Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Fallout from the Israeli flotilla raid

Israel's raid on the flotilla carrying humanitarian supplies to Gaza has further isolated Israel, probably put an to the possibility of a two-state solution with the Palestinians, and created new problems for the Obama administration's foreign policy.

Stephen Walt argues that the Gaza flotilla fiasco is another in a series of examples showing that Israel's foreign policy is strategically adrift. He puts it as the third in a series of notable setbacks, the Lebanon War of 2006 being one and the bombardment of Gaza in 2008-9 during the weeks leading up to Obama's inauguration the other. "None of these actions achieved its strategic objective; indeed, all of them are just more evidence of the steady deterioration in Israel's strategic thinking that we have witnessed since 1967." (Israel's latest brutal blunder Foreign Policy 05/31/2010)

Egypt has opened trade to Gaza through the Rafah crossing which it controls. But, as Juan Cole explains, this is almost certain to be temporary: "Were Egypt to defy Israel’s blockade for a long period of time or let in forbidden materials, the Israelis would almost certainly just bomb the entrance." (Eyewitnesses Confirm Israeli Gunplay; Egypt’s lifting of the Blockade likely Temporary Informed Comment 06/02/2010)

Craig Murray points out something that could turn out to be a serious complication of the attack, not least for the United States. Israel mounted an armed assault on a ship flying the Turkish flag in international waters. Murray writes (The Legal Position on the Israeli Attack 05/31/2010):

To attack a foreign flagged vessel in international waters is illegal. It is not piracy, as the Israeli vessels carried a military commission. It is rather an act of illegal warfare.

... In legal terms, the Turkish ship was Turkish territory.
So far as I've seen, Turkey is not threatening military retaliation or demanding that Israel hand over the commandos responsible for prosecution in Turkey. But it's certainly a possibility that Turkey will support another attempt to deliver goods to Gaza on a Turkish-flagged ship and provide it an armed escort while in international waters. On the conciliatory side, Turkey has also publicly indicated that they would normalize relations with Israel if Israel lifts the current Gaza blockade.

Turkey is formally an ally of the United States through the NATO Treaty. Israel is not. Even though senior American officials routinely describe the unbreakable bond between Israel and the United States, Israel has consistently refused American offers to conclude a formal defense treaty. Because a defense treaty would have to specify the borders being defended, and that would complicate Israel's annexation options.

Some Turkish politicians are suggesting there may be a link between an attack on a Turkish naval base by the Kurdish-separatist group the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Israeli assault on the Turkish flag flotilla ship. The two events fell within a couple of hours of each other. (Similarities between PKK, Israel attacks raise suspicions Today's Zaman 06/02/2010) I can't really judge how credible that is. I'm unfamiliar with Israel's history with the PKK. Given Israel's good relations with Turkey the last 20 years, it sounds unlikely on the face of it.

The United States agreed to UN Security Council language in their resolution about the flotilla incident that was harsher than most language criticizing Israel that the US has supported in the UN in recent memory. But the Obama administration's initial reaction indicates that they prefer to just sweep the incident out of sight as quickly as possible. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton elaborated on the US position:

We support, in the strongest terms, the Security Council's call for a prompt, impartial, credible, and transparent investigation.

We support an Israeli investigation that meets those criteria. We are open to different ways of assuring a credible investigation, including international participation. The situation, from our perspective, is very difficult and requires careful, thoughtful responses from all concerned. [my emphasis]
It's hard to imagine that any official investigation that the Benjamin Netanyahu/Avigdor Lieberman government would support would come to any conclusion other than one that completely exonerates the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) from any meaningful wrongdoing.

Barak Ravid reports in UN Human Rights Council to probe Gaza flotilla raid Haaretz 02.06.2010:

The United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva decided Wednesday to dispatch an international committee to Israel to investigate the circumstances surrounding the Israel Navy's deadly raid on a Gaza-bound humanitarian aid flotilla earlier this week.

The resolution was passed by a majority vote of 32-3 with nine absentions [sic]. The United States voted against, along with Norway and Italy, while other European Union states abstained, as did Japan.

The draft resolution, sponsored by Arab states, harshly condemns Israel and says Israel violated international law when it took over the ships in the middle of the ocean. The resolution also calls on Israel to lift the blockade on Gaza and to supply immediate humanitarian aid to Gaza, in the forms of food, gas, and medications. ...

EU countries said they had tried to insert language would would have allowed them to vote yes, but the negotiations did not bear fruit.

The Netherlands said the rights council should not go beyond the decision of the UN Security Council from earlier in the week, which condemned the "acts" that lead to the deaths in the raid and called for a "credible and transparent" investigation, without imposing the nature of the inquiry. [my emphasis]
The official position of Netanyahu government on the flotilla raid is almost a caricature of heavy-handed propaganda, absurdly portraying the highly-trained, heavily-armed Israeli commandos who staged the night raid on the ships in international waters as acting defensively in the face of a deadly menace (Barak: In the Middle East, there is no mercy for the weak Haaretz 02.06.2010):

Defense Minister Ehud Barak visited the Shayetet 13 base in Atlit on Wednesday and praised the commandos who participated in the deadly raid on the Gaza-bound aid flotilla on Monday for carrying out their mission, Army Radio reported.

"You carried out the mission and prevented the flotilla from reaching Gaza," Barak said. "We need to always remember that we aren't North America or Western Europe, we live in the Middle East, in a place where there is no mercy for the weak and there aren't second chances for those who don't defend themselves. You were fighting for your lives – I saw it, and I heard it from your commanders."
Yehezkel Dror argues that the Israeli national-security policymaking process itself functions in a way that tends to produce self-destructive decisions, in Our primitive policy-making Haaretz 02.06.2010.

David Rothkopf makes a related point in The Existential threat in the mirror: Regarding the Gaza flotilla debacle, the facts don't matter Foreign Policy 06/01/2010. Rothkopf defends the Gaza blockade itself and specifically the flotilla raid of early Monday. But, he argues, "Isolating Gaza may provide some security benefits to Israel but in the end, as this incident demonstrates, it has created even greater risks." And he concludes:

From the unnecessary and destructive settlements policy to its blundering into severely degraded relations with the United States and the world, Netanyahu is the face of a country that increasingly unable to show its face anywhere internationally without provoking contempt. Admittedly, he is only partially an author of the problems he faces. Circumstances and dedicated opponents who are seen by most of the world to be advancing legitimate human rights concerns are even more important co-authors. But absent one of the great about-faces in the history of recent global affairs, it is reasonable to ask whether it is only through the departure of the current prime minister that the Israelis will be able to regroup and actually positively influence their own destiny.

For Netanyahu and for Israel, this weekend's tragedy is therefore a turning point. It doesn't matter whether it is being misunderstood. It doesn't matter whether it was a set up. It doesn't matter what the facts are. Israel, born at a disadvantage and vigorously playing defense ever since, is now on its heels. The next few years will see it lose ground demographically, diplomatically and literally. Whether after all that what is left actually is secure and sustainable will depend on decisions about how it wishes to present itself during the months ahead -- decisions that must necessarily involve reversals of Netanyahu policies regarding settlements, Gaza and confusing self-destruction for self-defense. [my emphasis]
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