Israel’s raid of a flotilla of humanitarian aid destined for Gaza Monday ratcheted up already-simmering tensions between Washington and Jerusalem – and is likely to complicate US efforts to rein in Iran and to jump-start the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
Yet Washington issued some of the blandest official reaction to the deadly incident involving the so-called Freedom Flotilla. That made Israel look more like the friend the United States will always stand by – but which it wishes would act better in public.
“I imagine they [US officials] are reading the Israelis the riot act just now,” says Daniel Levy, co-director of the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation in Washington. If the situation does not deteriorate further, the impact on a specific US goal such as restarting Israeli-Palestinian peace talks may not be devastating, he says.
“What this does bring to the surface,” Mr. Levy says, “is the impact that an ongoing Israeli occupation is having on long-term American interests” in the Middle East.
Iran is a case in point. The US has been pressing for increased international isolation of Iran over its nuclear program – a goal shared by Israel. The next step in that effort is to be a vote in the United Nations Security Council on a US-sponsored resolution of economic sanctions against Iran. But the flotilla incident robs the international spotlight from Iran and places it anew on Israel and actions it says are necessary in an environment hostile to its interests.
Nine people aboard a Turkish ship bound for Gaza were killed. The aid ship was in international waters when raided.
The UN Security Council approved a statement condemning the loss of life in the incident and calling for a “prompt, impartial, credible, and transparent investigation conforming to international standards.”
Israel maintained its actions against the ship were “defensive” in nature, but it still faces a barrage of condemnation from Turkey (four of the dead were Turks) to the European Union, which will put further strains on President Obama’s beleaguered Middle East diplomacy.
Mr. Obama called for the facts behind the incident to be brought to light and regretted the loss of life. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was to have held talks with Obama at the White House Tuesday, but instead he rushed home to address the incident’s repercussions.
On Tuesday, French President Nicolas Sarkozy issued a statement saying he was “deeply shocked at the tragic consequences of the Israeli military operation” and condemning “the disproportionate use of force” by Israel.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan went further, castigating Israel for a “bloody massacre” he said was a stab at “international law, the conscience of humanity, and world peace.” Turkey has traditionally been Israel’s closest friend among Muslim countries, but the incident spelled a further deterioration in relations that have soured of late.
Coincidentally, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu was in Washington for talks Tuesday with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Those talks, which had been expected to focus on Iran and the US push for a sanctions resolution, were now seen shifting to the Gaza incident.
Mr. Davutoglu said before his State Department visit that he would seek a US condemnation of the Israeli action, but the US seemed unlikely to go that far.
What the aid-ship raid does accomplish is renewed global attention to the Gaza problem and the corrosive impact that the humanitarian situation there is having on broader US and international-community goals in the region, says Levy of the New America Foundation.
“This puts a spotlight on what looks like a lack of attention to Gaza in the Obama policy, which is of course the intention of the solidarity [flotilla] folks,” he says. While he counters that the Obama administration has “not been indifferent” to Gaza’s plight, he adds that the incident risks further blemishing the US image across a region where it has been working to repair that image.
Prime Minister Erdogan appeared to zero in on the deep sensitivity that Muslim populations have to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and to Gaza’s isolation. He called the Israeli blockade of Gaza “inhumane” and said, “Israel cannot ensure its security by drawing the hatred of the entire world.”
While those words far outstripped any US response, they nevertheless reflected the perspective that the Obama administration has labored to share with Washington’s friends in Jerusalem – that a globally unpopular policy toward the Palestinians does not serve Israel’s long-term security interests.