x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Obama caught between US support for Israel's stance and global anger

US President's rhetoric sharply contrasts condemnations made by other world leaders.

WASHINGTON // As international outrage over the Israeli flotilla raid grows, many are urging Barack Obama to sharpen his criticism of Israel and end US support for policies that have choked off the flow of humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip. Contrasting the forceful condemnations issued by Turkey, Europe and the United Nations, the White House so far has issued only tepid criticism of Israel. In a phone conversation on Monday with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Mr Obama expressed his "deep regret at the loss of life" but also stressed "the importance of learning all the facts and circumstances" that led to the incident, the White House Press office said.

The State Department sounded a similarly cautious tone, saying in a statement that the United States "deeply regrets the tragic loss of life". "We are working to ascertain the facts, and expect that the Israeli government will conduct a full and credible investigation," the statement said. For Mr Obama, reacting to the incident requires striking a delicate balance between affirming traditional US support for Israel and showing that he is in tune with the Muslim world, which he has made a priority of his administration.

But some critics - including diplomats, US Muslim leaders and dozens of demonstrators who protested outside the White House this week - say the administration is not doing enough to show that it understands the surging Muslim anger. Turkey's foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, who was in Washington for talks with Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, said Ankara wanted a clear US condemnation of Monday's raid, Reuters reported. "Some of our allies are not ready to condemn the Israeli actions," Mr Davutoglu said.

Namik Tan, the Turkish ambassador to the United States, told the Washington Post that he expected a "much stronger reaction" from the Obama administration. Nihad Awad, national executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, urged Mr Obama to "speak out strongly against this massacre of civilians" and to take "concrete steps to end the humanitarian siege imposed on Gaza". Marina Ottaway, the director of the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, called the White House response "inadequate".

"Obama must decide whether to sacrifice his credibility in the region in order to continue a well-established US tradition of mild rebukes toward Israel, or break with 'business-as-usual' policies and condemn the Israeli action." Still, other observers such as Steven Cook, who specialises in US Middle East policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, defended the administration, saying it has appropriately sought to "lower the temperature" and seek out the facts before issuing a knee-jerk criticism.

"I think their reaction has been generally responsible," Mr Cook said. "I'm not sure anyone knows right now what happened here other than that the Free Gaza activists, Israel and the government of Turkey were all looking for a confrontation and they got it." Most observers agree on one point: that the incident is likely to complicate US-led peace efforts. Mr Netanyahu cancelled a meeting yesterday that was billed as a chance for him to improve his government's strained relationship with the White House. Meanwhile, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas may now be even more hesitant to return to the negotiating table, analysts say.

Mr Abbas, who condemned the Israeli raid as a "massacre", is still scheduled to meet with Mr Obama next week. sstanek@thenational.ae