The Gaza blockade: what do you do when U.S. and Israel interests aren’t in sync?

Update: the New York Times asks  whether talk about Israel as a strategic liability instead of asset is gaining traction in this "Week in Review" article.  It’s the New York Times, so look for some strong reactions from pro-Israel leaders in the next few days – and some quiet hand wringing by leaders who suspect the paper may be on to something.

Does Washington have a stake in what happens with Israel’s blockade of Gaza? It seems like a DUH question, but listening to the Netanyahu government in the wake of last week’s flotilla disaster and to the pro-Israel groups here that have mobilized to defend Israel against international criticism, you’d never know it.

That question is going to be more prominent in the days ahead as the question of Israel’s Gaza blockade becomes a more disruptive factor in U.S.-Israel relations and as more ships – ostensibly afloat for humanitarian purposes, but clearly meant to score propaganda points against the inept Israelis – head toward confrontation.

The Obama administration’s surprisingly low-key response to Israel’s actions last week, including its efforts to blunt U.N. language slamming Israel and to avoid direct criticism, may not last as international pressure mounts.

In his column this morning, the Washington Post’s David Ignatius said the administration has communicated its understanding that Israel needs to act in its own security interests – but that it needs to consider U.S. international concerns as well.

Those concerns include creating a broad international coalition to deal with Iran – a goal that most analysts say was undercut by the Israeli operation against the flotilla and the resulting worldwide furor.

Jewish groups are all over Capitol Hill, pushing the line that Israel must have an absolute right to defend itself, a politically palatable line for politicians and a reflection of undeniable reality.

But the question is this: was attacking the flotilla really a matter of national security?

And is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s insistence on maintaining the Gaza blockade – which doesn’t seem to be impeding the flow of weapons to Hamas while appearing to most of the world like collective punishment of a civilian population – providing enough security benefits to Israel to justify putting the Obama administration in an increasingly difficult position with respect to its other international interests?

Pro-Israel groups here spend a great deal of time pressing for U.S. understanding of the very real dilemmas Israel faces as it deals with real enemies on its borders and an international community always ready to believe the worst of it.

Blithely ignored is the need for Israel to also be responsive to U.S. diplomatic interests. Much of the pro-Israel community acts as if this is an alliance in name only, that in reality it is a relationship defined entirely by U.S. support for the decisions made in Jerusalem.

Yes, I know the argument: Israel faces annihilation if it gives in to international pressure. But I don’t buy the notion that barring the Gaza flotilla from landing no matter what the cost to Israel’s standing and to its relations with Washington was a matter of vital national security.

The United States and Israel have many strategic interests in common. But no allies, no matter how close, have interests that are 100 percent in sync. Pro-Israel groups here will ultimately lose clout if their activism implies that only Israel’s interests matter – and that any deviation from Israeli policy represents a violation of the U.S.-Israel alliance.

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.