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."
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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 jump-start 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 and now a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington.
"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 then-Secretary of State James Baker told Congress in 1991, "Everybody over there should know, the telephone number is 1-202-456-1414. When you're serious about peace, call us."
Baker and President George H.W. Bush tried to press Israel to stop building settlements by urging Congress to suspend loan guarantees to Israel, but then they backed down.
Abbas came with a five-page proposal that centered on a longstanding goal of requiring Israel to withdraw from Arab land it occupied after the Six-Day War in 1967 in exchange for a guarantee of peace with its Arab neighbors.
It also called for a freeze on Israeli activity in the settlements in the West Bank, a timetable for withdrawal from them and a two-state solution.
About 300,000 Israelis now live in the settlements, on land the Palestinians hope to reclaim as part of any peace deal.
Obama's meeting with Abbas was part of a growing effort to jump-start Middle East peace negotiations as he prepares for a major speech to the Islamic world that he'll deliver in Cairo on June 4.
Obama met Jordan's King Abdullah II on April 21, and Netanyahu on May 18. Obama also had planned a White House meeting this week with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, but Mubarak canceled after a death in the family. Obama will meet with Mubarak next week during a visit to Egypt, and also will meet with Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah in Riyadh.
A key question heading into next week is whether Obama can get Arab states to offer some concession that might prompt Netanyahu to agree to freeze the West Bank settlements. He could, for example, get them to offer travel visas to Israelis, or to allow the use of their airspace by commercial Israeli flights.
It's noteworthy that Obama this week announced that he'd go to Saudi Arabia early next week for a private dinner with King Abdullah, en route to Cairo.
"If what Obama is trying to do is get states like the Saudis to actually do things now, not only will he have achieved something pretty significant, he'll make it almost impossible for the Israelis to say no," Miller said. "No Israeli prime minister can afford to mismanage Israel's most important relationship, especially at a time when the Iranians are closer to nuclear power."
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