Walking fine line, US doesn't condemn Israeli raid
WASHINGTON—The Obama administration walked a fine line Tuesday in response to Israel's lethal raid on a flotilla trying to break the blockade of Gaza, urging Israeli leaders to let more aid into the beleaguered territory but refusing to criticize the U.S. ally for the use of deadly force.
President Barack Obama telephoned Turkey's prime minister to express his "deep condolences" for the deaths and injuries aboard a Turkish-flagged vessel and called for an impartial investigation. And Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton expressed support for a U.N. Security Council statement that condemned the "acts" that cost the lives of nine pro-Palestinian activists off the Gaza coast. But U.S. officials did not say whether they held Israel or the activists responsible for the bloodshed.
The raid put Obama in a difficult position, caught between pressing Israel to ease harsh conditions in the Gaza Strip while at the same time supporting efforts to stop the smuggling of arms into Gaza that could be used to attack Israel.
At stake at a deeper level is the Obama administration's struggle to revive the long-stalled Israel-Palestinian peace talks, a difficult task in the best of times. To achieve this, the U.S. is trying to keep both sides focused on the goal of restarting talks, holding out the eventual promise of peace for Israel and a homeland for the Palestinians.
On Tuesday, U.S. officials found targets for criticism all around:
-- Alejandro Wolff, deputy ambassador to the U.N., said reports that some of the activists aboard the raided vessels might have sought to provoke the Israelis into a harsh response "give pause."
-- On the other hand, in a jab at Israel, Clinton said life under the blockade in Gaza is "unsustainable and unacceptable."
The U.N. called for a prompt and credible investigation of Monday's events, in which Israel seized a number of vessels carrying humanitarian aid and took hundreds of activists -- many of them Turkish -- off the ships to Israel. Obama agreed, according to a White House account of his telephone conversation with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has been bitterly critical of Israel's raid.
The U.S., the White House said, "is working in close consultation with Israel to help achieve the release of the passengers, including those deceased and wounded, and the ships themselves."
" The president affirmed the importance of finding better ways to provide humanitarian assistance to the people of Gaza without undermining Israel's security," the statement said. "He underscored the importance of a comprehensive peace agreement which establishes an independent, contiguous and viable Palestinian state as the way to resolve the overall situation and the United States' continuing commitment to achieving that goal by working closely with Turkey, Israel and others with a stake in a more stable and secure Middle East."
No one was saying that achieving that goal had gotten any easier.
Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said, "This seems to be a perfect storm of negative outcomes at a time when the United States wants to do something quite different, which is reassure Israelis, re-engage on negotiations and try to resolve the underlying issues once and for all."
"It's hard to imagine any set of actions which would have played more into the hands of Israel's enemies," he said in a telephone interview.
The Israeli raid came at a particularly delicate moment in U.S.-Israeli relations, badly strained by open conflict over Israel's settlement policy in the West Bank.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was to have visited the White House on Tuesday, in part to help heal that rift, but he canceled in order to return home to deal with the crisis.
The State Department said Netanyahu's visit would be rescheduled.
Obama is to meet at the White House next week with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and he sent his Mideast peace envoy, former Sen. George Mitchell, back to the region for meetings with Palestinian officials on Wednesday.
Israel and the U.S. have said the blockade was intended to discourage the smuggling of weapons into the narrow strip, controlled by the Iranian-backed militant group Hamas. But the policy has also deepened poverty among the 1.5 million Palestinians there.
In remarks to reporters at the State Department, Clinton did not call for an end to the blockade. Instead, she pressed Israel to allow greater access for humanitarian relief shipments, "including reconstruction and building supplies."
She also said that Israel's security needs must be taken into account and that the ultimate answer to the conflict is for Israel and the Palestinians to resume talks toward a final peace settlement.
Clinton spoke after a private meeting with Turkey's foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, who told reporters earlier Tuesday that the Israeli raid was a criminal act that should be condemned by Washington.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Davutoglu did not directly request such a U.S. condemnation during his meeting with Clinton, which lasted more than two hours -- double its scheduled length.
Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel who is director of foreign policy at the Brookings Institution think tank, said there remains considerable international support for efforts by Israel, Egypt and others to limit the smuggling of weapons into Gaza for use against Israel by Gaza's Hamas rulers.
Even so, Monday's episode undermines those seeking peace and strengthens Hamas, Indyk said.
He also said it makes it harder for Abbas, the Palestinian president, to move into direct peace talks with Israel "because he has to show sympathy for the Palestinians in Gaza," even though Abbas is Hamas' main rival for Palestinian leadership.