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Why US diplomats are visiting Israeli settlers

The Obama administration has made firm demands for Israel to halt all settlement expansion. But political officers are making trips to talk with settlers directly.

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The nearly 300,000 settlers in the West Bank, excluding East Jerusalem, are spread over a diverse range of settlements. They have political influence that is disproportionate to their percentage of Israel's population of 7 million.

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A recent visit

Akiva Ovitz, an aide to the mayor of the settlement of Beitar Illit, said that a political officer visited the city just a few weeks ago. He cast the relationship in a positive light.

"They want to hear how the city is developing, what is happening with building plans, and with the population," he said. "It's to keep in touch with the settlements and to hear about their needs."

But the policy shift under President Obama has made some settlers less receptive about meeting the diplomats. That's because settlers consider the Obama administration's public criticism of the settlements meddling in Israel's sovereign affairs and a possible precursor to settlement evacuations.

Daniella Weiss, a former mayor of the settlement of Kedumim in the northern West Bank who has also helped settler youths set up outposts, says she had become accustomed to annual visits by US diplomats and took them seriously. But recently, she declined a request.

"I felt that they are alienated and they don't feel solidarity. I said I don't see a point in these meetings," she says. "I am also critical of the president.... The US wants to weaken our hold here."

Settlers hope frequent visits will change views

Even so, many remain open about the opportunity to state their case directly to a representative of the US. The settlers believe that the US diplomats may be more easily convinced if they only visit.

Yigal Amitay, a spokesman for the settlement of Yitzhar, boasts of a "heartfelt" meeting with a previous political officer he called "Matityahu," Hebrew for Matthew. Discussions usually covered topics ranging from clashes between settlers and Palestinians to the ideological bent of Yitzhar, a small settlement infamous as a source of vigilantism against Palestinians and even against the Israeli army. His main criticism was that political officers' tour of duty in the West Bank is not long enough to understand the nuances of the settler community.

"I think the interest of America is that there shouldn't be another Khomeini-ist country in the Middle East," says Mr. Amitay. "Through an honest dialogue, they will understand that it's in their interest to oppose a Palestinian state."

Though Amitay referred to Mr. Obama's efforts to repair US relations with the Muslim world as "naive," he says he's still waiting for the consulate political officer to call for a meeting.

Others, however, are more suspicious. Shaul Goldstein, the head of the settlers council in Gush Etzion, south of Jerusalem, recently met with former President Jimmy Carter. But he complained that the discussions are not held on a high-enough level.

"We call them the CIA agents because we never know who they are," he said in a recent phone conversation. "It's not enough because it's too far from the decisionmakers."