Obama Presses Israel's Defense Chief on Settlements

President Barack Obama on Tuesday told Israel's defense minister that Jerusalem must stop allowing West Bank settlements to grow, reiterating his stance in the hours before leaving for the Middle East on a trip to improve relations with Muslims.

Obama and Ehud Barak each left the White House in disagreement over Jewish settlements in Palestinian territory that have become a symbol of defiance against Palestinians who want their own state. Barak asked Obama to consider Israel's domestic politics and the popularity of such outposts, an Israeli official said.

The Israeli official spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a private meeting.

Barak, a former Israeli prime minister who came close to a peace deal during President Bill Clinton's administration, met for two hours with Obama's national security adviser, Gen. Jim Jones, about their countries' public disagreement. Obama surprised Barak and joined the meeting for 12 minutes.

Obama repeated his call for Israel to stop settling on land Palestinians want for their own state. Israeli leaders have refused a wholesale end to the settlements, citing a growing population's needs to expand.

At the United Nations, Israel's Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom told reporters that "natural growth is needed ... and that's something that should be understood."

"We know that sometimes we can have some different views, but among friends it's always something that can be resolved. I believe that we are in the right direction," said Shalom, a former foreign minister.

Obama has said such "natural growth" settlements must also stop, breaking from his predecessor who gave them tacit approval.

The stalemate continued ahead of Obama's departure for Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Obama plans a speech about U.S.-Muslim relations in Cairo on Thursday.

Obama does not plan to visit Israel, a stalwart ally that has heard the demands from the new U.S. president and his top officials. When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Washington last month, Obama pushed him to halt settlements; Netanyahu returned to Israel and announced settlements would not stop.

Obama's push previews the long-awaited Cairo speech, which Obama aides hoped would start to repair badly frayed relationships between the United States and Muslims and their nations and which Israeli officials planned to watch for clues as to Washington's next steps. Opinions of the United States run negative in Muslim capitals, fueled by the U.S. invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and its longtime support of Israel.

Ahead of the speech, Obama has told interviewers he is committed to an independent Palestinian state but has not shied from the United States' deep ties to Israel. Obama's advisers hope that stance would position him to be an honest broker for both sides, particularly over settlements that were supposed to be halted under the peace plan.

The Israeli government has moved to dismantle some small settler outposts that were established without government approval. But Netanyahu has refused to accept a complete end, as Obama has insisted.

During his meeting with Barak, Jones underscored that the United States remains committed to Israel's security, but also told Barak that his nation and the Palestinians must fulfill their commitments under a peace plan, said a U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a private meeting.

Jones also told Barak both sides must take steps to improve the tone surrounding negotiations, the official said. The sharp rhetoric from Israeli and Palestinian leaders has not encouraged either side to meet requirements set out in peace agreements.

Barak planned to meet with Vice President Joe Biden on Wednesday.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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