WASHINGTON (Reuters) - As conflict erupted in Gaza last week, Israel’s officials and supporters embarked on what proved a successful diplomatic and media campaign to ensure the United States remained right behind them.
Israel’s ambassador to Washington Michael Oren became a regular fixture on cable news channels and talk shows. Pro-Israel lobby groups such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and the Israel Project bombarded journalists with e-mails offering footage of Hamas rocket strikes and interviews with ordinary Israelis in the line of fire.
After a year of increasingly public disagreements over how to tackle Iran, relations between the Obama Administration and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government were perhaps worse than at any time in recent memory.
But the level of U.S. backing for Israel in the last week, both Israel’s supporters and independent analysts say, shows both the depth of ties between the two countries and the level of influence Israel’s supporters can exert when the country feels threatened.
Few doubt there will be differences ahead, particularly when dealing with Iran returns to the top of the agenda. But for now, Israeli officials and supporters simply say they are satisfied with the level of support received over Gaza.
“I think you’ve seen a very strong response... standing resolutely with Israel,” says Josh Block, chief executive of the Israel Project, a Washington-based pressure group that has long pushed for greater U.S. support and a tougher line against its enemies. “It’s a reminder of ... how lasting the special relationship is. This is about more than the personal ties between two leaders.”
Widely seen as having tried to nudge this year’s U.S. presidential election against Barack Obama and towards Republican challenger Mitt Romney, Netanyahu seems keen to repair relations. On Thursday, he praised Obama for his “unwavering support.”
In a CNN/ORC poll conducted over last weekend, 57 percent of Americans said they believed Israel was justified in taking military action compared to 25 percent who opposed it.
But Gaza may be almost the only issue on which the two countries genuinely and popularly agree.
Beyond differences over Iran, many Democrats in particular - as well as liberal members of the U.S. Jewish community, which makes up two percent of the total population - have expressed frustration over Israeli settlement building on the West Bank and the growing influence of Orthodox and hardline parties.
“Of course, during a war many - though by no means all - parts of American society will rally round Israel,” says Ariel Ratner, a former Obama Administration political appointee and now fellow at the Truman National Security Project. “But potential problems loom large in the future if Israel doesn’t address them.”
A spokesman for the U.N. mission of the Palestinian Authority - which administers the West Bank and lost control of Gaza to Hamas in 2007 - would not comment on U.S. media coverage of the war or the relationship between Israel and Washington.
But he said Palestinians viewed the entire Israeli campaign as a deliberate distraction from their bid for nationhood at the United Nations. “We believe they would try anything to stop this,” the spokesman said, asking not to be identified.
The United States may have been influential in urging Israeli restraint. According to Israeli officials, Obama phoned Netanyahu at the beginning of the conflict to say the United States would rather not see a ground invasion of Gaza like that during its 2008-9 war.
That may have helped avoid escalation and casualties on the scale of that war, which killed well over 1,000 people, almost all in Gaza. Israeli officials say Netanyahu always hoped to avoid another ground campaign.
Four Israeli civilians and two soldiers were killed by rocket fire from Gaza during the latest conflict. Palestinian casualties were much higher - 163, according to local officials. While Israel used a much greater tonnage of explosions than Hamas, it says it used precision munitions and went to great length to avoid collateral damage even as Hamas fired from densely populated areas.
Israel’s supporters say they have been able to use a variety of techniques - from traditional newspaper editorials to Twitter and Facebook - to get their message across.
“How people get information has changed and traditional media no longer has a monopoly,” says Israel Project’s Block. “That presents challenges and opportunities. You’ve seen Israeli officials making their case - echoing the views of most Americans - very persuasively through both social media and traditional outlets.”
Pro-Israeli groups have long used a similar approach to raise awareness of their worries over Tehran’s nuclear program, but with perhaps less success. U.S. voters might like their leader’s pro-Israeli, but there is little enthusiasm inside or outside Washington for more major wars.
“I think events in Gaza have heightened public sympathy for Israel, and that may last for some time,” says Nikolas Gvosdev, professor of national security studies at the U.S. Naval War College. “That may make it more difficult for Obama to push for concessions on the peace process with the Palestinians, but I don’t think it wins the Israelis anything on Iran.”
On one level, there seems little difference in position between those in Washington and their Israeli counterparts. Both want ever tightening sanctions and both nations have co-operated heavily on covert action to slow Tehran’s alleged nuclear development. The United States says it will not allow Tehran to reach “breakout capacity” to build a bomb, while Israel says its “red line” is the less well defined “nuclear capability.”
Israel’s repeated threats this year to take matters into its own hands and strike nuclear facilities directly, however, were seen by some, in the Obama Administration in particular, as a clear attempt to influence U.S. policy. Israeli officials say military action would only be a last resort, but a nuclear Iran would simply be too great a threat and they might simply have no choice.
More attempts to push U.S. policymakers around, however, could just be counter-productive.
“It’s important that Israelis understand the exact nature of the damage caused by Netanyahu’s involvement in the U.S. election and general treatment of Obama,” says Truman Project’s Ratner. “The real problem for Israel is that very important American constituencies, including many young people and segments of the Jewish community, the media, military and next generation of Democratic party leadership, have been disturbed by general trends in Netanyahu’s Israel.”
Reporting By Peter Apps; Editing by Claudia Parsons