US nervous as ties fray between Israel, neighbors

September 12, 2011 - 4:25 PM

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Obama administration is watching warily as relations among its allies Israel, Egypt and Turkey deteriorate, threatening Mideast stability and U.S. goals for the region.

The simultaneous trouble between the Jewish state and two Muslim nations that have been a security and diplomatic bulwark for Israel comes as the Palestinians prepare to seek statehood recognition at the United Nations this month. The U.N. action, which the U.S. has fought without success, is likely to further complicate peace efforts, leave Israel even more isolated and force the Obama administration into the uncomfortable position of appearing to side with Israel over other allies and partners.

A flurry of weekend phone calls among President Barack Obama, his top national security aides and their Israeli, Egyptian and regional counterparts over Friday's assault on the Israeli Embassy in Cairo underscored U.S. concerns about developments. The attack could have jeopardized the Egyptian-Israeli peace deal, which has been a bedrock of Mideast stability for three decades. Along with the Egypt-Israel concerns, U.S. officials worry about recent tough talk from Turkey about the slide in its relations with Israel.

Obama personally reassured Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of U.S. support in a Friday phone as Egyptian protesters sacked Israel's embassy. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton spoke twice to Egyptian Foreign Minister Muhammed Amr to remind him of Egypt's obligation to protect diplomatic property and personnel as well as to emphasize the importance the United States places on Egyptian-Israeli peace.

The State Department said the administration was "gratified" by statements from both Israeli and Egyptian officials seeking to ease tensions. But officials left no doubt as to the seriousness of the matter and its implications, particularly given the already precarious nature of the Israel's relationship with Turkey and the impending Palestinian bid at the U.N.

Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland called the embassy attack an "extreme" and "very serious incident" that prompted grave concern at the highest levels of the administration.

"It's not simply about this isolated incident; it's about the importance of maintaining stability and peace across the region not only day to day, week to week, but month to month, which takes us back to the messages that we've been sending on the way to the meetings in New York next week," she told reporters, referring to the annual U.N. General Assembly session that begins Sept. 20.

In addition to Obama's call to Netanyahu on Friday and Clinton's calls to Amr, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta spoke to Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Egyptian military leader Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi on Friday, the Pentagon said. Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke with his Israeli counterpart on Friday and his Egyptian counterpart on Sunday.

As those calls progressed, the top U.S. diplomat for the Middle East, Jeffrey Feltman, spoke with the head of the Gulf Cooperation Council and senior officials from Egypt, Jordan, Qatar, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

"Our hope is to avoid any spillover into the larger region," Nuland said. "The fact that both the Egyptian and the Israeli governments spoke strongly about the importance of bringing this situation under control and the fact that it has now been brought under control gives us some hope going forward. But, obviously, we all need to be vigilant."

Feltman urged each official to counsel calm and encourage a return to a situation "where Egypt and Israel could be confident in their relationship (and) could be confident in the agreements that they have with each other," Nuland said.

It is "important not simply to settle the immediate problem of security around the Israeli mission in Cairo but also with regard to the region as a whole as we move into a very complicated period heading towards the meetings in New York."

The administration has threatened to veto a Palestinian statehood resolution at the U.N. Security Council but it cannot kill the move in the larger General Assembly, where passage is all but assured. Approval of Palestinian statehood by the General Assembly would be largely symbolic, but it would validate the Palestinian argument that it must go ahead on its own rather than wait for Israel to strike a deal over borders and other issues that have held up statehood for years. Israel and the U.S. maintain that Palestinian statehood is their goal but that it must be reached through negotiation.

"A unilateral Palestinian effort to achieve statehood at the U.N. would be counterproductive," White House spokesman Jay Carney said Monday. "Even if these actions are well-intentioned, they will not achieve statehood."

Direct negotiations, Carney said, are "the only path to the kind of solution that the Palestinians rightfully want and that the Israelis rightfully want. You have to do it through direct negotiations. You won't get it through the U.N."

Both Egypt and Turkey are likely to side with the Palestinians, leaving the U.S. and only a handful of other nations taking Israel's side.

Administration officials continue to press the Palestinians to drop their U.N. aspirations for an alternative, possibly a statement of support from the international diplomatic quartet of Mideast peacemakers — the U.S., the European Union, Russia and the United Nations. However, in a blow to quartet unity, Russia said Monday it would support any Palestinian effort at the United Nations. Further complicating matters, an influential former Saudi diplomat said his country's relations with the U.S. would suffer if Washington vetoed a Security Council resolution.

Into this mix, Israeli-Turkish relations have plummeted in recent weeks as Israel has refused Turkish demands for an apology over its raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla last year that killed eight Turks and a Turkish American on board a Turkish ship trying to break Israel's naval blockade of Gaza.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Monday that the raid was "cause for war" but added that his country showed "patience" and refrained from taking any action.

But this month, Turkey suspended its military ties with Israel, expelled top Israeli diplomats, pledged to campaign in support of the Palestinians' statehood bid and vowed to send the Turkish navy to escort Gaza-bound aid ships in the future.