US Vice President Joe Biden on Wednesday backed Israel's right to board ships bound for Gaza to prevent weapons smuggling, but said Washington remained concerned about the plight of Palestinians there.
Israeli commandos boarded a flotilla of six aid vessels trying to break Israel's three-year-old naval blockade of the Palestinian enclave on Monday. Nine activists were killed in the assault and dozens injured, including some commandos.
The United States has trod carefully in its response to the deadly raid and has not joined the international condemnation of Israel's use of force to stop the ships after its commandos were attacked as they rappelled down from helicopters.
"Israel has an absolute right to deal with its security interest," Biden said in an interview on PBS's "Charlie Rose" show, while reiterating the Obama administration's support for a transparent, impartial investigation of what happened.
The aim of the Israeli commando operation had been to seize control of the ships and escort them to Israel's Ashdod port. From there, Israeli authorities had promised to transfer the seized cargo to Hamas-controlled Gaza.
"They (Israel) have said, 'Here you go. You're in the Mediterranean. This ship -- if you divert slightly north you can unload it and we'll get the stuff into Gaza." So what's the big deal here?" Biden said.
"What's the big deal of insisting it go straight to Gaza?" he asked.
"Well, 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,'" he said, referring to Hamas, the Islamist movement which rejects interim peace terms with Israel and has regularly fired rockets into the Jewish state.
'US administration supportive of Israel's security'
But Biden said the United States also needed to "put as much pressure and as much cajoling on Israel as we can" to allow in aid shipments such as building materials.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insisted on Wednesday the blockade was necessary to keep Hamas from getting weapons. The United Nations says the blockade has led to a humanitarian crisis among the territory's 1.5 million people.
International anger over the flotilla attack has created a tough balancing act for the United States, Israel's biggest ally, as it tries to relaunch the Middle East peace process. President Barack Obama must also be mindful that the Jewish state is popular with American lawmakers and voters.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told The Washington Post that the Obama administration warned Israel's government repeatedly to use "caution and restraint" with the Gaza-bound flotilla. "We communicated with Israel through multiple channels many times regarding the flotilla," he said in a statement issued in response to a question from the Washington Post. "We emphasized caution and restraint given the anticipated presence of civilians, including American citizens."
Biden said the United States supported an Israeli investigation of the incident with international involvement, similar to South Korea's recent probe into the torpedoing of one of its warships.
The vice president also played down any suggestion of a rift between Israel and the United States. Ties between the Obama administration and Netanyahu have been strained over Israeli settlement expansion on occupied land.
"Do we have disagreements on the tactical way in which this (Israeli) government acts and some of the comments that some of the ministers of this government, the things that they say ... that we think are counter-productive, yeah, but we always have," Biden said.
But no US administration in history "has been as up-front and supportive of Israel's security as this administration," he added.
Netanyahu had been due to meet Obama for talks in Washington this week but flew home from Canada to deal with the diplomatic fallout from the commando raid. The visit had been billed as an attempt to ease tensions between the two allies.
Yitzhak Benhorin contributed to the report