Jewish groups want more from Obama on Gaza flotilla controversy, but is that smart?

I just read Ron Kampeas story headlined “Jewish Groups Want Stronger U.S. Defense of Israel, Obama Not Obliging,” and I have to confess: I can’t figure out what it is the leaders of these groups really want.

Do they want an administration that has been – so far – conspicuously restrained in responding to the crisis to come out and say that intercepting publicity-seeking flotilla activists who Israeli officials warned in advance were seeking a confrontation on the high seas was a smart move?

Do they want Washington policymakers to announce that the raid furthered Israel’s strategic and diplomatic interests?

Well, an awful lot of Israelis disagree with those propositions, so it’s hard to come up with good reasons why the Obama administration should stick its neck out like that.

Should Washington say that Israel has a right to defend itself against terror? Of course, and it’s said that many times.

But some Jewish groups seem to want more: a clear statement that this particular action was a matter of vital national security for Israel in its war against terrorism, and that ain’t gonna happen.

Yes, the flotilla activists who attacked Israeli commandos were spoiling for a fight, and some of them undoubtedly have connections to terror groups. As the American Jewish Committee’s David Harris said in a Jewish Week story this week, this was not an example of "Mohandas Gandhi at work."

But it’s a real stretch to say the flotilla was a huge security threat that needed to be stopped by force. It was a propaganda mission, and there are many Israelis who believe the Netanyahu-Barak government gave flotilla planners an unexpectedly easy victory on the battlefield of world opinion.

U.S. support for Israel doesn’t mean supporting every single decision the Israeli government makes; if it was, no recent administration would be seen as a “friend.” George W. Bush didn’t, Bill Clinton didn’t and Barack Obama won’t.

Kampeas goes on to say that the “United States has beaten back the sharpest condemnations. It watered down a U.N. Security Council statement so that it condemned the ‘acts’ that led to the deaths, making ambiguous whether the Israelis or the passengers escalated the conflict into violence, and joined the Netherlands on Wednesday in voting against a U.N. Human Rights Council resolution condemning Israel.”

An editorial in today’s New York Times called for the administration to "state clearly that the Israeli attack was unacceptable and back an impartial international investigation."

Instead, the Obama administration has muted criticism and said Israel should conduct an internal probe, not rely on the hopelessly biased UN agency. Not exactly a hostile act.

But Kampeas quotes an AIPAC memo saying "It would have been preferable if the UN and Obama administration had blocked any action implying criticism of Israel for defending itself.”

That strikes me as setting up unrealistic demands that can only undermine the close friendship between countries with often-overlapping but not identical interests.

One suspects the Jewish groups want something else: a full-throated U.S. endorsement of the Gaza blockade. That’s just not going to happen. The blockade is problematic in terms of a wide range of U.S. policy interests (and that didn’t start with the arrival of Barack Obama at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.). What’s surprising here is that this administration hasn’t focused more on the issue; it’s certainly under a lot of international pressure to do so.

You can guess what will happen next: every word every administration official utters on the subject will be measured against the standard of those who demand Washington be a cheer leading squad for the current government in Jerusalem, which is not the same thing as being an ally. When the administration does not comply, it will be seen by some as proof it is indifferent to Israel’s interests, or even anti-Israel.

It seems to me there’s no surer way of undercutting an alliance than demanding the impossible from one’s ally. And that’s not smart.

About the Author
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.