As President Barack Obama prepares to depart for his first trip to the Arab world, the administration's escalating pressure on Israel to freeze all growth of its settlements on Palestinian land has begun to stir concern among Israel's numerous allies in both parties on Capitol Hill.
"My concern is that we are applying pressure to the wrong party in this dispute," said Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.). "I think it would serve America's interest better if we were pressuring the Iranians to eliminate the potential of a nuclear threat from Iran, and less time pressuring our allies and the only democracy in the Middle East to stop the natural growth of their settlements."
"When Congress gets back into session the administration is going to hear from many more members than just me," she said.
Presidents from Jimmy Carter to George H.W. Bush saw attempts to pressure Israel draw furious objections from Congress, but members of Congress and observers say Obama will most likely prevail as long as he shows that he's putting effective pressure on Israel's Arab foes as well.
But even a key defender of Obama's Middle East policy, Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.), is seeking to narrow the administration's definition of "settlement" to take pressure off Obama. And the unusual criticism by congressional Democrats of the popular president is a sign that it may take more than a transformative presidential election to change the domestic politics of Israel.
Other Democrats, in interviews with POLITICO, raised similar concerns. While few will defend illegal Jewish outposts on land they hope will be part of a Palestinian state, they question putting public pressure on Israel while - so far - paying less public attention to Palestinian terrorism and other Arab states' hostility to Israel.
"There's a line between articulating U.S. policy and seeming to be pressuring a democracy on what are their domestic policies, and the president is tiptoeing right up to that line," said Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.), who said he'd heard complaints from constituents during the congressional recess. "I would have liked to hear the president talk more about the Palestinian obligation to cut down on terrorism."
"I don't think anybody wants to dictate to an ally what they have to do in their own national security interests," said Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.), who said he thinks there's "room for compromise."
"I have to hear specifically from the administration exactly how they define their terms and is there room for defining the terms," he said, referring to the terms "settlement" and "natural growth."
Republicans have been more sharply critical of the pressure on Israel.
"It's misguided. Behind that pressure is the assumption that somehow resolving the so-called settlements will somehow lead to the ultimate goal" of disarming Iran, said Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the House minority whip. "A backward assumption is being made that if we deal with the Israel-Palestine question, somehow all the problems in the Middle East will be solved," he said.
So far, Obama isn't backing down. He told National Public Radio Monday that he believes the U.S. must be "honest" with Israel about how the situation in the region needs to improve. He also renewed his call for a freeze on all Israeli settlements, and said the Palestinians must do more to improve security.
"I don't think we have to change strong support for Israel," Obama said. "We do have to retain a constant belief in the possibilities of negotiations that will lead to peace. And that's going to require, from my view, a two-state solution."
"Part of being a good friend is being honest," Obama said. "And I think there have been times where we are not as honest as we should be about the fact that the current direction, the current trajectory, in the region is profoundly negative, not only for Israeli interests but also U.S. interests. And that's part of a new dialogue that I'd like to see encouraged in the region."
The pro-Israel lobby AIPAC last week got the signatures of 329 members of Congress, including key figures in both parties, on a letter calling on the administration to work "closely and privately" with Israel - in contrast to the current public pressure. On his recent visit to the White House, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pressed Obama to take on Iran first and argued that a weakened Iran would set the stage for peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
The Obama administration, however, appears to have rejected that view and believes the appearance of American pressure on Israel, and progress in peace talks, will make it easier to wring concession from Arab allies on both Iran and on Israel.
On his upcoming trip to Riyadh this week, Obama is expected to press Saudi Arabia, along with other Arab states, to move toward normalizing relations with Israel, a breakthrough that might satisfy Israel's domestic allies and allow him more room to push the question of settlements, analysts said.
"If he gets the Arabs to stand up and produce normalization, it becomes easier for him to create a decision point for the Israelis and to outmaneuver his domestic political critics," said Aaron David Miller, a veteran former Mideast negotiator under Republican and Democratic administrations.
Despite the administration's efforts to make clear, public demands that Netanyahu freeze all settlement growth, however, the administration's allies have sought to loosen that commitment. One key question is what the Israelis call "natural growth," in which new buildings are constructed within existing settlements to accommodate, for instance, growing families.
Critics say it's a loophole that's been used for dramatic expansion, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton explicitly ruled out making an exception for natural growth last week.
"I think that most people could understand somebody having a child and their child living with them, as long as it's not a ruse to expand" the settlement, said Ackerman, who said two of a dozen questions to Netanyahu during a meeting with members of Congress had concerned settlements.
Wexler, an early Obama ally and a staunch defender of his Middle East policy, said in his view, the settlement freeze should apply only to settlements outside Israel's security fence, or wall, and should exclude territory that appears likely to ultimately remain part of Israel.
"To expect Israel to have the same policy outside the security fence as inside the security fence is unrealistic; it's counterproductive," he said. "I don't think [the administration's] public statements have been specific enough" to resolve the question of whether they were referring to all settlements or only settlements outside the barrier, Wexler said.
"I'm comfortable with the whole package," Wexler said, pointing to pressure on Iran and demands for "visible and concrete steps toward normalization" and improved security in the Palestinian territories, as well as demands for a settlement freeze.
"Bibi Netanyahu can't be expected to perform his obligations if the broader Arab world is not willing to take serious steps toward normalizing relations with Israel," he said.
Other Democrats allied with Israel didn't respond to questions about Obama's policy, however. And the rhetoric, even from Obama's critics, remains relatively sedae compared with the open insurrection other presidents, from Carter to the elder Bush, have triggered with attempts to apply direct pressure on Israel.
"There's such a desire for him to be successful that he's lived this charmed life that most politicians, and most presidents, dealing with Israel wouldn't have," said one congressional Democrat. "In the early months, the finger is off the hair trigger on these issues."
By Ben Smith