JERUSALEM — The U.S. has taken too harsh a stance against Israel on the issue of settlements, hindering peace negotiations, former Arkansas governor and presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee said during a visit to Israel on Monday.
Huckabee, a Southern Baptist preacher popular among the Republican Party's social conservatives, has been touted as a possible Republican candidate in 2012.
His three-day trip, focusing on visits to settlements and meetings with settler leaders, puts him in direct opposition to President Barack Obama and positions him even to the right of Israel's own hawkish prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.
Obama has been pushing Israel to freeze settlements. And Netanyahu has pledged to dismantle unauthorized settlement outposts such as one Huckabee plans to visit.
The Obama administration has specifically criticized Israeli building plans in east Jerusalem, where Israeli control has never been internationally recognized and which the Palestinians want for the capital of a future state.
"It concerns me when there are some in the United States who would want to tell Israel that it cannot allow people to live in their own country, wherever they want," Huckabee said in east Jerusalem.
He said the Obama administration's emphasis on the settlement issue sets a condition that unnecessarily impedes peace talks.
Later Monday, Huckabee is slated to attend a dinner at the Shepherd Hotel, the site of a controversial planned housing project in east Jerusalem. The Obama administration has called for Israel to suspend the project, which is funded by American millionaire Irving Moskowitz. Israel rejected the demand, saying east Jerusalem is part of Israel's capital.
Anti-settlement protesters plan to hold a demonstration outside the dinner, and the Israeli group Ir Amim, which promotes Jewish-Arab coexistence in Jerusalem, condemned Huckabee's visit to the hotel.
The group said in a statement that Huckabee "is seeking to regain his standing in the American political system by befriending extremists among settler organizations in Israel."
The U.S. administration is pressing Israel to stop building settlements on lands the Palestinians claim for a future state, including east Jerusalem, which was captured and annexed by Israel in 1967.
Israel insists some settlement construction must continue to accommodate the expanding settler population, and the issue has morphed into an unusually public dispute between the two traditionally close allies. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has refused to hold peace talks with Israel until a settlement freeze is implemented.
The number of Israeli settlers in the West Bank – home to some 2.5 million Palestinians – has more than doubled since the mid-1990s and now tops 300,000. Another 180,000 Israelis live in Jewish neighborhoods built in east Jerusalem.