Obama's Friends, Aides Help Shape Stance on Settlements

By Glenn Kessler and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, June 13, 2009

President Obama's close friends and key advisers have helped him shape the toughest line against the continued expansion of Israeli settlements since the administration of President Jimmy Carter.

The result has been a confrontation with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu that has surprised the Israeli government and many analysts. Netanyahu is preparing to make a major speech tomorrow in which he is expected to respond to the new American pressure.

Obama's aides are steeped in the complex issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and in U.S. attempts to resolve it. Many of them bring long memories of difficult dealings with Netanyahu when he served as prime minister more than a decade ago.

Obama's advisers have concluded that peace in the Middle East will require an end to the construction of new Israeli homes on occupied territory that Palestinians claim for a new state. In his speech in Cairo this month, Obama made it clear he had reached the same conclusion. Forcing Netanyahu to relent on settlements would offer the U.S. administration leverage in persuading Arab states to engage in peace talks.

"There is a strong consensus in the White House that the status quo is not going to produce progress and that the moment could slip away here for a real, just, lasting peace that would bring Israel the security it needs," said David Axelrod, one of Obama's top advisers.

But several senior White House officials described the president's views on Israeli settlements as years old and not the product of recent events or discussions. "It would be a mistake to suggest that anyone led him to this position," a senior adviser said. "It's one that he generated himself."

In Chicago, long before becoming president, Obama's closest confidants included staunch supporters of Israel whose tough views on the need to stop settlements mirror his current public position. Abner Mikva, an Obama mentor and former law professor, was one of them.

"There has to be realistic talks about how the two states will get along together," Mikva said, describing Obama's thinking on the subject of Middle East peace before being elected to the U.S. Senate. "You can't do that if one state, as you're talking, is picking up more land."

White House aides say the president has been careful to insist that Palestinians must also act to fulfill their responsibilities, such as bolstering security and ending anti-Israeli incitement.

"It is a sign of neither courage nor power to shoot rockets at sleeping children, or to blow up old women on a bus. That is not how moral authority is claimed; that is how it is surrendered," Obama said in the Cairo speech.

But his recent language about settlements is the starkest of any U.S. president in three decades, and tougher than most of his public rhetoric since emerging on the national scene.

One of the president's close friends in Chicago, the late Rabbi Arnold Wolf, wrote last year of his disappointment that Obama had often publicly softened his private positions.

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