Israel's Netanyahu maintains defiance amid criticism over Gaza blockade

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 Janine Zacharia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, June 4, 2010

JERUSALEM -- When Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu delivered his angry response to a cascade of international condemnation of Israel on Wednesday, he spoke first in Hebrew to a domestic Israeli audience. Choosing to address his home constituency, rather than the broader world, was a sign of his continued willingness to accept international ire as the price of upholding policies that are broadly supported at home.

Defiance has been a signature of Netanyahu's career, and despite the expectations of some commentators that he would be more conciliatory during his second go-round as prime minister, that has not been the case over the 14 months since he returned to power. Even when it has meant publicly feuding with the Obama administration, Netanyahu has seemed to embrace the fight -- a strategy that thus far has paid off for him politically.

The latest showdown, coming this week after Israeli commandos killed nine activists in a melee at sea, has renewed focus on Israel's policy of blockading Gaza as part of a strategy to weaken the Islamist Hamas movement. Despite U.S. pressure on Israel to change course in Gaza, Netanyahu has given no indication he is willing to do so in any fundamental way.

That stance echoes the Israeli strategy last year, when it filibustered U.S. calls for a freeze on settlement construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Although Israel and the U.S. ultimately reached an understanding on the issue that required Israeli concessions, the Obama administration was first forced to make an embarrassing retreat from its initial demand for a complete freeze.

Although Israeli politicians have traditionally paid a price at home for tangling with U.S. presidents, Netanyahu has not been damaged politically by his challenges to Obama, who is generally unpopular in Israel.

"If you look at Bibi in the last 15 months, you see one main line that directs him in his international and domestic behavior, which is his political situation in Israel,'' said Yaron Deckel, a political commentator for Israel Television, using Netanyahu's nickname. "You saw it with the Jerusalem crisis with the U.S., when he preferred his coalition to Obama. And now you see it with the international community when he defies it but keeps his public support in Israel.''

With Israel under fire abroad, Netanyahu used his first extended remarks on the flotilla crisis to launch an attack on the world.

"Once again, Israel faces hypocrisy and a biased rush to judgment. I'm afraid this isn't the first time,'' he said.

Without even a faint nod to the international community's concerns about Israel's actions -- which have led to calls for an international inquiry, ambassador recalls and deep damage to relations with Turkey -- Netanyahu insisted Israeli policy toward the Gaza Strip would not change as long as it is controlled by Hamas.

"Israel simply cannot permit the free flow of weapons and war materials to Hamas from the sea," he said. Hamas has close links to the government of Iran, and Netanyahu said the international community "cannot afford an Iranian port in the Mediterranean.''

Still, there were also signs that Netanyahu may be tempering his tough rhetoric with pragmatic steps to help ease this crisis.

By focusing on the need to stop the flow of weapons and war materials to Hamas "from the sea,'' Netanyahu may have been signaling a readiness to allow more freedom of movement and goods across land -- something the United States has insisted on since the flotilla incident.

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