ANALYSIS / Congress Gives Obama Green Light to Squeeze Israel

While U.S. lawmakers see eye to eye with Israel on Hamas, they oppose strengthening the settlements.

United States President Barack Obama lays out long-term visionary goals, such as Middle East peace, but he moves with political pragmatism in advancing them. This is as true of his domestic and economic objectives as it is of his complex approach to Israel.

His statements are carefully tailored to the measure of Congress' support for Israel. Congressional representatives are committed to preserving Israel's security and dealing with Iran, but do not support strengthening the settlements. So Obama stresses his support for Israel's security, but is willing to confront Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the settlements.

This strategy, echoed in every statement by administration officials about the Middle East, was probably formulated by White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel. Obama reiterated it at his meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at the White House on Thursday. Obama demanded that the Palestinians stop their incitement against Israel and said he would not talk to Hamas until it recognizes Israel. Congress supports these positions strongly, but they have a price. On the eve of Obama's "reconciliation" speech to the Muslim world in Cairo, scheduled for this Thursday, he has one main demand from Israel - stop the settlements. That was his little gift to the Arab world.

The U.S. administration understands this demand as the total suspension of construction in the settlements and the evacuation of the illegal outposts. Netanyahu is willing to evacuate the outposts but insists on building to accommodate "natural growth" on the basis of the understandings reached with former president George W. Bush: construction within built-up areas in settlements beyond the separation fence, expanding settlement blocs inside the barrier beyond the built-up area and unlimited construction in Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem.

Obama insists on a complete halt in construction. He is not bound by Bush-era understandings. A State Department spokesman hinted that Obama is also not bound by the "Bush letter" to Sharon of April 2004. The letter, seen as recognition of a future annexation of settlement blocs to Israel, was given in exchange for the disengagement from the Gaza Strip and northern Samaria.

Netanyahu sent a dovish member of his cabinet, Ehud Barak, to the U.S. to explain that a total construction freeze was neither practical nor moral - in other words, the world will have to accept the settlements and their development as faits accomplis. If even Barak says so, there is no chance of the Israeli political system accepting the freeze.

The Americans are insisting that Israel must deliver on its commitment in the road map to a halt in all settlement construction.

Netanyahu faces a difficult dilemma, whose outcome will also affect his coalition's fate. He does not have too many cards to play with, but realizes he must give the Americans something. In the coming weeks he will try to concoct a formula that will keep his coalition and party intact, and satisfy Obama as well.