President Obama has begun to make some significant statements about the Israeli military assault on the flotilla bringing aid to the Gaza Strip.
But the key word is "some." He continues to stop short of the meaningful statement he could make — a practical call, echoing that of other world leaders, who are friends of Israel but also realists, for lifting the blockade of Gaza.
Referring to the death toll, the president said, "You’ve got loss of life that was unnecessary. So we are calling for an effective investigation of everything that happened."
The president says, "I think that we need to know what all the facts are. But it’s not premature to say to the Israelis and to say to the Palestinians, and to say to all the parties in the region, that the status quo is unsustainable."
Speaking of Israel’s continued isolation of the Gaza Strip, Obama says, "you’ve got a blockage up that is preventing people in Palestinian Gaza from having job opportunities and being able to create businesses and engage in trade and have opportunity for the future."
But Obama continues to stop short of echoing the calls by British Prime Minister David Cameron for lifting the blockade. (Cameron says: "Friends of Israel – and I count myself a friend of Israel – should be saying to the Israelis that the blockade actually strengthens Hamas’s grip on the economy and on Gaza, and it’s in their own interests to lift it and allow these vital supplies to get through.")
Obama does not need to take his cue from international leaders, however.
He could, and should, take counsel from two of his earliest and most enthusiatic supporters in the race for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination: California Congresswoman Barbara Lee, who now chairs the Congressional Black Caucus, and Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison, one of the few members of the House to make a serious fact-findiing visit to Gaza in recent years.
In a letter to Obama, they write: "The United States must… work with its allies to address the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Recent events are undoubtedly linked to the counterproductive blockade on Gaza, which punishes ordinary citizens and strengthens Hamas’s control over commerce. The Israeli blockade on Gaza has left more than 80 percent of Gazans dependent on some form of food aid."
Lee and Ellison frame their remarks, as Cameron does, as a call to do the right thing not only for the Palestinians of Gaza but for Israel.
"As friends of Israel, we are concerned for Israel’s security and we believe that an undernourished and unemployed Gazan population does not promote this goal," they write. "Israel’s long-term security interests are not served by the blockade of civilian goods to Gaza, as it provides fodder for those who promote extremism against innocent Israelis."
The statement made by Lee and Ellison is a knowing and nuanced one, which finishes the thought that Obama began when he said "the status quo is unsustainable."
Here’s the full letter from the House members:
Dear Mr. President,
As Members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, we are deeply troubled by the military action aboard the aid flotilla en route to Gaza earlier this week, resulting in the death of nine civilians, including one American. We welcome your call for full disclosure of the facts of this incident. We also ask you to do two things: first, do everything in your power to support a thorough investigation into the incidents on the flotilla; second, call for a lifting of the blockade on Gaza.
This tragedy did not need to happen. We are dismayed by the use of force, both by the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) members and the individuals on the Mavi Marmara ship, that left both IDF soldiers and individuals from the flotilla injured. We denounce the use of unnecessary force and we believe that no good can come out of the harming of innocents. With that in mind, we strongly support the United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s call for a prompt, credible, impartial, and transparent investigation.
The United States must also work with its allies to address the on-going humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Recent events are undoubtedly linked to the counterproductive blockade on Gaza, which punishes ordinary citizens, and strengthens Hamas’ control over commerce. The Israeli blockade on Gaza has left more than 80 percent of Gazan dependent on some form of food aid. Cement is still being prevented from entering and as a result, many of the schools and homes destroyed in the ongoing conflict have not been rebuilt. This situation is unsustainable, and undermines the efforts of peacemakers seeking to improve the lives and security of both Israelis and Palestinians.
As friends of Israel, we are concerned for Israel’s security and we believe that an undernourished and unemployed Gazan population does not promote this goal. Israel’s long-term security interests are not served by the blockade of civilian goods to Gaza as it provides fodder for those who promote extremism against innocent Israelis. In your historic Cairo address one year ago, you stated: “Israel must also live up to its obligations to ensure that Palestinians can live, and work, and develop their society…the continuing humanitarian crisis in Gaza does not serve Israel’s security.”
We could not agree more.
United States leadership in the Middle East must show a commitment to ending the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. We urge you to take this tragedy as a catalyst to end the blockade on Gaza and to honor the dead and wounded on both sides by working to ensure a full, fair, and transparent investigation. Further, the United States should take immediate steps to ensure that this incident does not escalate into broader violence in the region.
We still believe that a durable, meaningful two-state solution is possible and we remain deeply committed to this goal. We look forward to working with you toward that end.