OPINION: Washington's past missteps don't help in current Israel crisis
Jackson Diehl is deputy editorial page editor for The Washington Post. This is excerpted from The Post's opinion blog.
If the Obama administration had been skillful in managing its relationship with the difficult Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu, it would have some room to maneuver in responding to Israel's disastrous attack on the Free Gaza flotilla.
Netanyahu's decision to use military force to stop boats populated with European and American notables and, even more, the bloody execution of the operation are indefensible - and they were being described as such Tuesday by Israel's own press.
If there were no cracks in Washington's relationship with Jerusalem, President Barack Obama could join in the criticism while also quietly working to restrain the UN Security Council from a lynch-mob-style response - and without casting doubt on U.S. willingness to defend the Jewish state from a growing multitude of enemies.
But Obama has not handled Netanyahu well. So the White House's cautious initial response to the incident - even as Israel was being beaten up by its closest friends in Europe - reflected a deeper dilemma about how much more tension an already strained alliance can bear.
The problem is that Obama has already exhausted his margin for quarreling with Israel - so much so that a White House session with Netanyahu had been planned for Tuesday as a make-up meeting. The session was canceled, replaced by frantic phone conversations between White House and Israeli officials over whether a common response to the latest crisis was possible.
Hanging over the administration's deliberations are the gratuitous spats with Netanyahu that Obama has blundered into.
Twice the president chose to launch pointless and unwinnable battles to freeze Israeli settlement construction in Jerusalem. These only complicated his Middle East diplomacy, while alienating Israel's supporters in Congress and the Democratic Party.
Just last week, Obama chose to side against Israel in the final deliberations of the Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference. In pursuit of one of the president's most cherished causes, the United States accepted language calling on Israel to join the NPT and supporting a conference in 2013 on a nuclear-free Middle East.
Netanyahu's government was left alone in its opposition.
Consequently, the question Israeli officials are asking about the Gaza crisis is "will Israel be alone - again?" It won't be easy for Obama to answer.
Another public rift between the United States and Israel is the last thing the White House needs as it tries to wrest concessions from Netanyahu in Middle East peace talks - and as midterm elections approach. But defending Israel in and outside the United Nations will risk a rift with Turkey, not to mention Arab states, at the moment when the administration is hoping to win broad support for a new Security Council resolution on Iran.
Obama would be in this bind regardless of what he had done in the past year. But his missteps have made it worse - and getting out of the bind will require more diplomatic finesse than his administration has mustered so far.