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Tensions between the Obama administration and Benjamin Netanyahu's government are nearing crisis levels after senior American officials harshly criticized the prime minister and his policies yesterday.

"The Israelis apparently wanted to check if we are serious on settlements, and they found out that we are," a senior official told Haaretz. "This has nothing to do with the speech in Cairo, and it's going to be our position after the speech in Cairo, because we believe it's in Israel's long-term security interests."

Last night Defense Minister Ehud Barak met in New York with the U.S. special envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell. The American told Barak that the U.S. was no longer willing to return to the understandings between the Sharon and Olmert governments and the Bush administration, which allowed continued settlement construction.

Mitchell said the administration was particularly unhappy about the Netanyahu government's unwillingness to recognize the principle of two states for two peoples.

Mitchell also emphasized that the U.S. does not accept the concept of "natural growth" for the settlements.

"We did not hear from the Bush administration about any of these so-called understandings with Israel on the settlements - all of which were supposedly oral understandings between different people every time," said one senior American official. "But we've never heard a thing about them - they certainly weren't formal agreements between our governments. "The Israelis want us to commit to oral understandings we have never heard about, but at the same time they are not willing to commit to written agreements their government has signed, like the road map and commitment to the two-state solution."

The disagreement over the understandings concerning the settlements produced an embarrassing encounter in London last week during a meeting between Mitchell, Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor and a number of Netanyahu's advisers.

At the meeting, the Israelis claimed there was a letter between former president George W. Bush and former prime minister Ariel Sharon stating that the settlement blocs would remain in Israeli hands, so construction is permitted there. Mitchell showed the Israelis that one of the letter's sections discusses the principle of two states for two peoples. "That is also written in the letter - do you agree to that?" he asked.

Despite the growing American pressure, which also came out in the leak to the New York Times that the U.S. intended to end its support for Israel in UN debates, Netanyahu continues to say he will not agree to a total freeze of construction in the settlements.

In a meeting of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee yesterday, Netanyahu said that "we will agree not to take any new territory, but we will not agree to freeze life in the settlements."