Netanyahu visits White House amid impasse with Turkey

Chris Lehmann

Maybe Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should just give up on trying to visit the White House. His first visit in March was noticeably frosty, coming amid a standoff between Israel and the United States over Israel’s plans to expand settlements in East Jerusalem, and it created lingering political fallout when a Netanyahu aide reportedly called President Obama “Israel’s greatest disaster.” (Netanyahu denied that the aide had said that; but the damage was done.)

Then, in late May, the Israeli prime minister had to cancel his White House visit when Israeli Defense Forces killed nine pro-Palestinian activists during a raid on a Gaza supply flotilla.

And now, as Netanyahu visits the White House to showcase some progress in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Turkey — a longtime ally of both the United States and Israel — is threatening to sever ties with Israel unless Netanyahu’s government issues an official apology for killing the nine Turkish citizens (one of whom held dual U.S.-Turkish citizenship) aboard the flotilla.

The move comes at a sensitive moment in U.S.-Israeli relations. Netanyahu has tried to lay the groundwork for a fresh start in the stalled Palestinian peace process by loosening Israel’s supply blockade on Gaza to permit foreign shipments of most consumer goods.  (The blockade still bans construction materials, which Israel says could be used to develop nuclear weapons.) He has also called for renewed direct peace talks with Palestinians — even though Netanyahu’s cabinet lost a key battle with the Israeli parliament over plans to extend the freeze on Israel’s settlements in the occupied territories. The freeze is slated to expire in September, leaving the government little to bargain with in future talks.

Israeli officials have already said that Netanyahu’s government won’t issue any apology, asserting that the activists on the flotilla initiated the violence and that “Israel will never apologize for defending its citizens.” Israel also says it won’t meet Turkey’s other demands: to lift the Gaza blockade entirely and put an international body in charge of investigating the flotilla raid. Turkey has already partially banned Israel military flights over Turkish airspace, and Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmed Davutoglu says that the ban could widen to include all Israeli commercial flights as well.

One possible silver lining for Netanyahu: Israeli representatives had previously been conducting secret talks with Turkey to contain the fallout from the flotilla raid — a policy that got Netanyahu into trouble with his hard-line foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, when Lieberman got word of the talks after the fact. Now the United States, which has lately been doing some other negotiating work with Turkey, would probably have to negotiate some path forward in the Israeli-Turkish diplomatic impasse, giving Netanyahu some political distance from Israel’s newest European antagonist.

Then again, U.S.-brokered talks with Turkey would probably mean more White House visits.

— Chris Lehmann is deputy editor of the Yahoo! News blog