White House takes measured stance on Israeli aid ship attack

The White House and lawmakers on Tuesday refrained from condemning a deadly Israeli attack on Gaza-bound ships carrying humanitarian aid.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs would not go much further than a United Nations Security Council resolution that condemned the loss of life without criticizing Israel’s actions.

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Gibbs echoed the resolution calling for the U.N. investigation of the incident to be “prompt, impartial, credible and transparent.”

At least 10 civilians were killed in the attack, and many were wounded.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was scheduled to visit President Barack Obama at the White House on Tuesday, but he canceled to return to Israel. A meeting next week at the White House between Obama and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas is still on schedule, Gibbs said. Obama spoke to Netanyahu three times on Monday, Gibbs added.

On Capitol Hill, reaction to both the attack and the international fallout was somewhat muted. With both the House and Senate in recess for the week, even those congressional leaders who usually weigh in on all things Israel — including House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) — kept quiet Tuesday.

At press time, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said, “I regret the loss of life and look forward to learning the facts from a credible and transparent investigation.”

Meanwhile, a handful of Democratic lawmakers came to Israel’s immediate defense.

“Any loss of life is tragic,” Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) said in a statement. “This loss was the result of Turkish instigation and Hamas terror policies. Even if we are the only country on earth that sees the facts here, the United States should stand up for Israel.”

Rep. Tom Price (Ga.), the chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, struck a similar tone, and cited “reports [that] indicated that individuals on board the ships were carrying weapons and attacked Israeli soldiers as they were trying to stop the advance of the flotilla” in asserting that Israel “has every right to defend herself and protect her people.”

“The loss of life in this incident is tragic, but it should not diminish our support for Israel as it faces continued threats,” he said.

In a statement, the White House said Tuesday that Obama spoke with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan to express his condolences resulting from the Israeli military operation against the Turkish-flagged ship bound for Gaza: “The president affirmed the importance of finding better ways to provide humanitarian assistance to the people of Gaza without undermining Israel’s security.”

House Republicans, including Price, Minority Whip Eric Cantor (Va.) and GOP conference Chairman Mike Pence (Ind.), have cited the recent strains in U.S.-Israel relations by portraying the Obama administration — and, by extension, congressional Democrats — as wavering in their support for the U.S. ally.

In a statement released Tuesday afternoon, Cantor fired a shot at the United Nations for “predictably rushing to level hyperbolic accusations at Israel,” as well as a warning shot at the Obama White House.

“As information continues to filter in, I urge the president and his administration to continue to gather all the facts, and if necessary, to veto any biased U.N. resolutions reining in Israel’s right to defend itself,” Cantor said.

Gibbs said he did not think the incident would derail administration attempts to resume Middle East peace talks.

“We think more than ever we need a comprehensive Middle East peace plan,” Gibbs said.
Gibbs rejected suggestions that the U.S.’s reluctance to condemn the Israeli attack would damage U.S. relationships with Muslim nations.

“In terms of our relationship with the Muslim world, I think the president has obviously spent a lot of time on improving our relationship with countries throughout the world, and special time and care on our relationship with the Muslim world,” Gibbs said. “I do not think that this will have a great impact on that.”

While Gibbs was clearly reluctant to avoid going further than the Security Council’s resolution, he did defend Israel’s blockade of Gaza.

“I do think it’s helpful to understand this is a blockade to not allow weapons to get in the hands of Hamas,” Gibbs said.

Despite the White House’s cautious response, Gibbs was unequivocal in continuing to state the U.S.’s unwavering commitment to the protection of Israel and the country’s right to defend itself.

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“Let me be clear here: The United States and Israel — as I have said on countless occasions, we have a trusted relationship,” Gibbs said. “They are an important — have been an important ally. And we are greatly supportive of their security. That’s not going to change.”

During an appearance on Fox News last month, Cantor accused the Obama administration of picking “bogus fights with countries like Israel when we know that country stands with us.” And Pence was one of a number of Republicans who lambasted Democrats for missing a House-imposed deadline of May 28 to complete work on a final package of sanctions against Iran, calling the delay “unacceptable.”

Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said a “limited” delay was appropriate given the desire to see the U.N. Security Council reach an agreement on its own sanctions before Congress sends a sanctions bill to Obama.