US & World

Gaza Raid Complicates U.S.-Israel Ties

Palestinian boys throw flowers into the sea at Gaza City's port during a memorial for pro-Palestinian activists killed in an Israeli raid on aid ships bound for Gaza.
Palestinian boys throw flowers into the sea at Gaza City's port during a memorial for pro-Palestinian activists killed in an Israeli raid on aid ships bound for Gaza.
Mahmud Hams/AFP/Getty Images

Israel's commando raid on a ship bound for Gaza delayed a meeting that was supposed to repair frayed relations between the U.S. and Israel. Still, analysts say the relationship hasn't been derailed and they predict that Israeli-Palestinian talks will eventually resume.

The raid of a Turkish ship by Israeli commandos leaves big questions about the complex relations among the United States, Israel, the Palestinians and Turkey. Experts differ over how severely these relationships may have been damaged, but they say that the crisis is unlikely to forestall Israeli-Palestinian talks for long.

The action on Sunday, which left nine pro-Palestinian activists dead and dozens injured, including Israeli commandos, prompted condemnations from Turkey and many Arab countries, along with a United Nations call for an impartial investigation.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu canceled a planned meeting this week with President Obama and sped home from Canada to deal with the crisis. The meeting with Obama was intended to repair relations between the two countries that were damaged by a rift in March over Israeli settlement building.

"It's probably a good thing the president didn't have to appear with the prime minister," says Daniel Levy, a research fellow at the New America Foundation. Levy says that would have underlined "deep structural tensions and problems" between the two administrations.

U.S. Supports Israel In The U.N.

But Levy says he doesn't think the incident will derail efforts to repair relations for long. He points out that the Obama administration supported Israel by working hard to keep the United Nations Security Council from issuing a resolution condemning Israel, and instead kept it to a call for an investigation.

Condemnation of Israel's action has been much stronger from Turkey, the Arab world, and in many European countries.

Aaron David Miller, a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, says Netanyahu had to return home to manage the crisis, which may ending up hurting him domestically if the Israeli public perceives the raids as a sign of government incompetence.

Israel's navy has been widely faulted within Israel for bad strategy, apparently allowing commandos to be air-dropped onto a ship full of activists where they would be thrust into a violent confrontation.

Miller says the United States has always needed a tough Israeli partner to push through important peace initiatives, and Netanyahu may have hurt his standing as a tough guy.

Abbas Hasn't Nixed Talks

The incident comes as Israel and the Palestinian Authority had been holding indirect peace talks brokered by the United States. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas denounced the commando raid as a "massacre," but he didn't suspend or terminate the talks.

Miller says Abbas may have to harden his position in the talks, to satisfy his own Palestinian constituents, but that the talks are his only way to remain relevant in a situation where he has no authority over the Palestinians in Gaza, ruled by Hamas militants since they expelled pro-Abbas forces in 2007.

Steven Cook, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, says the crisis puts Abbas in "an awkward position," but he believes that Abbas really wants the talks and will be willing to resume them once the initial outrage over the raid blows over.

The other relationships that are likely to suffer from this incident are those between Israel and Turkey and between Turkey and the United States.

"The most immediate fallout is that [relations between] Israel and Turkey are over -- done with," at least for the time being, says Cook, adding, "the United States will be dragged into that."

Cook says the incident won't help U.S.-Turkish relations, but that's really part of a bigger picture in which "the United States and Turkey have become strategic competitors in the Middle East."

Levy says he believes that the relationship between the United States and Turkey can remain strong, especially in the context of Turkey's role as a growing economic power and a partner in the G-20 group of nations.

Relations between Turkey and Israel, Levy says, will be more difficult. "To get them in a healthy, happy place?" he asks. "No. But it should be possible to hold them back from getting even more ugly, and even walking back from what's happened in the past 36 hours."

Will The Crisis Die Out?

In the end, the crisis may simply have no place to go, says Miller, because the major players don't have many other options for dealing with each other.

He points out that Israel faced down even greater international outrage after its December 2008-January 2009 operation in Gaza. That action, known as Operation Cast Lead, was intended to stop Palestinians from firing rockets into southern Israel.

According to Palestinian accounts, the operation left more than 1,300 Gazans dead and some 7,000 injured, including women and children. Israel claimed that it did everything it could to limit civilian casualties, adding that Hamas deliberately positioned its forces and weapons in densely populated areas.

The operation stirred widespread condemnation of Israel, but ultimately did little more than public relations harm to Israel.

"After the Security Council discussions [on the latest incident], after the protests in the Middle East and Europe have died down, where does the crisis go?" asks Miller. "I'm not sure it goes anywhere, which is why the [Obama] administration came to the judgment that it would not join in the chorus of condemnation."

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