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John L. Esposito Headshot

White House Needs to Rethink Weak U.S. Response to Israeli Attack

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The U.S. State Department response, "Free Gaza Flotilla," to Israel's unwarranted attack is tepid and one-sided, reminiscent of statements issued by the George W. Bush administration with the quiet approval of the Israeli government. It undermines the credibility of the Obama administration globally and especially in the Muslim world. To often Israel has been given a free pass by the U.S. and other members of the international community. Israel has become accustomed to operating above or outside the law: to exercis an unchallenged freedom to threaten and engage in military action in the Middle East, to ignore U.N. resolutions with regard to its occupation of Palestine and building of illegal settlements, to refuse to sign the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty and to be subject to the same kind of inspection that are demanded of other nations.

While one cannot underestimate the many crises on the president's plate and the political pressures the administration faces on Israel-Arab relations, the White House statement implicitly endorses a total distortion of the facts on the ground and practically parrots the Israeli Government's narrative. The administration's message will be read as communicating that the US does not want the embargo lifted since it is part of their West Bank first policy. Indeed, that may be part of the purpose of the message, but if so, it fails to deal with the realities on the ground and places the US dangerously outside both the parameters that an honest broker would respect and the position of many long-time allies and friends of the US from Turkey to the EU and across the Muslim world.

This raises the broader issue of the Administration's policy vis-à-vis Gaza - like it or not, that issue is now front and center as a result of this event. Hamas is the democratically elected government and as such a necessary and major player in any negotiations that would stand a chance to yield a sustainable settlement of this conflict. The blockade against Gaza has devastated its infrastructure and people, created a humanitarian and human health disaster that contributed to the emergence of radical Salafi groups that are both anti-Israel and anti-Hamas and Fatah. The head of United Nation's Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) mission in Gaza, John Ging, specifically expressed the need for the Flotilla to enter Gaza due to the "medieval siege", mass unemployment, extreme poverty, food insecurity and food price rises caused by shortages left four out of five Gazans dependent on humanitarian aid. In response to the attempted undermining of Hamas' credibility by alleging that they might misuse aid is undercut by Ging's who has pointedly argued that Hamas simply does not steal and that thus any aid delivered to the UN will be respected.

The simple fact is that Israeli commandos violated international law. They entered international, not Israeli, waters, swept down in a raid at 4 am and encountered according to PM Netanyahu outrageous description "unexpected resistance." What did the Israelis expect? And even if some resisted an illegal raid with knives and iron bars did that justify the response of trained and heavily armed professionals firing at point blank range?

As for what the statement calls for - Israel has kept a virtual blockade on information and media access and yet "We expect the Israeli government will conduct a full and credible investigation". This comes across as either dangerously naïve or willfully cynical.
In sum, our government's lack-luster response to something that has elicited universal condemnation is as close to what the Israeli Government would want us to say as possible. It assures that in the eyes of the rest of the world, especially the Middle East and broader Muslim world, the US (Obama administration) is unilaterally and entirely one-with-Israel.

While I fully appreciate the realities of American domestic politics and the pressures the administration may feel re: upcoming elections, Barack Obama, whom my wife and I supported strongly, chose to distance himself from the Bush administration's policies in his inaugural and most recently in his West Point speech . Since his inaugural, and especially in Ankara and Cairo whose anniversary is upon us, the President set out a different vision and reached out to the Muslim world as no president before him. As the recent Gallup poll indicates and my own experiences confirm, his window of opportunity in the Muslim world is closing.

The Israeli wall built across much Palestinian land bears graffiti with "Made in the USA" for a reason. This perception has been compounded by US silence, and worse US complicity, in Israel's raids and siege in Gaza and in the month long bombardment that destroyed Lebanese infrastructure (like Gaza's), and left 1300 dead, scores wounded and a minefield of unexploded cluster bomblets to maim many after the war. The US has looked the other way re the Goldstone Report.

The US is the only country that can take the lead decisively and broker the breaking of the deadlock and the siege of Gaza. The U.S. has been a staunch and often uncritical supporter of Israel. The current tragedy and the widespread condemnation of Israel globally and within Israel itself can be seized as an opportunity by the administration to end the siege of Gaza, an action that is ultimately in Israel's long term interest as well as that of the Palestinians. But perhaps most importantly decisive action is in the interest of the United States, which would truly benefit from not being - or seeming to be - in lock-step stride with the most right-wing Government that Israel has had in years.