Berkley takes issue with two Obama comments

While judging the president's speech in Cairo, Egypt, last week a "success" overall, Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., said Monday she strongly disagrees with two major points on Israel policy that President Barack Obama articulated in his major address to the Muslim world.

Berkley, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and a longtime vocal advocate of Israel, said she takes issue with Obama's positions on Israeli settlements and on the conditions for the creation of a Palestinian state.

"I thought the speech was beautifully delivered and remarkable in many ways," Berkley said, "but ... there are areas of policy where I disagree with the president."

On settlements, Obama stated flatly that "the United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements," and that "it is time for these settlements to stop." Berkley said such a blanket statement was not nuanced enough.

"I think everyone agrees that the illegal settlements, the outlying settlements, should have been closed down years ago," she said.

"But the 'natural growth' settlements that abut Jerusalem -- if there is ever a two-state solution, these settlements have every right to continue. We're talking about families adding rooms to their homes. We're talking about adding wings to hospitals. The United States of America should not be dictating to Israel or any other country whether or not there should be natural growth."

Obama's talk of creating a Palestinian state, Berkley said, was premature given that the Palestinians and their leaders first must meet certain conditions.

The president said the "only resolution" to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict "is for the aspirations of both sides to be met through two states, where Israelis and Palestinians each live in peace and security," and vowed to pursue such an outcome.

A state, Berkley said, must have a functioning, responsible government that serves its people and does not threaten its neighbors; the fractured Palestinian leadership of Hamas and Fatah does not meet these criteria.

"Before the United States even thinks of imposing a two-state solution, the Palestinians must adhere to the conditions" set out by the so-called quartet of Western negotiators, she said: recognizing Israel and ending terrorism against it.

"It is not, in my mind, a good idea to publicly dress down the Israelis, our most reliable ally and the only democracy in the Middle East," she said.

Berkley praised Obama's comments on the need for democracy and women's rights in the Muslim world and said the speech sent an important and powerful signal, as did the president's visit to the Buchenwald concentration camp site.

"We are talking about well over a billion people who practice the Muslim faith in this world," Berkley said.

"You cannot ignore them. You cannot exclude them. There has to be a way of coexisting and, as Barack Obama says, working on the things we agree on. But that doesn't mean I agree with everything he said, particularly those two issues that I feel very strongly about."

She and other members of Congress plan to speak about Israel on the floor of the House of Representatives today, she said.

"President Obama is not my boss. The people who elected me are my boss," Berkley said. "We (in Congress) comprise a separate branch of government. Our job is not to be a rubber stamp, and to help shape American foreign policy."

Contact reporter Molly Ball at mball or 702-387-2919.