Gaza rift: ‘The sense is that Americans are disgusted with Netanyahu’

Israel denies relations with the US have deteriorated. Yet arms shipments to the Jewish state are being blocked as concerns grow over the large number of Palestinian casualties

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office has denied reports of a crisis in US-Israeli relations over the Gaza war, after the state department confirmed a new policy of placing weapons shipments to the Jewish state under closer scrutiny due to concern over the large number of Palestinian civilian fatalities.

Israeli officials, speaking to the liberal Israeli newspaper, Haaretz, confirmed that delivery of a consignment of Hellfire missiles, which are fitted to helicopters, has been blocked by the US since late last month as part of the American decision to impose limits on the transfer of weaponry that could be used in Gaza. The suspension, the first of its kind in more than three decades, was first reported in an article in The Wall Street Journal on Thursday.

The article added that the Obama administration was convinced Israel had not done enough to minimise civilian casualties and that its concerns included the use of artillery rather than more precise weaponry in the densely populated coastal enclave.

Israel says Hamas uses the civilian population as human shields and thus bears sole responsibility for the casualties. It sees US criticism over the Gaza toll as falling short of the unqualified support it believes it deserves in combatting a terrorist enemy.Mr Netanyahu’s spokesman, Mark Regev, said he had no knowledge of the Hellfire missiles being suspended. “We made a request and expect it to be fulfilled. There is no crisis, on the contrary the prime minister used the word terrific a few days ago to describe the support we have received from the US. Obviously our positions aren’t always identical but we are bound by common strategic interests and common values. We have a unique partnership.”


Politicians and analysts are less sanguine and say relations have deteriorated sharply during the Gaza fighting. “There is a worrying trend and we can’t allow it to continue,” said the finance minister and Yesh Atid party head Yair Lapid. “Our relations with the US are a strategic asset that must be maintained.”

“The sense is the Americans are totally disgusted with Netanyahu,” says Galia Golan, a political scientist at Interdisciplinary Centre in Herzliya, near Tel Aviv. “It’s something close to a crisis but it will be patched up because the administration can only go so far due to popular support for Israel and the fact there will be too much pressure from congress.” Likely 2016 presidential hopeful Hilary Clinton this week threw her support behind the Netanyahu government, blaming Hamas for the civilian casualties and endorsing continued Israeli security control over the occupied West Bank.

The Obama administration’s concern over civilian casualties came to the fore after Israel launched its ground operation in Gaza on 17 July. As Israeli shells hit UN schools in Gaza that were being used as shelters for those who fled their homes, the US sought to distance itself from its ally’s actions.

On 3 August the US said it was “appalled” by the “disgraceful” shelling of a UN school in Rafah that killed 10 people. The army said it targeted  three militants on a motorbike outside the school.

Palestinians buy fruit and vegetables yesterday in Gaza City as a new five-day ceasefire went into effect (Getty Images)

Israel and the US also clashed over ways to bring about a ceasefire, with Secretary of State John Kerry enlisting Hamas allies Turkey and Qatar because of their leverage with the Islamist movement, while Israel wanted more time to deal blows to Hamas and insisted Egypt should be the sole mediator.

On 25 July, Israeli officials heaped scorn on Mr Kerry, blasting him in the media for purportedly being overly accommodating to the Turks and Qataris and acting against Israel’s security concerns. The current ceasefire talks are taking place without a US role.

In a sense, the Gaza rift is a continuation of US-Israeli tensions over the Palestinian issue, which have persisted since Mr Obama took office, pressing for a freeze on the illegal Israeli settlement building in the West Bank. Continued Israeli settlement construction and creeping annexation of the West Bank by Mr Netanyahu was seen by the Americans as one of the reasons for the failure of Mr Kerry’s efforts to broker an Israeli-Palestinian agreement. Israeli analysts say that also fuelling the distrust was Mr Netanyahu’s backing for Mr Obama’s rival, Mitt Romney in the last US presidential contest.

Meanwhile, Mr Obama is seen by the Israeli government as being “weak and misguided” according to Efraim Inbar, director of the Besa Center for Strategic Studies at Bar Ilan University. From attempting to engage Iran, to failing to back up a threat to use force against Syria over use of chemical weapons, to turning a cold shoulder to Egypt’s Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi to enlisting Turkey and Qatar for the Gaza ceasefire, “this administration simply does not understand who are their allies and who are their enemies. It’s strategic confusion”.

But Mr Inbar believes that President Obama cannot undo close Israeli-US ties. “The relationship is anchored in a long history and there is lots of domestic American support for Israel. We will survive Obama, the question is the price.”