Analysis: Condemnation of Israeli assault complicates relations with U.S.

Israeli naval commandos seized an aid flotilla bound for the Gaza Strip on May 31, killing at least nine and wounding dozens, and sparking protests and condemnations around the world.
By Glenn Kessler
Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The worldwide condemnation of the deadly Israeli assault on the Gaza aid flotilla will complicate the Obama administration's efforts to improve its tense relations with Jerusalem and will probably distract from the push to sanction Iran over its nuclear program.

The timing of the incident is remarkably bad for Israel and the United States. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and President Obama were scheduled to meet Tuesday in Washington as part of a "kiss and make up" session. The United Nations, meanwhile, was set to begin final deliberations on Iran in the weeks ahead.

Now the White House talks have been scrubbed, Israel's actions were the subject of an emergency U.N. Security Council meeting Monday and the administration increasingly faces a difficult balancing act as Israel's diplomatic isolation deepens.

In contrast with forceful statements from European, Arab and U.N. officials -- and impromptu demonstrations from Athens to Baghdad -- the White House responded to the assault Monday by saying only that Obama had held a phone conversation with Netanyahu in which the prime minister expressed "deep regret at the loss of life" and "the importance of learning all the facts and circumstances around this morning's tragic events."

Hours later, the State Department issued a statement saying that the United States remains "deeply concerned by the suffering of civilians in Gaza" and "will continue to engage the Israelis on a daily basis to expand the scope and type of goods allowed into Gaza."

Even before Monday's incident, Israel was on shaky diplomatic ground. After the government was accused of using forged foreign passports in the assassination of a Palestinian militant in Dubai, Britain expelled an Israeli diplomat in March. Australia did the same last week.

The latest furor may have caused irreparable harm to Israel's relations with Turkey -- a Muslim state with which Israel has long had close ties -- because so many of those onboard were Turkish. At the United Nations, Turkey's foreign minister urged the Security Council to condemn Israel's raid and set up a formal inquiry to hold those responsible for it accountable.

"This is terrible for Israel-Turkey relations," Namik Tan, the Turkish ambassador to the United States, said in an interview. "I am really saddened by it."

Tan, who served as ambassador to Israel from 2007 through 2009, said Israel's actions demand condemnation from every country because the flotilla incident took place in international waters and involved civilians on a humanitarian mission. But he said the Obama administration's initial statement was wanting. "We would have expected a much stronger reaction than this," he said.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu will be in Washington on Tuesday to discuss Iran with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, but Turkey's fury over the Gaza incident will inevitably top the agenda.

Daniel Levy, a former Israeli peace negotiator now at the New America Foundation in Washington, said it's not the first time Israel has done itself a disservice.

"Israel constantly claims it wants the world to focus on Iran, but then it ends up doing something that gets everyone to focus on itself," he said.

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