Gaza conflict: souring of relations unlikely to shift America’s support for Israel

Conflict creates fresh tensions in a relationship that seems impervious to challenge

A day after President Obama phoned Israeli leader Binyamin Netanyahu demanding an “immediate, unconditional humanitarian ceasefire”, Netanyahu warned of “a lengthy campaign” against Hamas. Photograph: Joshua Roberts/Reuters

A day after President Obama phoned Israeli leader Binyamin Netanyahu demanding an “immediate, unconditional humanitarian ceasefire”, Netanyahu warned of “a lengthy campaign” against Hamas. Photograph: Joshua Roberts/Reuters

Thu, Jul 31, 2014, 01:00

The photographs of American troops pushing helicopters over the side of a US warship in 1975 became iconic images immortalising the country’s messy withdrawal from a despised conflict in Vietnam.

A former senior Israeli diplomat once pointed to these images when comparing US foreign policy in the Middle East, noting that the US couldn’t simply push helicopters into the sea to end involvement in the region.

As the conflict between Israel and Hamas raged on for a 23rd day, the US has been drawn ever deeper into the region in attempting to broker a ceasefire, creating fresh tensions in the relationship with one of its closest allies that seems almost impervious to challenge – Israel.

The diplomatic overtures made by US secretary of state John Kerry between Israel and Hamas earlier this week drew venomous comments from Israel and led to a marked deterioration in the traditionally strong ties between the two countries.

Kerry’s frustration with Israeli’s military strikes and the increasing civilian deaths in the Gaza Strip while attempting to broker a peace has appeared to boil over when he was caught on a live microphone 10 days ago. On July 20th, while waiting to be interviewed by Fox News on a Sunday talk show, he was caught on camera criticising Israel, while responding to the figures of the latest civilian deaths in Israel on a call with one of his advisers. “It’s a hell of a pinpoint operation,” he said, with stinging sarcasm.

Israeli media have portrayed Kerry’s peace-building efforts as biased, seeking a truce that favoured Hamas and failing to address Israeli concerns. Columnist Ari Shavit, writing in Israeli newspaper Haaretz on Monday, said that in trying to broker a ceasefire, Kerry had “ruined everything.” He cited “very senior officials in Jerusalem” describing the diplomat’s proposal as a “strategic terrorist attack”. Israeli government sources accused Kerry of “completely capitulating” to Hamas.

Escalating of tensions

The rhetoric reflects an escalation of tensions between the countries to a level that is unusual, even after disagreements over Obama’s decision to negotiate with Iran on its nuclear programme, the US persistence to pursue a two-state solution to Israeli-Palestinian divisions (something Israel rejects) and American demands that Israel halt the building of settlements in the disputed West Bank.

A day after Obama phoned Israeli leader Binyamin Netanyahu demanding an “immediate, unconditional humanitarian ceasefire”, Netanyahu warned of “a lengthy campaign” against Hamas, exacerbating already poor relations between Obama and a man who in effect backed his political rival in the 2012 presidential election.

Unnamed US administration officials have briefed against Israel for launching a “misinformation campaign” in the attack on Kerry, spinning that a draft submitted to the Israelis for discussion – based on an earlier Egyptian suggestion they accepted – as a formal proposal.

“It’s simply not the way that partners and allies treat each other,” said state department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said on Monday.

US-Israeli relations have their origins in the Cold War era when the US counted Israel as a key defender against Soviet influence in the Middle East. Israel has since become a buffer for the US against the rise of political radicalism in Arab states, including Islamic extremism.