The White House on Tuesday demanded a “credible and transparent” investigation into the Israel Navy raid of a humanitarian aid flotilla bound for the Gaza Strip a day earlier, which left nine people dead and several more wounded.
When asked why President Barack Obama’s administration did not condemn the “deliberate massacre” of international activists aboard the Turkish-flagged vessel of the six-ship convoy, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said: “Nothing can bring them back.”
“We are open to ways to assure credible investigation including international participation,” said Gibba. “We call on Israel to release ships. The American citizens there went there as a private citizens. We condemn the loss of life and regret it deeply.”
Gibbs also that plans had not changed regarding an invitation to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to come to the White House on June 9 to discuss the recently launched proximity peace negotiations.
When asked about Mossad chief Meir Dagan assertion that Israel was becoming a political “burden” on the U.S., Gibbs said: “We have a trusted relationship… [Israel is] an important ally and we are supportive of their security and that is not going to change”.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton meanwhile urged all parties to be careful in their responses to Israel’s attack on the Gaza-bound flotilla, steering clear of outright condemnation of the deadly assault.
“I think the situation from our perspective is very difficult and requires careful, thoughtful responses from all concerned,” Clinton told reporters, while also underscoring U.S. sympathy for the “tragic loss of life and injuries” among those involved in the incident.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had been scheduled to meet with Obama on Tuesday to discuss the peace negotiations, but canceled his trip due to the raid that occurred just prior to his Washington visit.
Obama told Netanyahu on Monday that he deeply regretted the loss of life in an Israeli raid on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla on Monday and urged him to quickly get to the bottom of the incident.
The White House’s cautious response, which contrasted with an outcry against Israel’s actions in Europe and the Muslim world, reflected a difficult balancing act for Obama.
He will face international pressure to join condemnation of Israel but must also be mindful that the close U.S. ally is popular with American lawmakers and voters. At the same time, fledgling U.S.-led Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts are at risk of collapse.
“The president expressed deep regret at the loss of life in today’s incident, and concern for the wounded,” the White House said in a summary of Obama’s phone call with Netanyahu hours Israeli marines stormed the Mavi Marmara ship bound for Gaza.
“The president also expressed the importance of learning all the facts and circumstances around this morning’s tragic events as soon as possible,” it said.
Obama, ending a long holiday weekend in Chicago, also told Netanyahu he understood his decision to cancel their White House talks set for Tuesday and return home from a visit to Canada, to deal with the incident.
They agreed to reschedule a meeting soon, the White House said.
Israel’s storming of the aid ship unleashed international outrage over the bloody end to a bid by human rights campaigners to break an Israeli blockade of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. The UN Security Council called an emergency session for later on Monday.
Netanyahu said Israeli forces had been attacked during the boarding and had to defend themselves. In addition to the activists killed, seven troops and 20 protesters were injured, the Israeli military said.
“At this point, it is unclear what happened and there must be a thorough investigation,” U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry said. “This unfortunate incident underscores the necessity of resolving the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.”
Obama had hoped to use his talks with Netanyahu to give a nudge to indirect U.S.-sponsored peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians and ease any lingering U.S.-Israeli strains over settlement construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Getting long-stalled negotiations back under way - even in the so-called “proximity” format - marked Obama’s biggest achievement in Middle East diplomacy since taking office last year pledging to make it a priority for his administration.
The effort is also part of his outreach to the Muslim world, where Obama has sought to counter widespread perceptions of U.S. bias in favor of Israel against the Palestinians, especially under his predecessor George W. Bush. But there has been little progress since talks started this month, and chances for a breakthrough are considered slim.
After the Gaza flotilla incident, prospects even for keeping the process alive look bleak. Obama will have a chance to try when he meets Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who called the raid a “massacre”.