Obama's Passover shadowed by criticism from Israel group

The Israel Project, an organization that backs Israel through direct engagement with the media, said the administration has not done enough to engage in rapprochement with Israel to ease tensions between the two nations.

The group has urged its supporters to write members of Congress in a fundraising e-mail and launched a television ad campaign in the Washington, D.C. area.

"There are still some substantive issues that need to be addressed and we still have some concerns," Jennifer Mizrahi, president of The Israel Project, said in a phone interview.

President Barack Obama was widely seen as snubbing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyhau during the latter’s visit to Washington last week.

Netanyahu’s visit to the White House included neither a press conference nor a photo opportunity, which usually occur when a foreign head of state visits America.

Obama also reportedly left his meeting with Netanyahu to eat dinner in private, something viewed as a major snub in Israel.

"The prime minister leaves America disgraced, isolated and altogether weaker than when he came,” the Israeli daily newspaper Ha’aretz, which leans to the left, wrote last week.

Obama was upset over Israel’s announcement earlier this month that it was constructing new settlements in East Jerusalem, which Israel claims as part of its capital but the Palestinians want as a capital city for a future state. The announcement was made during a visit to Israel by Vice President Joe Biden.

The timing reportedly angered Obama, who saw it as a slap against his administration. In order to restart stalled peace negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians, the U.S. has requested that Israel put a blanket freeze on settlement construction in Palestinian territories.

The historic diplomatic tiff has spilled over into the Passover holiday, which begins Monday night. President Barack Obama and some members of his staff will also participate in a traditional Passover meal, called a "Seder," at the White House Monday night.

On Passover, Jews commemorate the ancient Israelites’ exodus from slavery in Egypt to freedom in what is now Israel.

The Israel Project’s fundraising is a norm for Passover, when many Jewish and pro-Israel groups schedule public campaigns. But the timing was also notable because of the tiff between Obama and Netanyahu, who is scheduled to return to the United States on April 12.

Mizrahi said that the U.S. had placed almost the entire onus on the Israelis for announcing the new settlements but said that the government failed to put enough pressure on the Palestinians for dedicating a public square to Dalal Mughrabi, a Palestinian who killed 37 people in a 1978 terrorist attack.

“We believe there should be a fairer [sic] pressure of the parties,” she said, especially when it comes to condemning the “Palestinian culture of hate.”

Obama and Biden have both said that the U.S. stands behind the Israel's continued security.

At the same time, Mizrahi called the settlement announcement "very regrettable" but that "nobody was looking to embarrass the vice president."

To underscore the heightened nature of the dispute, Mizrahi said she will meet with “high-ranking” administration officials to discuss her concerns before Netanyahu’s arrival.

Mizrahi said the group’s television ads will run on cable networks such as CNN, Fox News and MSNBC in the Washington area at least 500 times and will likely be expanded once donations flow in. She said that cost of the ad buy is "significant" but would not discuss specifics.

Netanyahu on Monday sought to downplay suggestions of new tensions with the U.S.

“The relationship between Israel and the U.S. is one between allies and friends, and it’s a relationship based on years of tradition,” he said, according to The Associated Press. “Even if there are disagreements, these are disagreements between friends, and that’s how they will stay.”

Administration officials have publicly echoed Netanyhau's words.

Netanyahu previously has insisted a local municipal government made the announcement, and that it was without his knowledge. He later apologized for the announcement.

The issue is a tough one for the Israeli prime minister, whose fragile governing coalition is partially held together by right-wing political parties that favor settlement expansion.

When she meets with the White House, Mizrahi said bluntly she would relay the position of Netanyahu's coalition.

"We want to be sure that the administration understands that the unprecedented freeze in the West Bank [is tough for the Israelis]," she said adding that her group does "not consider the East Jerusalem, the capital, to be a settlement."

Palestinians say that Israel is continuing to build settlements on land in land they consider theirs and want to use to build a future state.