Biden defends Israel on flotilla raid

WASHINGTON (JTA) — U.S. Vice President Joe Biden defended Israel’s handling of the raid on a Gaza aid flotilla, departing from the Obama administration’s approach.

Biden said Israel has an “absolute right” to defend its security interests, according to a transcript Politico obtained of an interview that was to be broadcast June 2 on the “Charlie Rose” show on Bloomberg TV.

“It’s legitimate for Israel to say, ‘I don’t know what’s on that ship. These guys are dropping eight — 3,000 rockets on my people,” Biden said.

The flotilla of six ships, loaded with assistance for the Gaza Strip’s 1.5 million residents and aimed at breaching Israel’s blockade of the strip, was organized in part by a Turkish group that has ties to Hamas, the terrorist group that controls Gaza.

Israel’s raid before dawn May 31 on the largest ship ended in bloodshed  when passengers clashed with Israeli commandos. Nine passengers were killed, reportedly all Turks, and seven Israeli soldiers were injured. Israeli troops boarded and commandeered the five smaller ships without incident.

Biden repeated the Obama administration’s position that Israel should ease the Gaza blockade for humanitarian reasons, and should investigate the incident. He also emphasized that he understood Israeli concerns.

“As we put pressure, and the world put pressure on Israel to let material go into Gaza to help those people who are suffering, the ordinary Palestinians there, what happened?” he asked. “Hamas would confiscate it, put it in a warehouse, sell it.”

Biden’s defense of Israel differed in tone from other Obama administration statements, which reserved comment until an investigation uncovers the facts.

Some pro-Israel groups had said they have appreciated the Obama administration’s efforts to protect Israel from condemnation in international forums but were also seeking a specific defense of Israel’s actions of the kind Biden delivered.

President Obama’s wait-and-see posture was reflected in a short statement issued by Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives: “I regret the loss of life and look forward to learning the facts from a credible and transparent investigation. This event underscores the urgent need for negotiations designed to achieve an enduring and comprehensive regional peace.”

In earlier remarks on a conference call with bloggers, Pelosi refused to codemn Israel’s blockade, and reaffirmed America’s “close friendship” with Israel.

“We all — many of us here — are striving for a two-state solution,” she told bloggers in a call reported by The Huffington Post. “But it has to be a solution where there is security for both sides. And hopefully President Obama will be able to use his good offices to achieve such a goal that has been bipartisan in support in Congress. But again, I believe that the specialness of our relationship with Israel has as much to do with our own national security as it does with theirs.”

Pelosi’s deputy, House Majority Leader Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), defended Israel in his statement and said the administration and Congress would protect Israel from condemnation by the U.N. Security Council.

Republican leaders also defended Israel. “The United States stands with Jerusalem in its effort to ensure the safety and security of its citizenry,” said Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the minority whip in the House. “We can’t forget why the blockade exists in the first place: to deny Hamas the weaponry and raw materials it needs to continue its rocket attacks in Israel, killing innocent people.”

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee welcomed the statements from Biden, Hoyer and Cantor.

“Vice President Joe Biden, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and GOP Whip Eric Cantor have it right,” AIPAC spokesman Josh Block said in a statement.  “The United States stands shoulder to shoulder with Israel and simply will not allow Israel to be isolated and falsely accused.”