An American Life Preserver

When Israel once again found itself looking like a world-class bully this week, Netanyahu called on Obama for help. But there will be a price to pay

Israel's ties with the United States returned to its old, familiar format this week: a relationship between a small country and a great power. This is the most important result of the "flotilla affair."

U.S. President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office
The White House

Israel announced it would stop the aid ships on their way to Gaza by force. When to their surprise the naval commandos faced resistance on the Mavi Marmara, the operation went bad, ending with nine passengers dead, an international wave of condemnations directed at Israel and a public clash with Turkey - which supported the maritime protest.

After about a year and a half of security quiet, once again Israel looks like a bully who hits first and thinks afterward. In this situation, there is only one person who can help: U.S. President Barack Obama. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke with him on the phone a few times on Monday, the day of the crisis, and requested that he veto a resolution against Israel in the United Nations Security Council. Obama did not use the doomsday weapon of American diplomacy, but the UN resolution was anyway softened to a toothless "statement."

After that, Obama conducted "proximity talks" between Israel and Turkey. The outcome was that Israel repatriated all the passengers on the flotilla, even those Israel depicted as "Al-Qaida supporters" and the Turks toned down their rhetoric.

And then the Americans dictated to Israel how the investigation will be conducted and also demanded the opening, to some extent, of the locked gates of Gaza. Netanyahu has agreed in principle. He is prepared to reexamine the closure on Gaza so that it will be focused on preventing arms smuggling and is even prepared to consider international involvement in its enforcement.

It isn't the means that are important, but rather the end, so there will not be an "Iranian port in Gaza" through which thousands of rockets will be sent to Hamas.

Netanyahu is opposed to an internal probe, which might lead to a situation that would obligate every fighter and commander to bring lawyers along on missions. He will agree to an examination of the legality of the action against the flotilla to Gaza, and of the amount of force Israel used in taking over the Mavi Marmara. In his opinion Israel has good answers and U.S. Vice President Joe Biden has already publicly backed Israel.

Before the imbroglio this week, Netanyahu believed he had defeated Obama in the battle for American public opinion and had succeeded in repelling the pressure to stop Israeli construction in East Jerusalem - which was perceived as a political threat to the stability of his coalition.

But the Israeli sense of victory was spurious. Even then Netanyahu was asking Obama's help in preventing pressure on Israel on the nuclear issue. At the end of last week the global nuclear conference in New York ended in a resolution calling upon Israel, in diplomatic language, to shut down its nuclear project.

Obama voted in favor of the resolution and then announced he objected to the Israeli provision. Diplomatic sources in Jerusalem reported on "new strategic understandings" with the United States, expressing "a significant step up in the history of the relations."

The announcement of the so-called strategic understandings showed the veracity of the repeated claim by Obama and his aides that they are indeed committed to Israel's security and are more concerned about it than their predecessors. And it also showed that in times of diplomatic distress, Netanyahu has to rely on Obama and that Israel has no allies apart from him.

However, it is hard to believe all this was for free: What did Netanyahu give Obama in return for the strategic understandings? Did he promise not to attack Iran? Or that Israel would coordinate everything with America? Or perhaps he offered something related to the West Bank?

At the end of last week Netanyahu visited Canada. On Sunday evening he gave an interview to the Canadian CBC television network, when he apparently believed the naval operation would be clean and he would arrive in Washington as a hero. But then everything went awry and after some typical waffling, the prime minister gave up the meeting with Obama and went back to Israel.

The American administration has a lot of good intentions but it does not have good answers to the Palestinian issue. Or to the Gaza problem or to Israel's fear that a withdrawal from the West Bank will transform it into an Iranian rocket base. The Americans are telling Netanyahu it is worth his while to make a deal with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, before somebody worse comes into office. This is not enough, in the meantime, to convince him.

In the administration they understand Netanyahu is sitting pretty in his coalition and aren't pinning many hopes on opposition leader Kadima MK Tzipi Livni or any other claimant to the throne. Therefore, they have decided to work with him and not against him, despite the huge difference in the way the two governments view the world.

Mossad chief Meir Dagan said this week in the Knesset that the administration had considered an imposed arrangement but has shelved it for the moment because it believed this would not bring peace. Dagan warned that Israel is gradually becoming a burden on the United States. In this week's debacle, yet again, the Americans had to clean up the mess the Israeli forces left behind.

Obama came to Netanyahu's rescue, and the prime minister owes him now. If not the dismantling of the settlements and the establishment of Palestine, then at least a bit of humility and gratitude, and perhaps also some easing of the closure on Gaza.