US tells Israel to back down on settlements

The Obama administration is dispatching four of its most senior foreign policy and security figures to Israel this coming week with the same message on two open questions causing friction between the close allies: Don't do it.

Taking a firmer line with Israel than the Bush administration, President Barack Obama is urging Israel to stop all settlement construction in the West Bank or risk closing off the most promising avenues for peace negotiations.

Washington also wants Israel to shelve any plan for a military strike to sabotage Iran's nuclear facilities, arguing that Obama's offer of engagement and talks with Iran deserves time to bear fruit. Obama's senior military advisers say a strike could cause more problems than it solves in the short run, but Israeli leaders are firm that their small country in Iran's line of fire must make such calculations for itself.

Mideast peace envoy George Mitchell leads off the parade from Washington.

"He wants to be clear that, you know, all sides are creating the conditions, putting themselves in position so that when we begin a formal negotiating process, we've put ourselves in the best position to have a successful outcome," State Department spokesman PJ Crowley said Friday.

Israel's deputy prime minister said Tuesday that US calls for a freeze on West Bank settlement construction run counter to past agreements between the two nations and could undermine US credibility.

The comments by Dan Meridor underscored the growing rift between Israel and the US over the continued construction of homes in the settlements. Meridor, a respected veteran of Israeli politics, is considered one of the most moderate voices in the new Israeli government.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates follows on Monday, and aides say his visit to Jerusalem would be brief and routine. Iran will be a main topic.

National Security Adviser James Jones, top Iran and Mideast specialist Dennis Ross and officials from the Treasury Department and other agencies are all due in Israel later in the week.

The confluence of visits is coincidental, administration officials said.

Senior defense officials said Gates will argue that the administration is not naive in hoping that Iran will yield to pressure to negotiate over its disputed nuclear program, and will stress that the offer is not open-ended. Obama has said Iran owes a response in September to a standing offer for talks, and he has set the end of this year as an unofficial deadline to assess whether his offer of wider engagement is going anywhere.

The Jones delegation is expected to flesh out administration options for further sanctions on Iran should the nuclear overture fall flat.

The top US military official, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen, said this month that Iran is perhaps one to three years away from getting the bomb, leaving a small and shrinking opening for diplomacy to avert what he said could be a dangerous nuclear arms race in the Middle East.

"I think the time window is closing," Mullen said.

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