- President Obama, since his meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House in Washington on May 18, 2009, has stepped up public pressure on Netanyahu to stop settlement activity in the West Bank. (Moshe Milner/GPO/Flash90/JTA)
WASHINGTON (JTA) -- Even as it publicly stakes out a hard-line position against Israeli settlement expansion, the Obama administration is avoiding serious criticism from most U.S. Jewish groups and pro-Israel Democratic lawmakers.
Key pro-Israel Jewish Democrats have backed the president on the importance of an Israeli settlement freeze while also suggesting there is room for a compromise between the Netanyahu government and the White House.
Meanwhile, the major Jewish centrist organizations -- including the Anti-Defamation League, American Jewish Committee, Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and AIPAC -- have refrained from issuing statements criticizing the Obama administration on the issue.
Some Jewish leaders said that while worries had been growing in recent days, the community wanted to wait until after President Obama's speech Thursday in Cairo to fully assess the situation.
Their concern spiked after what they saw as "stark" comments by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton last week in which she said that "with respect to settlements, the president was very clear when Prime Minister Netanyahu was here: He wants to see a stop to settlements -- not some settlements, not outposts, not natural growth exceptions."
In subsequent interviews, Obama has reiterated the call for a settlement freeze, but also stressed that "it's still early in the conversation" and that "patience is needed." The president also has stressed the White House's continuing commitment to Israel's security, isolating Hamas and fighting to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.
While the Bush administration also called for a settlement freeze, observers said the Obama administration's tone and seeming willingness to follow up marks a significant change from the previous White House. The key flashpoint surrounds the issue of "natural growth," which often is understood to encompass any kind of building and construction to accommodate growing families -- from building an extra room to a house to additional schools, community services and synagogues in growing neighborhoods.
Last month, former deputy national security adviser Elliott Abrams publicly confirmed the existence of an unwritten agreement that then-President George W. Bush and then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon reached in 2004, stating that Israel could continue to build in large Israeli settlements in the West Bank that the Jewish state was likely to keep in any final peace deal.
The Obama administration reportedly has backed away from that understanding -- but, as some observers and unnamed U.S. officials have pointed out, only after Netanyahu refused to echo his predecessors' endorsement of a two-state solution.
"There would usually be a great deal of deference if he did his part," said the Middle East Forum's Steve Rosen, formerly the longtime foreign policy director at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. But without such an affirmation for a two-state solution by Netanyahu, "it weakened his ability to play that card."
Abraham Foxman, the ADL's national director, said the organized Jewish community was still treading cautiously, not wanting to "push any buttons and exacerbate the situation" in order to see what the president says in his speech to the Muslim world this week.
"It's a crisis in formation" -- but not yet a crisis, said Foxman.
"Everybody is holding their breath until after Thursday," he said.
The chairman of the Conference of Presidents, Alan Solow, also said it was "too early to come to any conclusion" on how the settlement discussions will play out.
"I'm watching very carefully to see that the American leadershp and the Israeli leadership have a candid exchange of views," said Solow, an early Obama supporter during the campaign.
While Jewish lawmakers and centrist Jewish organizations have steered clear from directly critcizing the Obama administration, more than 75 percent of the members of the House of Representatives have signed on to an AIPAC-backed letter to the president stating, among other things, that the United States should seek to settle its disputes with Israel in private.
Some Jewish leaders have expressed puzzlement at the administration's willingness to bring the argument out in the open so quickly.
"It's not clear what's to be gained by this public exchange on settlements, especially because there's not much likelihood of a deal at this point" and "a private channel exists," said an official at one Jewish organization who did not want to be identified.
Even Republican Jews, who attacked Obama throughout the presidential campaign for his positions on Israel, have been relatively quiet in recent days.
Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, said his organization was waiting until after the Cairo speech to make a formal statement in order to have a "full sense of what's going on," although he said the group was "deeply concerned about the path this administration is taking."
Left-wing pro-Israel groups, which have been encouraging Obama to press for a settlement freeze since his inauguration, were pleased that the White House appears to be sticking to its demands.
Americans for Peace Now spokesman Ori Nir said the shift is "sweeping, if in fact the administration will stand behind its words and enforce these positions."
The Zionist Organization of America criticized the settlement freeze proposal immediately after last month's Obama-Netanyahu meeting, saying "it simply penalizes Jews, because they are Jews, from living in the ancestral heartland of the Jewish people."
Late Tuesday, the Orthodox Union weighed in with a letter to Obama, saying it was "deeply troubled" by his approach to settlements because his typical "nuanced approach" was "glaringly absent."
"To the contrary, this policy has, to date, reflected a blunderbuss, one-size-fits-all attitude toward everything from building a new house on an empty lot in the midst of the city of Ma'ale Adumim, to erecting new houses on an empty hilltop in Samaria," wrote leaders of the Orthodox Union, which has increasingly aligned itself publicly with the settler movement in recent years.
According to multiple reports, Netanyahu and his aides were shocked to discover in a meeting last month with Jewish members of Congress the degree to which they sided with Obama. Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) said it was the first time during such a meeting that he recalled an Israeli prime minister being pressed on the settlement issue in his 13 years in the House.
"Those people who have been some of Israel's staunchest and most vocal supporters in the past and would be in the future are advocating this policy and supporting the president because it is a policy in best interests of the United States and Israel," said Wexler, an early supporter and outspoken Jewish surrogate for Obama during the presidential campaign. "I'm convinced Netanyahu feels the same way. He just has to figure out the dynamic that will support it and we have to give him the time and room to do that."
Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.) said he still wanted the Obama administration to more clearly define what exactly it meant by "natural growth," but generally backed the idea of stopping settlements.
"We're not talking about dismantling settlements, we're talking about a settlement freeze," said Ackerman, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia. "Settlements have proven to be one of the things that have been problematic."
Ackerman said he still wanted to hear specifically whether the administration's definition of natural growth was all about buildings, or also included people.
"I don't know how you can tell families they can't have children," he said, but expanding the "footprint" of a settlement through building or other construction was problematic.
"I think there is room for compromise," he said.
Wexler offered his own idea for a compromise, suggesting that the Jewish state offer to freeze all natural growth of settlements on the Palestinian side of the security fence as a "credible first step." He said Israel needed to make some sort of movement on the settlement issue as a way to test whether the Arab world is serious about peace with Israel.
"American Jews or Israel should not be concerned" by the recent tension over settlements, he said.
"All of this is within the context of empowering the president of the United States to extract from the Arab world normalization measures that the Arab world has never contemplated before," Wexler said.
Two of the more hard-line Jewish Democrats in Congress, Reps. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) and Shelly Berkley (D-Nev.), did voice some concerns this week.
"My concern is that we are applying pressure to the wrong party in this dispute," Berkley said in an interview with Politico. "I think it would serve America's interest better if we were pressuring the Iranians to eliminate the potential of a nuclear threat from Iran, and less time pressuring our allies and the only democracy in the Middle East to stop the natural growth of their settlements.
"When Congress gets back into session," she added, "the administration is going to hear from many more members than just me."