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Analysts say US-Israel Relationship Scarred by Settlements Dispute

Meredith Buel

Middle East analysts are expressing concern a disagreement between the United States and Israel over Jewish settlements in occupied East Jerusalem will leave scars in the relationship and may raise the risk of Israeli military strikes against Iran's nuclear program.  

Some influential Middle East analysts, speaking in Washington, say they are concerned by a growing dispute between the United States and Israel over the construction of Jewish housing in East Jerusalem.  Their comments were made at the opening of the annual convention of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a powerful pro-Israel lobbying organization.  

Washington Institute for Near East Policy Executive Director Robert Satloff told thousands of AIPAC delegates the dispute will have consequences. "We are in a very serious moment.  I would say it is more five or six on the Richter scale, not eight or nine, in terms of the depth of this crisis.  But it is real.  When it is resolved and I think it is in the process of being resolved, it will leave scars between the two sides I think at the very highest levels," he said.

Israel's plan to build 1,600 new homes in occupied East Jerusalem was announced during a recent trip to Israel by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden.  U.S. officials called the timing "insulting," and the move was condemned by diplomats from the United States, the United Nations, Russia and the European Union at a meeting of the international Quartet on Middle East peace.

Analyst Satloff said the disagreement could embolden Iran to accelerate its nuclear program. "I think that the impact of this crisis is to hasten Iranian efforts to achieve a nuclear weapons capability and ultimately, because there are scars now in the U.S.-Israel strategic relationship, perhaps even to hasten the clock on Israeli preventive action against that Iranian nuclear capability," he said.

Iran denies it is trying to build nuclear weapons, but Israel views the program as a threat to its existence.

U.S. Senator Evan Bayh told convention delegates Iran should not be encouraged by the current disagreement over settlements. "I think the Iranians make a miscalculation here if they look at this temporary spat, rhetorical spat, between some aspects in Israel and some elements of the U.S. government, as a lack of resolve on our part, that would be very damaging and so it is incumbent upon all of us, the United States, Israel and others to show that we will simply not stand for the Iranians achieving a nuclear capability," he said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are scheduled to address the AIPAC convention Monday.  The prime minister's office says Mr. Netanyahu will meet Tuesday with U.S. President Barack Obama at the White House.

The U.S. envoy on Middle East peace, George Mitchell, is in the region trying to start indirect talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

A former senior policy advisor to Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Tal Becker, told convention delegates such talks could have positive results. "I think if the talks begin and are substantive rather than an exercise in evasion, we can at least bring closer a real dialog and it is certainly better than not talking.  I think we have a real opportunity to insure that the West Bank is not a failed state or a terror state and no one can afford that.  And I think we do have a chance of increasingly marginalizing Hamas," he said.

The militant group Hamas controls the Gaza Strip.

Among the other scheduled speakers at the AIPAC convention is former British Prime Minister and Middle East Quartet representative Tony Blair.

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