Israel plays down US criticism

2009-06-02 14:13

Jerusalem - Israel tried to play down on Tuesday the latest blunt criticism from main ally Washington after US President Barack Obama vowed to adopt a more "honest" tone with the Jewish state.

While some Israeli officials glossed over the harsh remarks from the president, others said his administration should honour understandings struck with the preceeding administration of president George W Bush.

"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," he said on condition of anonymity.

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 on Monday 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 US interests," Obama told National Public Radio.

It marked the latest in a string of harsh comments from Washington that have raised alarm bells in the Jewish state that its closest ally may lower its support as it seeks to improve ties with the Muslim world.

Top among these, Obama's administration has repeatedly called for Israel to stop all settlement activity in the occupied West Bank, an idea repeatedly rejected by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his largely right-wing government.

Key obstacle

On Tuesday, a senior MP with Netanyahu's right-wing Likud shot back that Obama had to honour agreements on the settlements reached with the previous US administration.

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

Erdan was referring to a 2004 letter from Bush to then prime minister Ariel Sharon.

Bush said that given the existence of major Israeli settlement blocs in the West Bank, it was "unrealistic" to expect Israel to fully withdraw from the territory it captured from Jordan in the 1967 Six-Day War.

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, whose government supports the settlement enterprise, has rejected freezing all construction, an issue that is one of the key obstacles in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

"We can't freeze life in the settlements," Netanyahu told a parliamentary committee on Monday.

While he has vowed to honour all past agreements with Palestinians, Netanyahu has yet to publicly endorse the creation of a Palestinian state, a cornerstone of international peace efforts supported by Obama but largely opposed by Likud.

Obama, who is to deliver a long-awaited speech to the Muslim world in Cairo on Thursday, vowed to get "serious negotiations" between Israel and the Palestinians back on track in an interview with the BBC broadcast on Tuesday.

Israelis and Palestinians relaunched peace talks at a US conference in November 2007 but the negotiations made little progress in the ensuing months and were suspended in January during Israel's deadly war in Hamas-run Gaza.