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Defense Minister Ehud Barak headed for the United States last night in an attempt to ease the bilateral tension that has erupted over Washington's demand that Israel freeze construction in the settlements.

Barak will also have to deal with American demands that Israel open its border crossings with the Gaza Strip to facilitate the Strip's reconstruction following Operation Cast Lead in January.

Barak will probably not have an easy time resolving tensions over the settlements, because Barack Obama's administration has already rejected Israel's contention that the president's predecessor, George W. Bush, had agreed to expansion of the settlement blocs that Israel hopes keep under any agreement with the Palestinians. The administration also told both Congress and American Jewish organizations not to bother entertaining hopes that Barak will budge Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton from their demand for a complete halt to settlement construction.

Over the weekend, the London-based Sunday Times quoted senior administration officials as saying that Obama "has given himself two years for a diplomatic breakthrough on a two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians," despite Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's opposition "to America's minimum demand for a freeze on all settlement building in disputed territory." The White House declined to comment on the report.

Saudi Arabia and other Arab states have also made it clear to Washington that they view a settlement freeze as a precondition for any move toward normalization with Israel.

The U.S. administration does not accept Israel's argument that "natural growth" in the settlements must be accommodated, as it believes that agreeing to this would give a kind of legal seal of approval to Israeli construction in the West Bank.

American officials have also told their Israeli counterparts that Bush's letter to former premier Ariel Sharon in April 2004 does not even constitute acquiescence to the existence of the settlement blocs, much less expansion of them; it merely states that during Israeli-Palestinian negotiations on a final-status agreement, the U.S. will support an Israeli demand that the existence of Jewish population centers in the West Bank be taken into account.

However, it also stresses that any agreement will require the consent of both sides.

The administration decided to insist on a complete settlement freeze after examining aerial photographs and reports from the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem, which showed that Israeli construction in the settlements had continued even after the Annapolis summit in November 2007 - although former prime minister Ehud Olmert had pledged at this summit to refrain from expanding the settlements.

According to data published by Peace Now, much of this construction has taken place outside the settlement blocs and with no connection to the issue of "natural growth."