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U.S., Israeli officials scramble to contain blowback from flotilla raid

U.S., Israeli officials scramble to contain blowback from flotilla raid

As Monday’s deadly naval commando raid off the coast of Gaza escalated from a regional incident to an international crisis, U.S. and Israeli officials scrambled to contain the damage, working at the highest levels to forge a common diplomatic position and preserve indirect peace talks that took months of painful negotiations to bring about.

U.S President Barack Obama has been personally and deeply involved in the U.S. response, speaking with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu three times since the crisis began.

"There’s an intensive effort being made here to make sure this incident doesn’t have any effect on our common interests," an Israeli official told The Cable on background basis.

In their first call, Netanyahu simply informed Obama that he wouldn’t be able to make his planned trip to Washington. In their second call, the Israeli prime minister gave a detailed explanation of what happened on the Miva Marmara, the Turkish vessel where Israeli troops say they were attacked with knives, wooden clubs, and long metal rods-and fought back with lethal force, killing at least 10 activists. The two leaders’ third call was to discuss and coordinate strategy on how to deal with Monday’s emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council, which early Tuesday morning issued a statement on the incident that represented something less than what Turkey and Arab countries had demanded.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also spoke with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak over the phone, and there have been a flurry of other contacts as well, with Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren having conversations with top National Security Council staff and others.

The U.S. effort to pare down the language of the Security Council statement condemning "acts" related to the effort was also a success, according to the Israeli official.

"Definitely the Americans were making an effort, maybe they didn’t get as much as we hoped, but they got a lot," the official said.

"We’d like to express our thanks to the United States that worked behind the scenes to water down the [statement] at the United Nations," said Mark Regev, an Israeli government spokesman.

Those efforts were led by U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice and her deputy, Alejandro Wolff.  A key point of contention in the Security Council was whether there would be an outside investigation of the Miva Marmara affair, or whether it would be sufficient that Israel conduct its own inquiry. The United State has "every confidence that Israel can conduct a credible and impartial, transparent, prompt investigation internally," Wolff told reporters today.

Although Israel has not issued any official reaction, the officials saw three main changes between the first draft circulated by Turkey and the final draft adopted, which they credit to the work of the U.S. delegation. First, there was no mention of an independent investigation. Second, there was no time limit placed on the investigation. Third, there was no direct condemnation of Israel.

Overall, the Obama administration is "trying to contain things, trying to calm things down," the official said, pointing to the fact that the president’s Middle East peace envoy, former Senator George Mitchell, is heading back to the region tomorrow.

The White House announced the visit as a presidential delegation to the Palestinian investment conference. The delegation will include Deputy Treasury Secretary Neal Wolin, top USAID official Alonzo Fulgham, Mitchell’s deputy Mara Rudman, and Ziad Asali, president of the American Task Force on Palestine.

The conference is scheduled for Thursday, and the proximity talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority are expected to resume, with Mitchell mediating on Friday in Jerusalem and then on Saturday and Sunday in the West Bank.

The main goal of the intensive U.S.-Israel communications on the Gaza incident is how to contain this incident to make sure it doesn’t have an effect on the proximity talks, the Israeli official said. For now, the Palestinian Authority hasn’t said it will pull out of the talks, and the Israeli position is full steam ahead. "From our point of view, there’s no reason to postpone."

"I don’t think this has to interfere at all negatively on the peace process," said Regev. "We want to see the talks succeed."

"I think that containing Hamas can be an important element in moving forward with the peace process," he added.

The Gaza flotilla incident has put the Obama administration in the difficult position — trying to support its chief regional ally, Israel, while being seen as an honest broker in Israel-Arab relations and foiling the efforts of another important Middle East ally, Turkey, to punish Jerusalem.

Accordingly, the State Department’s latest statement supports Israel’s drive to keep control over the investigation, while also trying to put the focus back on the proximity talks.

"The United States deeply regrets the tragic loss of life and injuries suffered among those involved in the incident today aboard the Gaza-bound ships.  We are working to ascertain the facts, and expect that the Israeli government will conduct a full and credible investigation," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said in a statement, "Ultimately, this incident underscores the need to move ahead quickly with negotiations that can lead to a comprehensive peace in the region."