WASHINGTON — The Obama administration pledged Monday that Israel remained a US ally as congressional rivals rallied behind Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a feud over the construction of settlements.
Irate US officials last week demanded a halt to construction for Jewish settlers in east Jerusalem after Israel gave the green light for 1,600 homes just as Vice President Joe Biden was visiting to promote peace talks.
With the Israeli ambassador to Washington reportedly calling the spat the worst between the two nations in 35 years, the US State Department said that the "specific area of concern" did not affect the broader relationship.
"Israel is a strategic ally of the US and will continue to be so," State Department spokesman Philip Crowley told reporters. "Our commitment to Israel's security remains unshakeable."
He also declined to comment on Netanyahu's remarks to his Likud Party that construction would go ahead, saying that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was waiting for a "formal" reply to a tense telephone call on Friday.
"When she outlined what she thought appropriate actions would be to the prime minister, she asked for a response by the Israeli government. We wait for the response," Crowley said.
Without prompting from reporters, Crowley criticized unnamed Palestinians for their remarks on Israel's reopening of a landmark synagogue in Jerusalem's walled Old City that had been destroyed in fighting 62 years ago.
While Crowley denied that the United States was trying to balance its criticism, his remarks came as the Obama administration faced intense attacks from Republicans on Capitol Hill.
"To say that I am deeply concerned with the irresponsible comments that the White House, vice president and the secretary of state have made against Israel is an understatement," said Representative Eric Cantor, the number two Republican in the House.
"In an effort to ingratiate our country with the Arab world, this administration has shown a troubling eagerness to undercut our allies and friends," said Cantor, the only Jewish Republican in the House.
Republican Senator Sam Brownback said it was "hard to see how spending a weekend condemning Israel for a zoning decision in its capital city amounts to a positive step towards peace."
Israel considers Jerusalem its capital, although the Palestinians also see the Holy City as the seat of their future state.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a major pro-Israel lobby, voiced "serious concern" about the administration's approach and urged President Barack Obama to take "immediate steps" to defuse tension.
But J Street, a more liberal pro-Israeli group, said that the administration's reaction to both the timing and substance of Israel's housing announcement was "both understandable and appropriate."
Aaron David Miller, who served as a Middle East adviser to six US secretaries of state, said that both sides have "created a situation in which climbing down is going to be very difficult."
But Miller, now at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, questioned the focus on halting settlements -- which the Obama administration has sought unsuccessfully since taking office in January 2009.
"Settlement activity, as bad as it is, masks a much more fundamental problem," Miller said.
He said that more fundamental issues divided the Israelis and Palestinians, including the status of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees.
"Unless our government's objective is to unseat the prime minister and to create a new political reality -- which would be naive -- there's no alternative to finding a deal," he said.
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