By Susan Cornwell and Steve Holland - Analysis
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - As President Barack Obama courts Muslims in the Middle East, his pressure on Israel to halt Jewish settlement activity in occupied territory is starting to raise some concerns at home.
Some U.S. lawmakers are urging Obama to use caution in pressuring Israel, underscoring the political difficulty facing Obama as he tries to develop a more evenhanded policy toward Israel and the Palestinians.
Israel has strong supporters in the U.S. Congress, where Obama’s fellow Democrats hold a majority and where most lawmakers are traditionally protective of the strongest U.S. ally in the Middle East, providing the Jewish state about $2.5 billion a year in aid.
Both political parties are raising doubts about Obama’s pressure on Israel even as the president tours the Middle East, where he plans to address the Muslim world in Cairo on Thursday.
Before he left, Obama told National Public Radio that “a freeze on settlements, including natural growth, is part of (Israel’s) obligations” — a message he conveyed directly to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last month.
Referring to Obama’s demands for a freeze on settlements in the West Bank, Representative Anthony Weiner said, “I think the president went beyond where I think it was appropriate for us to go in dealing with another democracy.”
At a Wednesday news conference called to discuss what they called hate language in Saudi textbooks, Weiner and two other Democrats in the House of Representatives, Shelley Berkley and Joseph Crowley, said Obama should not be too tough on Israel.
“While it is certainly the right of President Obama to state the views that he has, I think we have to be careful not to cross the line where it sounds like we are exerting the overwhelming pressure that we have at our disposal on our rather isolated ally,” Weiner said in answer to a question about Obama’s remarks on Israeli settlements.
“I think the concern that we have is just that line has been approached by President Obama, and we believe ... that he got a little close to that,” Weiner said.
A day earlier, the House Republican Whip Eric Cantor issued a statement lacerating Obama for suggesting that the Middle East peace process and U.S. interests were harmed by the failure of the United States to be “honest” with Israel.
“As Palestinian terror shows no sign of abating, President Obama’s insistence that it is in America’s best interest to pressure Israel sends the wrong message to the region,” declared Cantor, a member of the House Republican leadership.
Obama overwhelmingly won the Jewish vote in the 2008 presidential election. A poll by Zogby International last month said a large majority of Obama backers, 71 percent, believe the United States should “get tough with Israel” to stop settlement expansion.
But history shows tangling with Israel can sometimes prove costly for a U.S. president. George H.W. Bush, president from 1989 to 1993, angered Israel and its U.S. backers by saying he would not support new money for Israel to use for settlements.
“He believes that is one of the reasons why he lost the 1992 election, because he had lost a lot of footing in the Jewish community,” said an aide to the former president who declined to be named.
Democratic strategist Doug Schoen, who worked in the Clinton White House, said Obama is facing a “tinderbox” by trying to navigate between various Israeli and Arab constituencies.
“You have the Israelis on one hand who don’t want any gap between themselves and the United States, you have the moderate Arabs who are scared to death of Iran, but are also publicly committed to the Palestinians, and then you have the radical Arabs who see any sign of dissension as an opportunity to expand their influence and undermine the United States,” he said.
Washington has long been Israel’s closest ally, and few voices speak up for the Palestinians in the U.S. Congress, which routinely passes nonbinding resolutions supporting Israel during Middle East crises.
Representative Berkley said she believed Obama had gone beyond what had been U.S. policy when he indicated “natural growth” of the settlements was not acceptable.
“We ought not to be dictating to the Israeli people how many rooms they can have on their house or whether their particular settlement should have an additional school, or an add-on room to the school as well,” Berkley said.
Editing by Mohammad Zargham