WASHINGTON — The Obama administration's fierce denunciation of Israel last week has ignited a firestorm in Congress and among powerful pro-Israel interest groups who say the criticism of America's top Mideast ally was misplaced.
Since the controversy erupted, a bipartisan parade of influential lawmakers and interest groups has taken aim at the administration's decision to publicly condemn Israel for its announcement of new Jewish housing in east Jerusalem while Vice President Joe Biden was visiting on Tuesday and then openly vent bitter frustration on Friday.
With diplomats from both countries referring to the situation as a crisis, the outpouring of anger in the United States, particularly from Capitol Hill, comes at a difficult time for the administration, which is now trying to win support from wary lawmakers – many of whom are up for re-election this year – for health care reform and other domestic issues.
And those criticizing the administration's unusually blunt response to Israel say they fear it may have distracted from and done damage to efforts to relaunch long-stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
"It might be well if our friends in the administration and other places in the United States could start refocusing our efforts on the peace process," Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said Monday.
"Now we've had our spat. We've had our family fight, and it's time for us now to stop and get our eye back on the goal, which is the commencement of the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks," he said.
McCain and Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., both urged the administration to ease the tone of the dispute, which they said was demonstrating disunity and weakness to steadfast allies of Iran.
"Let's cut the family fighting, the family feud," Lieberman said. "It's unnecessary; it's destructive of our shared national interest. It's time to lower voices, to get over the family feud between the U.S. and Israel. It just doesn't serve anybody's interests but our enemies."
At least eight other lawmakers have offered similar concerns, and more are expected to weigh in after Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton upbraided Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the housing announcement in a tense and lengthy phone call on Friday and White House officials repeated the criticism on Sunday's talk shows.
"It's hard to see how spending a weekend condemning Israel for a zoning decision in its capital city amounts to a positive step towards peace," said Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan. He complained that the administration was attacking a "staunch ally and friend" when it should be focusing on the threat posed by Iran's nuclear problem.
Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., accused administration officials of using "overwrought rhetoric" in suggesting that the east Jerusalem housing announcement threatened U.S.-Israeli ties.
"The administration's strong implication that the enduring alliance between the U.S. and Israel has been weakened, and that America's ability to broker talks between Israel and Palestinian authorities has been undermined, is an irresponsible overreaction," she said.
With tensions still high, former Sen. George Mitchell, the administration's Mideast peace envoy, has delayed his departure to the region, where he is scheduled to hold separate talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, a U.S. official said.
Mitchell had been scheduled to depart Washington on Monday night. He still intends to go, but the timing is uncertain, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity in order to discuss internal deliberations.
The State Department on Monday said it was still awaiting a formal response from Israel to Clinton's call and, while repeating elements of the criticism, stressed that the U.S. commitment to Israel's security remains "unshakable."
But spokesman P.J. Crowley also said a lot is riding on whether Israel agrees to take steps suggested by Clinton to underscore its commitment to the peace process and strong relations with America.
"We will evaluate the implications of this once we hear back from the Israelis and see how they respond to our concerns," he told reporters.
Reaction to the administration was particularly intense from pro-Israel groups.
Abraham Foxman, director of the Anti-Defamation League, said he was "shocked and stunned at the administration's tone and public dressing down of Israel on the issue of future building in Jerusalem."
"We cannot remember an instance when such harsh language was directed at a friend and ally of the United States," Foxman said.
Associated Press writer Robert Burns contributed to this report.