Spiegel Online

Obama Must Change the Subject from Gaza to Peacemaking

Editor's Note:  After the raid on a Turkish aid flotilla heading for the Gaza Strip on May 31, 2010, Israel has become increasingly isolated from the global community and the Obama administration now faces critical challenges in balancing relations between Israel and the Arab world.  In an interview with Spiegel Online, Martin Indyk offers policy advice for President Obama in dealing with these challenges.

SPIEGEL: Will the current crisis, touched off by last Monday's raid of the Gaza-bound aid flotilla by the Israeli military, lead to a major shift in the US Middle East strategy? Senior officials of the Obama administration say the current Gaza policy is no longer sustainable.

Indyk: There will likely be a shift that will focus on trying to help Israel out of the dilemma that it now confronts -- in which it has to choose between protecting its own citizens and punishing the citizens of Gaza. The siege of Gaza is causing a huge cost to Israel in terms of international public opinion. That is why you hear US government representatives -- from the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on down -- saying this is unsustainable.

SPIEGEL: Will the Americans insist on an end to the Gaza embargo, a step Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has already ruled out?

Indyk: That is unlikely because the US does not have something that it could put in its place to deal with Israel's genuine security concern about Gaza again becoming a launch pad for attacks. The short term solution is rather to get Israel to allow more goods to flow into Gaza through overland passages while maintaining the naval blockade. But the longer term answer should be to try to work out a package deal in which the Hamas regime commits not to smuggle arms into Gaza and to prevent violent attacks against Israel from Gaza. In return, Israel would open the passages and allows the free flow of goods and people. If Hamas breaks its commitments, it would then be to blame for Israel closing the passages again.

SPIEGEL: Obama is walking a tightrope. He has to take the Arab world's anger about the flotilla attacks seriously, but he also needs Israeli goodwill to restart the Middle East peace process. Netanyahu was scheduled to come to Washington to discuss new steps before he had to cancel because of the flotilla crisis.

Indyk: Obama needs to change the subject from Gaza to peacemaking. But to succeed in peacemaking he has to have a cooperative Israel. And if he abandons Israel over Gaza -- where he has made clear that Jerusalem has a legitimate security concern -- then he undermines the chances for building a relationship of trust that he needs to convince Israel to take risks for peace.

SPIEGEL: How would you describe the current relationship between Obama and Netanyahu? It was tense during the past year because the Israelis ignored American demands to cease ongoing construction of controversial settlements in Palestinian areas.

Indyk: In the last few days, Obama and Netanyahu have been working much more closely together than they ever did in the past. The crisis has thrown them into a good deal of telephone conversations and efforts to try to deal with the situation. That may actually serve to rebuild and strengthen their relationship rather than weaken it.

SPIEGEL: Many people in Israel believe Obama is not as committed to the country as most of his predecessors.

Indyk: That feeling still exists. But given today's environment, Israel is more dependent on the United States than ever. It faces harsh condemnation by much of the rest of the world, and that indirectly reinforces the sense that the United States is the only friend Israel has.

SPIEGEL: Yet America needs partners in the Arab world as well. Has Obama's hesitation to condemn the Israeli flotilla attack led to an evaporation of the goodwill he created during his first year in office?

Indyk: Gaza has become the hot button issue in the Arab and Muslim worlds, much more than the failure to resolve the broader Palestinian conflict. Our Turkish ally has been quite unhelpful in the last week, feeding concern in the Arab and Muslim world about Gaza with its harsh criticism of Israel. The answer for Obama is to ease the siege of Gaza and show that negotiations can produce results in the West Bank.

SPIEGEL: Could Ankara even derail tougher sanctions against Iran's nuclear program, a top priority for both Israel and the US?

Indyk: I wouldn't be surprised if Turkey now voted against the sanctions resolution in the United Nations Security Council. But as long as the unity amongst the five permanent members of the council holds, there will likely be a new sanctions resolution in the near future.

Interview conducted by Gregor Peter Schmitz