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

By Glenn Kessler
Tuesday, June 1, 2010; A01

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.

Apart from the raid, attention is likely to fall on the humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip, which has faced an Israeli blockade since the Hamas militant group seized power three years ago. Although the Obama administration has pressed quietly for less onerous restrictions on trade, it has not questioned Israeli policies. Special envoy George J. Mitchell has never visited Gaza in about a dozen trips to Israel and the Palestinian territories.

Without high-level attention, the situation in Gaza -- a narrow coastal area with 1.5 million people -- has faded from view. Now that might change.

Robert Malley, Middle East director for the International Crisis Group, said Monday's deaths were a consequence of ignoring the "unhealed wound that is Gaza."

In condemning Israel's actions Monday, European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton signaled that the European Union would press anew for a shift in policy. "The E.U. does not accept the continued policy of closure," she said in a statement. "It is unacceptable and politically counterproductive. We need to urgently achieve a durable solution to the situation in Gaza."

Malley said U.S. officials have told him that the situation in Gaza "is very high on Obama's agenda." Obama highlighted Gaza in his Cairo speech a year ago, saying, "Just as it devastates Palestinian families, the continuing humanitarian crisis in Gaza does not serve Israel's security."

In that speech, Obama appeared to appeal to Palestinians to undertake acts of civil disobedience rather than violence, saying that it was "not violence that won full and equal rights" for African Americans but "a peaceful and determined insistence."

Whether the flotilla was an act of civil disobedience remains up for debate. Its organizers said it was, but Israeli officials said members of the Israel Defense Forces were met with violence when they boarded the ships.

Not only has the incident strengthened the Islamist Hamas, it has probably weakened the secular Palestinian leadership on the West Bank. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas quickly condemned the attack as a "massacre," but he will probably face new pressure to abandon indirect talks with Israel.

Iran, whose nuclear ambitions deeply concern Israeli leaders, also is a beneficiary. Turkey holds one of the rotating seats on the U.N. Security Council and was already deeply skeptical of the U.S.-led push to impose new sanctions on the Islamic republic. But now the council's attention will be diverted by the Israeli assault.

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