JERUSALEM — Former Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee slammed President Barack Obama's policies toward Israel on Monday in a visit here that underscored the tensions between the Obama administration and the Israeli government over Jewish settlements in what traditionally have been Palestinian areas.
Huckabee criticized the Obama administration's calls for ending such settlements and said Obama's position had only encouraged the Palestinian government not to negotiate with Israel.
More important than Huckabee's words, however, was where he chose to deliver them: at several controversial Jewish enclaves in the mostly Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, which both Israel and the Palestinian Authority claim.
"The policies are a drastic change from previous administrations," Huckabee said at Maale Zeitim, a 100-unit housing project at the foot of the Mount of Olives. "Halting peace talks until 20 families are moved out? Our focus should be on Iran, and not on where 20 Jewish families are moving."
Huckabee's final appearance was to be a dinner at the Shepherd Hotel, where an American Jewish entrepreneur plans on constructing 20 housing units for Jewish Israelis despite the neighborhood's traditionally Arab character. Only last month, the State Department summoned Israel's ambassador to call for canceling the project.
"It concerns me that some in the U.S. tell Israelis they can't live where they want in their own country," Huckabee said.
The United States has always opposed Israeli settlements in Palestinian areas, but previous presidents rarely took action as Israel expanded its presence in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The Israeli government claims that it reached an understanding with the George W. Bush administration that allowed limited settlement expansion, but Obama officials deny that such an understanding exists.
Yitzhak Molcho, an adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is scheduled to meet this week with Obama's Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, for more discussions on the issue. Netanyahu and Obama are to meet Aug. 26 in London, with settlements expected to be one of the main topics.
Huckabee's visit was sponsored by Ateret Cohanim, an organization that buys land in Jerusalem's Arab neighborhoods and settles Jews there. According to a report published Monday in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, the tax-deductible funds raised by Ateret Cohanim in the United States for educational purposes are used instead to buy land.
Huckabee's visit drew criticism from Israelis who oppose settlements. The group Ir Amim said that Huckabee "is hoping to gain political capital at the expense of Jerusalem's stability and the future of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict."
Political analysts, however, said that Huckabee's outsider status in the U.S. made it unlikely that he'd influence the discussion in Israel.
"We know that people who don't have (political) positions can easily make statements that are more far-reaching," said Yehuda Ben Meir, an analyst at the Institute of National Security Studies, an Israeli research center. "If it were a statement by the speaker of the House or a letter from 70 senators, we would take it seriously."
(Churgin is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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