken a harsher tone with Israel, demanding that it freeze all settlement activity, including so-called "natural growth" construction to accommodate population increases.

Netanyahu, who leads a largely right-wing government that supports the settlement enterprise, has rejected freezing all construction, an issue that is a key obstacle in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

The tone of the new U.S. administration has set off alarm bells in Israel, which fears its closest ally may lower its support of the Jewish state as it seeks to improve ties with the Muslim world.

( English and Agencies)

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