As most of the world has rushed to condemn Israel for its bungled seizure of a Turkish ferry that was attempting to break the Gaza blockade, President Obama has taken a different approach. Not only has he refused to condemn Israel’s hard-nosed prime minister, Benyamin Netanyahu; he has cast the United States as Israel’s only friend. It’s a strategic gamble, and let’s hope it works.
There’s never a good time to botch a commando operation and kill civilian protesters. But this one came at a particularly sensitive time. Indirect peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians were about to begin; the U.N. Security Council was approaching a vote on tighter sanctions against Israel’s adversary, Iran; Turkey, once Israel’s best ally in the Muslim world, has been moving toward the Islamist camp.
Israel wanted the world to focus on the danger of a nuclear-armed Iran. Instead, the world is now focused on Israel’s conduct on the high seas and its blockade of Gaza. And the blockade can’t withstand much scrutiny. It’s succeeding moderately in material terms — keeping weapons and building materials from reaching Gaza — but failing in its political aim of undermining Hamas, the militant Islamist party that controls the zone.
It’s understandable that so many of the world’s governments have condemned Israel’s actions; citizens from many countries were aboard those boats. So why didn’t the Obama administration join the chorus?
Obama aides hope that backing Israel now will pay off on issues that are more important than the immediate controversy, and the administration has already begun using its support to press a broader agenda. U.S. and Israeli officials have been conferring almost nonstop since the weekend, with three goals on the Americans’ agenda.
The first, short-term goal is to contain the diplomatic damage from the ferry debacle and to make sure the next boat that tries to run the blockade doesn’t prompt another round of gunfire.
The second is to persuade Israel to relax the Gaza blockade, something the administration has been demanding for months. Right now, Israel allows food and medicine into Gaza (although aid agencies charge not enough) but bars most building material and industrial supplies, crippling the area’s economy. The aim was to hurt Hamas, but instead it is Israel that has been blamed.
The third goal is to induce Netanyahu to be more forthcoming in peace talks with the Palestinians, the administration’s main aim all along.
In the first round of talks last month, negotiators from the relatively moderate Palestinian Authority, which governs the West Bank, said they were ready to make a deal on major issues such as the borders of a new Palestinian state, and suggested they might increase an earlier offer to swap about 2% of the land on their side of the pre-1967 border between Israel and the Palestinian territories. But Netanyahu’s government, which is dominated by hard-line parties, has taken a more cautious approach and has not yet offered proposals on the “core issues” of borders, the status of Jerusalem or the right of Palestinian refugees to return to land they once owned that was seized by Israel.
The U.S. administration’s softer approach marks a sharp change from the approach Obama took toward Israel when he first came into office.
Back then, in the early months of 2009, Obama and his aides tried to push Netanyahu into peace negotiations with the Palestinians with a tough approach: a public demand that Israel stop building new Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Netanyahu refused, and his domestic political standing soared.
Round 2 came in March 2010, when Israel announced new housing construction in disputed East Jerusalem while Vice President Joe Biden was visiting. Obama expressed outrage. Netanyahu defended his government’s right to build in Jerusalem but apologized for the slight to Biden. And, after a few weeks of cooling off, his government quietly froze building permits.
This week, Netanyahu was supposed to visit the White House for a kiss-and-make-up session with Obama. Instead, he had to fly back to Jerusalem to deal with the ferryboat crisis.
And that, paradoxically, gives the Obama administration an opportunity: In this hour, Israel needs allies — or, in this case, an ally — more than ever.
In the wake of the ferry debacle, Netanyahu faces sharper choices than he did a week ago. The cost of rebuffing American demands looks higher now that it is Israel’s only friend in the world.
The Americans hope that the prime minister and at least some of the parties in his coalition will conclude that the status quo can’t be maintained — in Gaza or the West Bank. It’s not a foolproof strategy; there’s no such thing in the Middle East. It’s an attempt to wring some good out of a terrible crisis and, officials believe, the least bad alternative under the circumstances.
A decade ago, in his account of Arab-Israeli negotiations in earlier administrations, Obama’s chief Middle East advisor, Dennis Ross, concluded that Netanyahu genuinely wanted to make peace with the Palestinians but couldn’t bring himself to break with his hard-line political supporters. “Bibi never figured out how to reconcile his ambition to be a historic peacemaker with the reality of his political tribe, which did not believe peace with the Palestinians was possible,” Ross wrote then.
So far, Netanyahu still hasn’t made that break. The Obama administration’s gamble is that offering him support when he needs it most may yet give him courage to change his path.