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U.S. hopes to rebuild peace process along with Gaza after raid

From Elise Labott, CNN Senior State Department Producer
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Tony Blair on easing Gaza blockade
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Israel eases blockade, hopes to empower Palestinian president, bring home kidnapped soldier
  • Talks chugging along but no "urgency"
  • Several issues with Israel cause headaches for United States
RELATED TOPICS
  • Israel
  • Gaza
  • Palestinian Politics

Washington (CNN) -- There was little question that Israel would have no choice but to ease its three-year blockade of Gaza after its deadly naval commando raid on the flotilla of pro-Palestinian activists.

The incident, in which nine Turks were killed, cast a harsh spotlight on the grave humanitarian situation in Gaza and gave urgency to a re-examination of the policy toward the territory that has actually been taking place in Israel for at least six months, and in the international community for even longer.

Last year the Mideast Quartet -- the United States, Russia, the United Nations and the European Union -- called the situation in Gaza "unsustainable" and urged Israel to increase the flow of goods and re-open crossing points. Those calls went largely unheeded. But as the Obama administration intensified efforts to jump-start peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians, Israeli leaders have been discussing with the United States and other allies various ideas on how to improve life for the 1.5 million Palestinians living in Gaza under Hamas rule.

Not, frankly, because Israel was concerned about the increasingly dire humanitarian conditions in Gaza -- the Israeli government has always maintained it allowed enough humanitarian aid to go through. But because it could be good for peace. Israel began to consider how easing the harsh restrictions in Gaza could empower Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in his struggle with Hamas and possibly even secure the release of Corporal Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier captured nearly four years ago in a cross-border raid from Gaza.

As Israeli officials describe it, those talks with the United States were chugging along and even gained some momentum with the resumption of "proximity talks" under the auspices of U.S. Mideast envoy George Mitchell. But, they acknowledge, the "urgency" wasn't there.

Goods and supplies are beginning to flow into Gaza now that Israel's blockade has been eased.
Goods and supplies are beginning to flow into Gaza now that Israel's blockade has been eased.

The Gaza situation was just one of numerous diplomatic headaches between the United States and Israel, which together have caused many Mideast experts and some in the Obama administration to question whether the U.S. relationship with Israel was detrimental to its interests.

In April, President Barack Obama drew a link between the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the safety of American forces on the battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan, acknowledging the crisis ends up "costing us significantly in terms of both blood and treasure."

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's refusal to halt Jewish housing construction in East Jerusalem also has hampered efforts at a Mideast peace deal and strained ties with Arab and Muslim allies. The Gaza incident significantly aggravated already tense relations between the U.S. and Turkey, whose help Washington needs to curb Iran's nuclear ambitions

But with crisis also comes opportunity. And not surprisingly, the flotilla incident became the catalyst for a new approach. The Obama administration, along with Quartet envoy Tony Blair, seized on the "unsustainable" factor to push hard for relaxing the siege on Gaza and for greater engagement with the Palestinian Authority. During President Abbas's visit earlier this month, the White House announced $400 million in assistance for the West Bank and Gaza.

The tensions between the Netanyahu and Obama administration didn't seem to be at play in the wake of the flotilla incident, with Washington taking a much more collaborative and cooperative tone in persuading Israel to begin an independent investigation of the raid with an international presence and significantly ease the blockade while providing for Israel's security.

The resulting Israeli decision to ease its blockade was met with cautious optimism at the White House, which welcomed the announcement and said President Obama would welcome Netanyahu to the White House next month. But the United States also made clear Israel would now be expected to implement its new policy declarations. Similarly the Quartet in its statement called the announcement a good step forward, but stressed implementation nearly half a dozen times and continuing to call the situation in Gaza "unsustainable, unacceptable, and not in the interests of any of those concerned."

Both the Obama administration and Blair wanted Israel to go even father including opening more land more crossings. The Israeli announcement signaled that could happen, but made no firm commitments.

As more goods flow into Gaza and the newly approved building materials are used to rebuild Gaza's dilapidated homes, schools and hospitals, administration officials are hopeful that the relaxed controls will allow greater freedom of movement between the West Bank and Gaza and spur more commercial activity in the Palestinian territories at a time Prime Minister Salam Fayyad is trying to create a viable Palestinian economy and institutions. And that could boost U.S. efforts to nudge the parties to the negotiating table.

But that could be wishful thinking. Even as the world praised Israel for its decision, Jerusalem's municipal planning board moved one step further toward implementing a construction plan in East Jerusalem which would involve demolishing about 20 Palestinian homes, a move the Palestinians condemn as settlement expansion and which the Obama administration called "unfortunate timing." Now it is more than likely when Netanyahu visits the White House next month Obama will not only give him a pat on one hand, but a slap on the wrist with the other.