Reporting from Washington — — The lethal Israeli commando raid that brought worldwide condemnation down on the Netanyahu government this week was also a reminder to President Obama of just how tough it is to be Israel's best friend.
The raid, which killed nine pro-Palestinian activists on a relief ship headed for the Gaza Strip, has thrown U.S.-led peace talks into doubt and threatened the American-backed push for new U.N. Security Council sanctions against Iran.
It was only the latest example of how the relationship has complicated the president's larger foreign policy agenda.
"The costs of alignment with Israel are becoming ever more apparent, and the benefits are becoming harder to identify," said James Dobbins, who was an envoy for both the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations and now heads Rand Corp.'s International Security and Defense Policy Center.
Obama began his presidency with an abrupt break from the foreign policy approach of his predecessor, Bush, and traveled the world on a mission to reestablish U.S. credibility.
The president won points for reaching out to Muslims through a major speech in Cairo last year as he sought to neutralize anti-U.S. sentiment stemming in large part from the Iraq war. But anger has continued to simmer because of U.S. support for the Israeli incursion into Gaza that began in late 2008.
This week's raid underscored concern expressed in recent congressional testimony by Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, head of U.S. forces in the Middle East, who said perceived U.S. bias toward the Jewish state was a negative factor in the Muslim world.
As international outrage mounted over the incident and the restrained U.S. response, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called Tuesday for "careful, thoughtful responses from all concerned."
The Gaza relief flotilla embarked from Turkey, where leaders expressed anger about the American response. Turkey's foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, who is in the United States on an official visit, compared the Israeli raid to the Sept. 11 attacks.
"We expect the United States to show solidarity with us," he said at a breakfast in Washington.
Turkey is a NATO member and has been important to U.S. military efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
U.S. officials have acknowledged that Obama is uncomfortable with the continuing blockade of Gaza, which has been a source of growing international outrage. Obama has appealed repeatedly to Israeli officials to relieve the suffering.
But he has also been receptive to Israeli arguments that their security would be at risk if rearmed Hamas militants began launching rockets from Gaza into Israeli territory.
Although the U.S. is officially part of a diplomatic team known as the quartet that is working to promote Arab-Israeli peace efforts, many diplomats consider the Americans the only significant member of the group. Joschka Fischer, a former German foreign minister, once joked that it was really a quartet "minus three" because the U.S. has more influence than the other members: the United Nations, the European Union and Russia.
The awkwardness of the U.S.-Israeli relationship was clear even in the administration's top-priority agenda for reducing nuclear arsenals and halting nuclear proliferation.
In meetings last month at the United Nations, U.S. officials desperately pushed for adoption of a final statement voicing strong support for steps to scale back nuclear weapons.
But other countries demanded that Israel take a more active role in the effort to reduce nuclear arms, a reference to the atomic arsenal Israel has never acknowledged possessing. Israel is not a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
U.S. officials didn't want Israel singled out, but they also did not want the nonproliferation effort to falter. In the end, U.S. officials agreed to a single mention of Israel in the document: the need for Israel to join the treaty.
U.S. officials say they do not view their relationship with Israel as a burden, regardless of criticism from the Middle East, Europe or elsewhere.
"Let me be clear here," White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said Tuesday. "We have a trusted relationship. They're an important ally. And we are greatly supportive of their security. That's not going to change."
Times staff writer Christi Parsons contributed to this report.