US Affairs: Speaking louder than words

"Charm offensive"tries to defuse tensions.

netanyahu obama 311 (photo credit: AP)
netanyahu obama 311
(photo credit: AP)
WASHINGTON – Following weeks of tension between the United States and Israel, the White House met with a select group of American rabbis to reassure them that the US wasn’t hostile to Israel and that the recent row had both been blown out of proportion and blown over.
Stuart Weinblatt, a Conservative rabbi who also heads the Rabbinical Assembly’s Israel advocacy office, came away willing to give the administration a second chance. But, he pointed out at the time, outreach alone was not enough.
“The true test will be how it deals with Israel and other international issues,” he noted.
Last week, less than a month after that meeting, the examination was held. An attempt by six aid ships to break the Gaza blockade ended in the death of nine Turkish civilians at the hands of Israeli commandos who boarded the Turkish-flagged Mavi Marmara.
Among other ramifications, last Monday’s bloody confrontation caused Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to cancel an Oval Office meeting with US President Barack Obama planned for the following day so he could manage the situation from Jerusalem.
Obama and Netanyahu are expected to reschedule for later this month, and Netanyahu will presumably get the warm public embrace that he was shut out of during a White House meeting in March. While the media blackout on that occasion did much to fan the aforementioned flames, last week’s scheduled joint appearance was supposed to put the recent hostilities officially to an end.
But it is not now as necessary for Netanyahu that Obama stand next to him at a photo op, since over the last two weeks the US has already been standing next to Israel while the vast majority of countries has done the opposite.
UNLIKE ALMOST all of the rest of the international community, the US has not denounced Israel for the incident. The US also repeatedly urged a greater understanding of the facts before a rush to judgment, and worked with other countries to tone down the rhetoric and the heat. And the US has actually defended Israel’s need for a naval blockade of Gaza – though it wants to see more goods reach Gazans – in the face of calls from European countries and others that it be lifted.
And, significantly, it was the US that kept out the language Israel felt was most objectionable when the UN Security Council deliberated over a presidential statement on Gaza. The earlier draft pushed by Turkey had condemned Israel for the flotilla raid and called for an independent international investigation, while the final version simply criticized the events that lead to the encounter and called for a credible and impartial investigation.
Many in the Israeli government would have preferred that the US nix any Security Council presidential statement. But there was also understanding for the American balancing act in trying to soothe other countries rather than entirely alienate them, and that if the US would not veto the statement, it had succeeded in removing all of the most troubling sections.
Once it became clear there would be a statement, an Israeli official noted, “We did appreciate the US efforts. They did a great job in changing the text of the statement.” He added, “What the Turks wanted and what they got was totally different.”
US Institute of Peace expert Scott Lasensky, who helped advise the Obama presidential campaign on the Middle East, said that US support of Israel these past two weeks has helped move the countries past some of their recent troubles.
“The Israelis feel more isolated than at any time I can remember,” he said, with America doing more than any other nation to relieve that feeling. “The US is really seen as a savior.” According to Lasensky, even Netanyahu and many of the more hawkish members of his cabinet “understand that without the Obama administration, they would be in a terrible, terrible situation internationally.”
But he said that the reorientation has been mutual, as the rhetorical shift of the administration during its so-called “charm offensive” – which included public speeches by top officials on the importance of theUS-Israel relationship, additional defense aid and other high-level White House meetings beyond the conversation with the rabbis – indicated a more substantive shift as well.
“There’s been a pretty clear change in the rhetoric,” Lasensky said, referring particularly to Obama calling Netanyahu “his partner.” He attributed that new terminology partly to the charm offensive, but also to a realization that the tensions of the last months had not helped the White House achieve its objectives – and that to move forward it truly would need to recognize Netanyahu as someone to work with.
“I think it signals a shift in the administration in trying to come to terms [with Netanyahu],” he said.
In other words, the page has been turned when it comes to the recent flare-up, and the paragraphs that are being written now tell how the fundamental, special relationship is still intact. (And by special, perhaps that means more than anything else how the US treats Israel in contrast to how other countries do.) But that, of course, doesn’t mean that tactical differences don’t persist – or that while the page has been turned, leaders on both sides don’t remember what’s been written in the preceding chapters.
The US still sees the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a central irritant in its Middle East policy and that Israel’s actions – justified or not – don’t always help the cause; the Israelis still have a reflexive lack of trust that this administration will look out sufficiently for its interests. And ultimately, this recent incident could still inflame those sores even as it’s helped heal others.