WASHINGTON -- The White House has refused to condemn an Israeli raid on an aid flotilla that was headed for Gaza, choosing instead to stand behind a negotiated statement from the United Nation's Security Council that leaves the question of blame ambiguous.
In the most extensive comments yet by an administration official, U.S. Secretary Hillary Clinton on June 1 underscored the delicate position Washington finds itself in, calling the situation "very difficult" and urging a "careful, thoughtful response" to the incident.
Turkey is a key strategic ally of the United States and is valued as a Muslim country with a secular government that serves as a bulwark against the spread of radical Islam.
The deep bond between the U.S. and Israel is hard to overstate. Much of the world sees the two countries as inexorably, and inevitably, linked.
Clinton tried to reassure both governments with words seemingly aimed at buying time to avert a full blown diplomatic crisis. "Turkey and Israel are both good friends of the United States,” she said, “and we are working with both to deal with the aftermath of this tragic incident."
The statement adopted by the Security Council calls for an "impartial" and "transparent investigation" into the raid by Israeli Defense Forces that led to the deaths of nine civilians - at least four of whom were Turkish -- and the wounding of dozens more.
The formal statement was milder than that sought by Turkey -- who owned the ship -- the Palestinians, and Arab states. It condemned "those acts" which resulted in the loss of life and called for a prompt and impartial investigation of what happened.
Clinton said the United States "supports the Security Council's condemnation of the acts leading to this tragedy."
"We support, in the strongest terms, the Security Council's call for a prompt, impartial, credible and transparent investigation,” she said. “We support an Israeli investigation that meets those criteria. We are open to different ways of assuring a credible investigation, including international participation. And we will continue to discuss these ideas with the Israelis and our international partners in the days ahead."
The deaths occurred amid fighting between pro-Palestinian activists and Israeli commandoes who landed on the decks of the lead ship in the convoy. Both sides blame the other for starting the fighting.
Reports say Turkey and the United States argued at length over wording which would have implied that Israel alone was responsible for the deaths, or wording which suggested that the activists also bore some responsibility. In the event, the United States prevailed.
Turkey is particularly aggrieved. Its foreign ministry today confirmed that four of the nine dead are Turkish citizens. Of the 682 people from 42 countries aboard the six ships that were towed to an Israeli port, 380 are Turkish.
The statement as adopted said the Security Council "requests" the immediate release of the ships as well as the civilians held by Israel," a position that was endorsed today by Clinton and NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmusson.
The council also urged Israel to permit full consular access, to allow the countries concerned to retrieve their deceased and wounded immediately, and to ensure the delivery of humanitarian assistance from the convoy to its destination, namely Gaza.
In remarks to the council, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu used the strongest language to condemn the Israeli commando raid on the convoy in international waters.
"This is tantamount to banditry and piracy,” he said. “It is murder conducted by a state. It has no excuses, no justification whatsoever. A nation-state that follows this path has lost its legitimacy as a respectful member of the international community."
Israeli Deputy Ambassador Daniel Carmon shot back by defending the legitimacy of the raid, and questioning the credentials of the activists on board.
"What kind of peace activists use knives, clubs, fire from weapons stolen from soldiers and other weapons to attack soldiers who board a ship in accordance with international law?" he asked. "What kind of humanitarian activists -- some with known terrorist history -- embrace Hamas, a terrorist organization that openly shuns a two-state solution and calls for Israel's destruction?"
But the tide of opinion appeared to be running against Israel at the meeting. British Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant said there was "an unambiguous need for Israel to act with restraint and in line with its international obligations. Given the number of casualties in this incident, Israel now bears a responsibility to provide a full account of what occurred, what efforts were made to minimize the loss of life, and why the death toll was so high."
Grant also called the situation in Gaza, which has been under an Israeli blockade for almost four years, "intolerable and unsustainable."
Clinton echoed those words, and stressed the need for a "two state solution negotiated between the parties.”
"The situation in Gaza is unsustainable and unacceptable,” she said. “Israel's legitimate security needs must be met, just as the Palestinian's legitimate needs for sustained humanitarian assistance and regular access for reconstruction and materials must also be assured."
Clinton also met with Turkish Foreign Minister Davutoglu on June 1, who, before he sat down with Obama's top diplomat said Ankara was disappointed with the White House response.
"I have to be frank," he said. "I am not very happy with this statement from Washington ... We expect a clear condemnation."
On June 1, as news of the incident spread and world leaders -- including all 27 EU heads -- condemned Israel for using excessive force, President Barack Obama only expressed "deep regret" over the incident.
The White House said it wanted to "learn all the facts and circumstances" surrounding what happened.