The IDF takeover of the Turkish humanitarian flotilla has shaken everything up. Israel finds itself blockaded too: an unprecedented international diplomatic siege. An apparently local incident lacking any military or political importance has turned into an entanglement of far-reaching strategic significance. Turkey, Israel’s loyal regional ally for the past 60 years, darling of the West, has switched sides – friend to enemy – becoming the radical Arab camp’s most prominent spokesperson, supporter of Hamas, and proponent of the legitimacy of Hamas’ hold on the Gaza Strip.
But Turkey’s policy turnaround is hardly motivated by Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. After all, the occupation and the serious violation of human rights in the territories have been going on for over forty years and never stopped Turkey from developing warm relations with Israel. The main reason for Turkey’s policy change is that its extensive efforts to get into the EU came to nothing. Europe, it seems, doesn’t like Moslems and prefers to maintain its Christian character. That’s why Turkey has rediscovered the magic of the Orient, and the economic benefits of maintaining a “good neighbor” policy with the states around it. Turkey became a major regional player while Israel continued to regard it as a bit-player supporting the moderate camp against the radical camp, led by Iran: this is an intelligence failure on the part of Israel that merits investigation in its own right.
However, regardless of the reasons behind Turkey’s about-face, the West can certainly point an accusing finger at Israel: its behavior accelerated processes that could otherwise have been controlled, prodding Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to take a more extreme position. Israel has become a convenient punch-bag. The world is sick of the checkpoint photos, the separation “fence” and the Gaza blockade. These things do not look good. They bring to mind actions by other despotic regimes which have disappeared from the world stage, such as the Apartheid regime in South Africa. The world no longer believes Israel; there is a growing feeling that it is the victim of its own intransigence. After it failed to take concrete steps to promote the peace process, all its “security” excuses no longer convince.
From Israel’s point of view, the main culprit for this sorry state of affairs is US President Barack Obama. Since his Cairo speech of June 2009, Israel has been on the defensive. Eight years of the Bush administration left the US in financial straits and its military mired in Iraq and Afghanistan. To extricate the US from this mess, Obama had to change his country’s anti-Arab policies, and Israel was told to do its part. America’s standing in the region deteriorated, while Iran and the radical bloc gained strength. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict became a popular topic in the Arab street. Al-Jazeera leads Arab public opinion against the US and Israel, turning the occupation into the litmus test of US Middle East policy. Indeed, the occupation has become the breach through which radical elements infiltrate into the regional arena.
Exacerbating Obama’s problems is the fact that, at the time he was elected, Israel set up a rightwing coalition. This includes the Labor Party, whose central tenet is: “There is no partner.” Two former prime ministers, Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, paid a high political price in the past and lost power because of the gestures they were compelled to make to the Palestinian Authority – the first at Wye in 1998 and the second at Camp David in 2000. Today Netanyahu is again prime minister and Barak defense minister, and both are bound by the same belief – there’s nobody to talk to, and any attempt to negotiate towards a permanent agreement with the Palestinians will cause the government’s immediate downfall. Thus all US attempts to cause a change in the government’s position have failed. The relations between the two countries are in crisis and have run aground again and again – from frosty White House receptions to being left alone to deal with the barrage of international condemnation and demands.
Until recently Netanyahu followed a policy of sitting tight. Obama had his own worries – troops struggling in the Afghan deserts, the continuing economic crisis, and the ecological disaster off the coast of Florida have reduced his popularity to a record low. The possibility that the November elections would end the Democrat majority in Congress encouraged Netanyahu. The prime minister was sure that the weaker Obama became, the more his own position would improve. But then came the flotilla, showing that Obama’s loss is not necessarily Netanyahu’s gain. If Obama had backed Israel to the hilt, Erdogan would have thought twice before coming out so vehemently in support of the flotilla.
Reality reminded Netanyahu of the lesson that all Israeli prime ministers learn: the need for total coordination with the US. The denunciation of Israel after the IDF’s lethal raid on the flotilla fell like ripe fruit into Obama’s hands, and he used it with great skill. First, a meeting with Netanyahu, which was supposed to sort out their disagreements, was postponed; second, Obama gave the green light to demands for a commission of enquiry with the participation of international observers; and of course he backed EU demands to ease the blockade on Gaza. The lines were clear: a committee must be formed, and the easing of the blockade must lead to changes in the coalition. Netanyahu must pay the political price, and his time is up. It doesn’t matter what the Congressional election results will be – Netanyahu can’t wriggle out of this one.
Thus it is possible to make sense of the Haaretz headline from June 16: “Barak puts pressure on Netanyahu: Only a courageous policy will save Israel from isolation.” This came close to the news about Israel’s agreement with the EU regarding easing the blockade. And the penny dropped. Barak is already paying a political price as members of his party grant him just a few months to reach an understanding with Netanyahu about changes to the coalition. But in Israel, everyone knows that when Barak talks of courageous plans, we should be worried. All his “courageous” acts have led to disaster. He unilaterally withdrew from Lebanon and we got the second Lebanon war. He offered a courageous plan at Camp David and we got the second Intifada. He took off with Operation Cast Lead against the Gaza Strip and we got the so-called Goldstone report. He joined a rightwing coalition with Netanyahu to save him from having to partner with Kadima, and we got international isolation. And now he’s brewing up another courageous plan to get us out of the hole we needn’t have fallen into in the first place.
The flotilla affair nonetheless had consequences and Israel learned some lessons. The Israeli government must rehabilitate relations with the US and achieve full coordination – then it will once again be able to thumb its nose at the rest of the world. We may yet see changes to the coalition, or even direct talks with the Palestinian Authority. Though the Gaza blockade failed in its aim of causing the downfall of Hamas, and in fact boomeranged against Israel, the goal remains: Hamas, in Israel’s eyes, is a hostile entity that must be removed. Israel can count on a wide consensus in Europe, the US, Egypt and the PA that no negotiations with Hamas will be possible as long as it does not recognize the Oslo Accords. And who can tell? – If there is a change to the coalition in Israel, even Erdogan may be appeased.
But such a coalition change will not solve everything, as Obama may think. The addition of Kadima leader Tzipi Livni to the coalition will not solve his problems in Afghanistan and Iraq, and there is no guarantee that it will strengthen Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen). The problem does not lie in the makeup of the coalition, but in what Israel is able to offer. Barak’s “courage” amounts to no more than withdrawal from parts of the West Bank and annexation of the main settlement areas; granting of limited Palestinian sovereignty to the areas transferred to the PA; US supervision of Palestinian police in coordination with Israel; complete Israeli control of sea and air space; and complete Palestinian economic dependence on Israel. Since the separation “fence” continues to divide Palestinians from Israel, the current hell will merely continue with a stamp of approval.
Any future peace agreement will be just like its predecessors: it will circumvent core issues, ensure Israel’s continued hegemony and – as a result – will blow up at the first opportunity. The face of the US peace plan is like the face of the commission of enquiry into the flotilla debacle – it serves only to whitewash, it has no teeth, and its main purpose is to satisfy the world. The Palestinian people, like all people in the Middle East, from Iraq to Afghanistan, is waiting for fundamental change in the US and the West, and not for all kinds of plots intended to retain doubtful leaders such as Hamid Karzai, Iyad Allawi and Abu Mazen in positions of power. Radical Islam will also come to an end when these nations break the bonds of servitude and occupation and obtain freedom, but such a development, sadly, is not going to happen soon.