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The U.S. needs to keep nudging Israel on a Gaza fix

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By David Ignatius
Friday, June 4, 2010

The Obama administration, caught between two allies during this week of crisis, has signaled Israel and Turkey that the blockade of Gaza should be loosened to allow more humanitarian aid to reach the Palestinian population there.

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From the first news early Monday of the Israeli commando attack on a flotilla of Turkish relief ships, the White House has been trying to balance the interests of two prickly friends. The immediate aim, said a senior official, has been to "defuse the electricity of the moment" by freeing the ships' passengers and passing a U.N. resolution calling (in fuzzy language) for an investigation of the raid.

Beyond crisis management, administration officials have begun to urge Israel to use this incident to untangle the Gaza mess. U.S. officials hope Israel will take action on its own, before international condemnation grows any louder or another relief convoy tests the blockade. "The humanitarian aperture is not wide enough," argues the U.S. official. "We need to convince the Israelis that not everything can be made into a weapon."

The Obama team recognizes that Israel will act in its interests, but it wants Jerusalem to consider U.S. interests, as well. The administration has communicated at a senior level its fear that the Israelis sometimes "care about their equities, but not about ours."

This cautionary message -- that Israel must act as a more reliable and responsible partner -- may be the most important one conveyed this week.

One issue on which the administration believes Israel would benefit from a more farsighted view is the investigation of the incident. Israel has argued that this is a purely internal matter for the Israeli military, whose operations to enforce the Gaza blockade were lawful and appropriate.

But by defying calls for an international inquiry, the Israelis will compound their isolation. "They have an image problem, a perception problem," says the U.S. official. The White House hopes the Israelis will embrace some mechanism for an international probe -- perhaps a French proposal for an inquiry by the International Committee of the Red Cross. Such a move would be in Israel's interest, the administration believes.

The trickiest problem in the first hours of the crisis was dealing with Turkey, whose leaders treated the commando raid as a pirate attack on Turkish citizens. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Gen. Jim Jones, the national security adviser, met with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. Then came a lengthy phone call between President Obama and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Obama told Erdogan that "we need to find a solution" for the Gaza humanitarian problem, according to a U.S. official. Erdogan is said to have agreed with the president that a good relationship between Israel and Turkey was crucial for regional stability -- and that Turkey didn't want to see any further degradation.

The Obama administration deserves credit for its repair work in the first days after the Gaza attack. But this is another example where the administration has been reacting to events that it should have tried better to control. The Gaza confrontation has been developing for weeks; administration officials reportedly cautioned Israel about provocative moves, but not emphatically enough to make a difference. U.S. officials were blindsided about the commando operation partly because they don't spy on a key ally.

Similarly, the Obama White House has been too reactive in its relationship with Turkey. A glaring example of this diplomatic drift is the Turkish mediation effort with Iran to revive an October plan for enrichment of uranium abroad. Davutoglu thought he had Obama's blessing for his shuttle diplomacy, and the White House was given frequent updates. But when Turkey and Brazil announced they had clinched the deal, the administration did the diplomatic equivalent of shrugging its shoulders -- and went ahead with plans for U.N. sanctions.

One of the perverse secrets of Middle East diplomacy is the importance of riding several horses at once. In the heyday of Henry Kissinger's shuttle mediation, the Americans were the supreme masters of playing both sides of the street.

Obama has been talking about engagement and mediation but without much to show for it. Instead, the administration has been responding to events rather than driving them. That won't do. As former ambassador Chas. W. Freeman says in his collection of aphorisms, "The Diplomat's Dictionary": "If you're not at the table, you're on the menu."

davidignatius@washpost.com


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