The Cable

U.S.-Israel mend fences amid threat of looming U.N. action

The Obama administration is still not saying what it will do if and when the U.N. calls for another international investigation into the Gaza flotilla incident. That subject was the focus of meetings this week between Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in New York. But before he went up ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

The Obama administration is still not saying what it will do if and when the U.N. calls for another international investigation into the Gaza flotilla incident.

That subject was the focus of meetings this week between Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in New York. But before he went up to Turtle Bay, Barak came to Washington to see Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. After his U.N. meetings, Barak came back to D.C. and met with Vice President Joe Biden and National Security Advisor Jim Jones.

Both the U.S. and Israeli administrations are working to head off the prospect of another international investigation, which would come on top of the Israeli probe that the U.S. worked so hard to ensure had a measure of international participation and credibility — but would fundamentally remain in Israeli hands.

But the U.S. and Israeli approaches right now, while having the same goal, are not totally in synch. The uncertainty is whether the Obama administration is willing to actively oppose a new investigation. This uncertainty is compounded by the mixed messages coming from senior officials like Jones, as well as the Obama team’s apparent unwillingness to brush Secretary-General Ban off the plate.

"The Americans at the moment agree that our investigation right now should be the only game in town," an Israeli official told The Cable. "What they would be willing to do if this issue comes up in the U.N. is still unclear."

In fact, when Ban convened a meeting of all 14 U.N. Security Council countries last week to discuss the issue, only one country representative declined to speak at all:  U.S. Deputy Ambassador Alejandro D. Wolff.

"The fact that they did not choose to speak can be seen not as all enthusiastic [about a new investigation] but also not wanting to get into any confrontation with Ban Ki-moon," the official said.

Barak’s message to Ban this week was twofold: The easing of the Gaza blockade should prevent the need for more flotillas, and a new investigation would only encourage those who want to send more ships to provoke another confrontation.

Ban heard Barak out but didn’t commit one way or the other, the official said. Ban has previously said he is considering endorsing a new investigation, something the Turks are still pushing hard, but for now the U.S.-Israeli effort to convince him to stall is working.

Most observers see Ban as not willing to go out on a limb one way or the other without assurance that he has support from either the Security Council or a large portion of the General Assembly. He is caught between the strong urging of the U.S. and the prospect that if he does nothing, the Turks or someone else might just launch something on their own, outside of his control.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration’s Israel team, led by Jones, Special Envoy George Mitchell, and the National Security Council’s Dennis Ross and Daniel Shapiro, spent the last couple of weeks working with Israel on the easing of the Gaza blockade. Their efforts in shaping the Israeli investigation clearly indicate they do not want a competing international inquiry to pop up.

But if a new investigation does surface, the Obama administration’s quiet diplomacy might have to come to an end.

"Their hope is that by addressing the question of Gaza in some measure, they can diffuse the whole question of both the last flotilla and any future ones as well," said Rob Malley, Middle East Program Director at the International Crisis Group.

Either way, the close cooperation of the U.S. and Israel on both crafting the investigation and working on the blockade issue has brought both camps back into the constructive rhythm they lost after Biden’s trip to Israel in March erupted into an ugly public spat.

Even though the U.S. and Israel aren’t entirely in lockstep, "from their respective vantage points, they felt that they were at least able to work out solutions that both sides could live with on both issues. And that’s more how relations have traditionally been," Malley said.

This week’s events have also cemented Barak as the key Israeli interlocutor with the Obama administration, which is of course what the White House would prefer, considering that he is closer to the U.S. side than Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on crucial issues.

For example, this week he was quoted as backing the U.S. position against a controversial development project in Israel. "The King’s Garden project, which has waited for 3,000 years, can wait another three to nine months if government policy considerations necessitate it," Barak was quoted as saying.

He was also in Washington discuss to Iran, Syria, U.S. military assistance to Israel, the peace process, and many other issues.

Compare that to the recent visit of Israel’s hard-line foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, who came to New York the week before Barak but didn’t visit Washington at all. Lieberman met with U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice, but didn’t request and wasn’t invited to any meetings with any U.S. officials in Washington. Insiders say Lieberman and Clinton have a "Don’t ask, don’t tell" policy: He doesn’t push her to establish a close relationship and she doesn’t say what she thinks of his views.

Meanwhile, some potential flash points for the renewed comity between Washington and Jerusalem loom large. What will Israel do when its current settlement freeze expires? Where exactly does the Israeli government stand on many final-status issues that will need to be discussed in order to move from proximity talks to direct talks?

The Obama team will want some answers from Netanyahu when he comes to Washington and meets with Obama July 6.

"These issues are coming up fast," said Malley. "Whether they erupt or get resolved, nobody knows."

 Twitter: @joshrogin

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