/ 4 June 2010

Obama steers middle way in Gaza conflict

This week’s deadly Israeli attack on an activist flotilla in the Mediterranean seems to have left the White House adrift.

World leaders were quick to condemn the Israeli sea assault on Monday that took the lives of nine people on an aid flotilla to Gaza. President Barack Obama wasn’t one of them.

Instead, Obama made private phone calls to the leaders of Turkey, where the journey was organised, and Israel. Administration officials publicly urged the Jewish state to release the activists it had seized and conduct an investigation into exactly what happened.

But Obama said nothing publicly until an interview with CNN’s Larry King late in the week.

“It was a tragic situation. You’ve got loss of life that was unnecessary. So we are calling for an effective investigation of everything that happened.”

Accounts of the incident varied significantly and some details were slow to emerge. It wasn’t clear, for example, when the president learned that an American-Turkish dual citizen was among the dead or if that development would affect his even-handed approach.

Some Republicans didn’t wait to choose sides.

“No one likes to see the loss of life,” said Republican Congressman Mike Pence.

“But Israel has a right of self-defence. And the reality is that Gaza is essentially an isolated, smaller version of a terrorist state. It launched lethal attacks against Israeli civilians in the form of thousands of rockets, and this blockade has saved lives.”

The Israeli attack had one thing in common with the BP oil disaster that began more than a month earlier off the southern US coast: they’ve forced the Obama administration to navigate its way through a mishap of someone else’s making.

Many Americans have complained that the president seemed too passive in the days after the oil leak started, leaving BP to address the emergency. Some people outside the US complained that the administration was too passive after Israel’s attack too.

“I have to be frank: I am not very happy,” Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told reporters. “We expect a clear condemnation.”

The United States wants to encourage oil companies to supply it with ample, inexpensive energy and, at the same time, it wants to safeguard the environment. The United States wants to be Israel’s protector and, at the same time, it wants to calm tensions and improve its standing in the Muslim world.

It can be difficult to head in such different directions. After the two mishaps at sea, the White House has appeared to its critics and even some of its friends, to be just treading water.