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The diplomatic crisis prompted by Israel’s raid on a flotilla of aid ships bound for the Gaza Strip confronts President Barack Obama with a second major test by the Israeli leadership and presents yet another blow to his goal of brokering peace with the Palestinians.
Also taking a hit: the president’s effort to improve the U.S. image in the Arab world. Muslim countries, even U.S. allies Turkey and Egypt, are slamming Obama over his measured reaction to the raid.
Egypt is breaking ranks — temporarily at least — with Israel in their joint blockade of Hamas-ruled Gaza. Still to be seen is whether Cairo permanently opens its border with Gaza.
Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu (AH’-meht dah-voot-OH’-loo) declared — going into a meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton — that Ankara was deeply dissatisfied with the American response.
Thus, Turkey, by sanctioning the aid flotilla and putting one of its flagged vessels in the lead, and Israel, by launching the bloody confrontation with the convoy, are testing American diplomacy to the utmost.
The aid convoy was intent on breaking Israel’s three-year blockade of the Gaza Strip, imposed after the Palestinian militant group Hamas seized control of the tiny Mediterranean territory in 2007.
The blockade, along with Israel’s fierce offensive against Gaza in the winter of 2008-2009 to stop Hamas rocket fire on Israeli villages, already had fueled anti-Israeli sentiment around the Arab world and in some quarters in Europe.
At the same time, the convoy — it was led by a Turkish-flagged ship and condoned by the country’s government — was clearly a provocation. Israel took the bait, then argued that the botched raid was a matter of self-defense.
Tuesday afternoon, the White House said Obama called Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (REH’-jehp TY’-ihp UR’-doh-wahn) to express “his deep condolences for the loss of life and injuries resulting from the Israeli military operation.”
The statement further said Obama told the Turkish leader that the U.S. was “working in close consultation with Israel to help achieve the release of the passengers, including those deceased and wounded, and the ships themselves.”
Obama also called for a “credible, impartial and transparent investigation of the facts surrounding this tragedy.”
Earlier Tuesday, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs wouldn’t say whether Obama condemns the actions of the Israeli forces, standing by the president’s earlier statement that the United States wanted to carefully study what had happened.
However, Alejandro Wolff, the U.S. deputy permanent U.N. representative, argued overnight that Israel already had in place a system for accepting such aid and passing it on to Gaza. That would ensure that weaponry did not reach the Iranian-backed Hamas leadership in Gaza.
Wolff asserted that the top U.N. body’s call for an investigation of what happened in the raid should be carried out by Israel. That was certain to further inflame the Muslim world.
Immediately after the raid, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused Israel of “state terrorism.” The government recalled its ambassador and called off military exercises with the Jewish state.
His anger did not abate on Tuesday when he told his parliament the Israeli assault violated “international law, the conscience of humanity and world peace.”
“Today is a turning point in history. Nothing will be the same again,” Erdogan said. He demanded that Israel immediately halt its “inhumane” blockade of Gaza.
Turkey’s Foreign Ministry said four Turkish citizens were confirmed slain by Israeli commandos and five other Turks were believed to round out the total of nine killed.
Obama took office declaring that Israeli-Palestinian peace stood atop his agenda. He demanded that Israel help by stopping construction of West Bank settlements and ending expansion of Jewish neighborhoods in east Jerusalem, lands the Palestinians envision as part of their future state.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said no and poured salt in that wound when his government announced a major east Jerusalem project as Vice President Joe Biden was visiting to reassure Israel of U.S. support.
After a deep chill, Obama said he recognized that neither side was ready for peace talks. Even so, Netanyahu and the Palestinians subsequently agreed to open indirect negotiations brokered by U.S. special envoy George Mitchell.
With Netanyahu canceling a Tuesday meeting in Washington with Obama, the fate of that small move forward was uncertain.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas denounced the raid as a “sinful massacre,” but he signaled he would continue the indirect talks.
Difficult U.S.-Turkish relations are bound to be seriously set back if Obama does not issue a strong statement on the Israeli ship raid. That carries the possibility for major problems inside NATO, where Turkey is the only Muslim member. And it will further complicate U.S. efforts against the Iranian nuclear program.
Turkey had just agreed to take part of Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium in return for a smaller, more pure batch of nuclear fuel for Iran’s research reactor that produces medical isotopes. The U.S., Russia and France had proposed the deal late last year, with Russia to receive the Iranian fuel and France to provide the material for the research reactor. Iran said no to that proposal.
The day after the Iranian deal with Turkey, the U.S. announced it was moving ahead with harsher sanctions in the U.N. Washington was at pains to thank Turkey for its efforts but declared them insufficient. Turkey is deeply opposed to sanctions against its eastern neighbor.
During the Cold War, Turkey served as an unquestioning NATO bastion on the Soviet Union’s southern flank. But with the end of the superpower standoff, Turkey slowly began charting a more independent course — most visibly with its refusal to allow the U.S. to use its territory in the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Washington has stood beside the Israelis throughout their history, vetoing many anti-Israel U.N. Security Council resolutions. At the same time, the U.S. has been at pains to keep the Turks in place as a valued NATO member and democratic buffer against Iran and Arab dictatorships like Syria.
Egypt, which made peace with Israel in 1978, is likewise a valued partner in the Mideast. It has stood as a bulwark against growing anti-American Islamic militancy.
Now it would seem that Obama has to choose — unless he can figure a way to hit the illusive diplomatic sweet spot that calms the Turks and Egyptians without offending the Israelis. That could prove an impossible task.
Steven R. Hurst has covered international relations for 30 years.
Copyright © 2010 The Associated Press