As reactions to Israel's flotilla raid continue to pour out, there is no question that things are better for President Obama--much better--with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu having gotten out of town, saving the president from having to comment on the crisis standing beside the Israeli leader.
The president talked to Netanyahu around 10 a.m. on Monday, according to the White House. This from the "readout"--the brief, official summary--of Obama's conversation with Netanyahu:
[President Obama] said he understood the Prime Minister's decision to return immediately to Israel to deal with today's events. They agreed to reschedule their meeting at the first opportunity. The President expressed deep regret at the loss of life in today's incident, and concern for the wounded, many of whom are being treated in Israeli hospitals. The President also expressed the importance of learning all the facts and circumstances around this morning's tragic events as soon as possible.
Coincidentally, this is the fullest public reaction to the flotilla incident that Obama has supplied--an expression of regret and a desire to learn all the facts and circumstances.
He did not mention the raid at his Memorial Day appearance yesterday at Andrews Air Force Base, nor did he say anything about it in the Rose Garden today as he announced a commission to investigate BP's oil spill in the Gulf. The White House has not issued any press-release statement on it.
It's safe to say that wouldn't be the case if Netanyahu were in town. There would be a joint appearance. Obama would have to say something more about it. Which would be tough.
If Obama were to criticize Israel, he would have to do it to Netanyahu's face--this as the the two were set to repair U.S./Israeli relations after the fiasco of Vice President Biden's trip to Israel and the concurrent announcement of new settlement construction in East Jerusalem in March.
And, realistically, he would almost have to criticize Israel. Expressing a need to obtain all the facts before commenting, while perhaps wise, may simply not be enough, given how this event has been received in the Muslim world.
If Obama goes ahead and meets with Netanyahu as if nothing happened, then his administration's outreach to the Muslim communities of the world is effectively over.
Muslims have already protested in the Middle East and elsewhere--and the U.S. would have felt that backlash if Netanyahu had stayed, without a condemnation from Obama. Further complicating matters, the U.S. has a complex diplomatic history with Turkey--where the ships came from and which has bitterly condemned Israel's raid and blockade policy--as we've used that country to get U.S. troops and supplies into Iraq and Afghanistan. (Notice that Obama backed off his campaign support for a declaration of Armenian genocide.) Egypt, another U.S. ally in the region, where Obama made his first overture to the Muslim world, opened its border with Gaza following the raid. All this on top of how politically charged Israel is, as an issue, in the United States.
It is very, very important to find out whether Israeli commandos did, as activists claim, fire first, before the U.S. officially passes judgment on this incident. (The Israeli government has released video
that supports its claims of commandos being attacked, but it's unclear what violence happened before and after that grainy video.) But regardless, this incident spotlights Israel's policy to block humanitarian aid ships to Gaza, which, despite any reasons for doing so, is a tough sell to the international community--including, perhaps most importantly, Arab states--on its face.
Obama will have to offer more thorough reaction to this at some point, but he is far, far better off not having to do so with Netanyahu in town, and not sitting down to meet with the prime minister as more aid ships head toward Gaza and the crisis continues to unfold.