As World Decries Israel's Action, Obama Seeks to Quiet Outrage over Gaza Flotilla Killings

US President Barack Obama (R) speaks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) in New York in 2009. Amid nearly universal condemnation of Monday's pre-dawn Israeli assault in international waters on a flotilla carrying humanitarian and reconstruction aid bound for Gaza, the administration of President Barack Obama has steadfastly avoided assigning blame. (AFP/File/Jim Watson)

As World Decries Israel's Action, Obama Seeks to Quiet Outrage over Gaza Flotilla Killings

WASHINGTON - Amid nearly universal
condemnation of Monday's pre-dawn Israeli assault in international
waters on a flotilla carrying humanitarian and reconstruction aid bound
for Gaza, the administration of President Barack Obama has steadfastly
avoided assigning blame.

Secretary of State
Hillary Clinton told reporters that Washington supported a "prompt,
impartial, credible, and transparent investigation" into the incident,
in which at least nine civilian passengers aboard the flotilla's
largest vessel were reportedly killed, apparently by gunfire from
Israeli commandos.

Washington's "regret" over the loss of life, she also insisted that the
administration would continue to press Israel to ease its blockade
against Gaza, calling it "unsustainable and unacceptable".

added that the incident highlighted "the urgency" of peace negotiations
between Israel and the Palestine Authority (PA) which are supposed to
begin this week with "proximity talks" mediated by Obama's Special
Envoy, George Mitchell.

In a brief visit here Tuesday, however,
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu complained about Washington's
passivity in the face of what he called the psychological equivalent of
"9/11 for Turkey", adding, "I am not very happy with the statements
from the United States yesterday."

Although Israel's government
has imposed a virtual blackout on independent media coverage of the
assault and its aftermath, it has been reported that most, if not all
of the dead, were Turkish civilians.

One of the sponsors of
the eight-ship "Freedom Flotilla", the Humanitarian Relief Foundation
(IHH), is based in Turkey, and the lead ship that came under assault,
Mavi Marmara, is Turkish-flagged. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip
Erdogan Monday accused Israel of "state terrorism".

"We will not
be silent about this," Davutoglu reportedly told a small group of
reporters here Tuesday, noting that Ankara intended to bring the matter
to NATO, a collective- security organisation of which both Turkey and
the U.S. are members. "We expect the United States to show solidarity
with us."

In many ways, the weekend's incident could not have come at a worse time for Washington.

administration had hoped that this week's launch of the proximity talks
would help defuse growing frustration and anger in the Arab world over
Obama's failure to back up the pledge he made in Cairo exactly one year
ago this week to "personally pursue (a two-state solution) with all the
patience and dedication that the task requires" and to alleviate what
he called "the continuing humanitarian crisis" in Gaza.

appearance of momentum on the Israeli-Palestinian front, the
administration believed, would enable it to rally greater international
- and especially Arab - support for its drive to impose stronger
sanctions at the U.N. Security Council against Iran if it rejects
Western demands to curb its nuclear programme.

While the
proximity talks may yet proceed - indeed, U.S. officials told reporters
Tuesday that their main immediate focus was to prevent the flotilla
incident from derailing the talks - they will almost certainly be
overshadowed by the weekend's events and their aftermath.

Hamas, which Washington has boycotted, is likely to emerge stronger
vis-a-vis the PA and its president, Mahmoud Abbas, as a result of the
Israeli assault due to the renewed international attention to the
situation in Gaza and the virtual certainty that Israel will now come
under unprecedented pressure to significantly ease - if not lift the
blockade - against it, according to analysts here and in the region.

years, many in the international community have been complicit in a
policy that aimed at isolating Gaza in the hope of weakening Hamas,"
the International Crisis Group (ICG) said in a statement that condemned
Israel's assault and called for an end to the blockade Tuesday. "One
hopes (this incident) can provide an opportunity for a long- overdue
course correction."

Egypt's decision to open its border with
Gaza, as well as reports that Abbas himself may soon travel to the
territory in a new bid for reconciliation, suggests that the Islamist
group has already become a major beneficiary of the Israeli assault.

strengthening of Hamas's position will almost certainly make Abbas less
inclined to compromise in any negotiations with Israel, according to
experts here and in the region.

Iran, too, is likely to benefit
- albeit indirectly - by the flotilla fiasco, if only because it
refocuses international attention on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict
in ways that undermine U.S. credibility.

Already, the incident
was the focus of a lengthy Security Council meeting overnight Monday
that resulted in the issuance of a presidential statement that, among
other things, condemned the violence and called for an investigation.

fact that Washington worked hard to water down the statement as much as
possible - by, for example, ensuring that it not blame Israel
explicitly for the deaths or rule out an investigation conducted by
Israel alone - clearly angered Davutoglu and Arab diplomats and
reportedly frustrated even some of Washington's European allies that
had already publicly condemned Israel's role.

In any event, the
Council is expected to follow up the matter in the coming weeks, the
same period of time that the administration had set as a deadline for
pushing through a new sanctions resolution against Iran.

On the
domestic political front, the latest incident could also compromise
Obama's month-long effort to reassure the right-wing leadership of the
organised Jewish community - whose support for Democratic candidates in
the November mid- term elections is considered critical to the party's
retaining control of Congress - of his "unshakeable" commitment to
Israel's security.

That effort was to be capped Tuesday with a
high-profile White House tete-a-tete between Obama and Prime Minister
Binyamin Netanyahu to demonstrate that the contretemps between the two
governments over U.S. demands earlier this spring that Israel freeze
settlement activity in East Jerusalem had been satisfactorily resolved.

Netanyahu, who was in Canada when the assault took place, cancelled his
visit to return home to deal with the growing international outrage
that followed the attack.

If outrage continues to mount -
particularly as the hundreds of flotilla passengers offer a
substantially different version of the raid than the one that has so
far been monopolised by the Israel Defence Forces - and if Israel
cannot be persuaded to substantially ease the blockade on Gaze, the
diplomatic costs of hosting Netanyahu may become exorbitant.

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