Behind the scenes, a flurry of Obama administration activity on flotilla investigation

Behind the scenes, a flurry of Obama administration activity on flotilla investigation

The Obama administration, led by National Security Advisor Jim Jones, was heavily involved in the Israeli government’s decision to appoint an "independent public commission" to investigate the Gaza flotilla incident and pushed Israel to speed up the process in order to head off any attempts for increased pressure at the United Nations.

Over the last week, there were a flurry of high-level interactions between top administration officials and their various Israeli interlocutors. A State Department official told The Cable that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and that Deputy Secretary Jim Steinberg, Special Envoy George Mitchell and others were working the phones as well. Barak also spoke with Vice President Joseph Biden, who was traveling in the region.

But in last couple of days, the final details were worked out between the White House and Prime Minister’s office, specifically by Jones and Israeli national security advisor Uzi Arad, according to an Israeli official. The National Security Council was much more involved than the State Department, with NSC Director Dan Shapiro in Israel to help and Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren playing a role as a go-between as well, the official said.

The message Obama officials delivered was twofold. First, they wanted to make sure Israel appointed international members to the commission who were credible. William David Trimble from Northern Ireland and Ken Watkin, a former judge advocate general of the Canadian Armed Forces, will be on it.

The other Obama message to the Israelis? Speed it up. They wanted Israel to get the commission members settled on and announced as much as a week before the Israelis were ready. The Israeli official said that the detailed and extensive consultations with the Obama people are why it took so long.

"Our sense was that they were hopeful this commission announcement would come speedily and get this issue off the agenda so we could put it behind us," the official said. "Now, nobody can complain that Israel hasn’t established a committee with international representation."

The direct and pivotal involvement of Jones is telling because he is also the official widely suspected (but not confirmed) to have been the source of the reports that the White House was telling foreign leaders it planned to support a separate international investigation if one was initiated at the U.N.

That story, put out by Weekly Standard Editor William Kristol and denied by the White House, caused significant angst inside the Israeli government and diplomatic sources said it could have been an attempt to put pressure on Israel to speed things up.

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley spoke about Kristol’s allegation Monday. He promised the U.S. would support the Israeli investigation but refused to forswear U.S. support of whatever U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon might propose in the coming weeks.

"We stand by Israel and we’ll voice our strong views against any action that is one-sided or biased by any international organization," Crowley said. "I’m not aware that the secretary general has yet made any decisions on steps the UN might take. We’ll listen to what the secretary general has in mind and make a judgment then."

That type of hedging is exactly what many Israel supporters, such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), are concerned about.

"AIPAC calls on the Obama administration to act decisively at the United Nations and other international forums to block any action — including alternative investigations supported by the Secretary General — which would isolate Israel," the group said in a statement.

They also point to the White House’s statement Sunday on the commission, which they see as tepid because it included a terse warning to Israel along with word of support.

"While Israel should be afforded the time to complete its process, we expect Israel’s commission and military investigation will be carried out promptly. We also expect that, upon completion, its findings will be presented publicly and will be presented to the international community," the statement said.

Going forward, there is still a lot of concern among Israelis about the prominent role Jones is playing in the shaping of the administration’s Israel policy. The conventional wisdom is that Jones, along with U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, are the ones inside the administration pushing for a harder line vis-à-vis Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, while Biden, the NSC’s Dennis Ross, and to an extent Special Envoy George Mitchell are said to advocate a position more sensitive to Netanyahu’s own political situation.

Former Middle East Negotiator Aaron David Miller said that it’s natural for the NSC, and therefore Jones, to manage U.S.-Israeli issues that involve the overall tone and "high politics" of the relationship, as opposed to Mitchell, who handles issues relating to the Israeli-Palestinian talks.

"When it comes to the overall relationship, the NSC is in charge," Miller said, adding that top administration officials seem to be converging around the realization that public pressure on Netanyahu can only be so effective.

"Those divisions have somewhat surrendered to reality, because in the end to get anywhere you have to work with the Israeli government," he said.

The government of Turkey is not satisfied with Israel’s commission and is pledging to do its own investigation. Crowley said that was Turkey’s right. The Israeli official said Israel’s commission was not crafted "in any way to appease Turkey."