A Defining Moment in American-Israeli Relations

by Alon Ben-Meir Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies. Email: Web: www.alonben-meir.com 10.06.2010

Regardless of the intended purposes of Israel's blockade on Gaza, the tragic incident surrounding the flotilla has brought the blockade into international focus, and Israel will find itself under increasing pressure from foes and friends alike to lift the blockade in the coming weeks. Although Israel has legitimate security reasons to maintain the blockade, to prevent certain materials-including weapons-from entering Gaza, that should not preclude finding an alternative arrangement that can still satisfy Israel's security concerns. The tragic events on the flotilla should serve as a catalyst for Israel, Turkey and the US to change the regional political environment for the better before the conflict and the region's rising tensions spin out of control.

Israel must do what best serves its national security interests, but at this point it is necessary to take a much wider view of those interests because the prospect of regional instability is forcing other players, such as the leading Arab Sunni states, to reassess their position, especially in the wake of the growing Iranian nuclear threat. Add to this is the uncertainty about Iraq's future stability and how the brewing Israeli-Lebanese tension might play out. Since the Gaza incursion in 2008, Israel has had ample opportunities to demonstrate a gesture for peace, ease the blockade, and show that it rewards non-violence. Yet little progress has been made by the Netanyahu government, and unfortunately Israel now has less maneuvering room and faces mounting pressure to act. To prevent a continuation of this downward spiral, there is no better time for Israel than now to take the lead, demonstrate creativity and take a number of steps which could change the dynamics without being apologetic.

To start with, Israel must waste no time to expand its own inquiry into the tragic flotilla events by inviting other international investigators to join the Israeli team. As it has been said time and again, the investigation must be credible, thorough, transparent and comprehensive. To do this, Israel should invite the United States and Turkey along with EU representatives to take part in the investigation. Israel should have nothing to hide, but even if it's military is found responsible of terrible negligence leading to the death of nine Turks, there is no better way to settle the matter than through such a multinational investigation, while leaving no doubt about the integrity of the inquiry. An investigation with Turkish participation could, at a minimum, offer the hope that the arduous process of reconciling Israeli-Turkish relations could begin sooner rather than later. The investigation will also make public the nature of the conditions in Gaza, which have been distorted by all sides. In the final analysis, it is up to Israel to demonstrate that political pandering has been at play by those self-described champions of the Palestinian cause, but that can be proven only if Israel shares with outside powers the true picture about and inside Gaza.

Next, Israel must take the lead in demonstrating that the blockade was not arbitrary, and regardless of its effectiveness, Israel is willing to lift it as long as its legitimate security requirements are fully met. Israel must work closely with the United States and select European nations, such as Germany and France, along with Egypt and Turkey, to find a way to end the blockade while making absolutely certain that any and all construction materials are used strictly for civilian purposes. The Obama administration could spearhead the creation of such a monitoring group that Israel can trust. This will also allow the monitors to have a much better sense about Hamas' internal operations and may in fact reduce rather than increase Hamas' militancy. Whether or not Hamas accepts the new arrangement, Israel will succeed in internationalizing the Gaza burden, rather than own it lock, stock and barrel. Under any circumstances, Israel must develop a new strategy to deal with Hamas. The present situation is not only unsustainable, but extraordinarily volatile and dangerous. The current policy does nothing but play into Iran's hand. To be sure, the blockade has run its course and become a major liability to Israel's international standing, rather than an asset from which the Israelis might still realize some future gains.

Whereas the first two measures are critical and require immediate attention, Israel must also move deliberately to make significant progress with the Palestinian Authority in the proximity talks. The Obama administration has invested heavily in its effort to restart the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Although Israel must under any circumstances make some important concessions to move the peace process forward, making such concessions now is particularly important because this can achieve a number of Israeli and American objectives.

Other than help mending Israel's strained relations with its most critical ally, it would also enhance America's credibility in the region, especially following the initial failures. A discernable progress would also shift from proximity talks to direct negotiations--something that the Netanyahu government seeks-and encourage the Saudis and other Arab states to be more openly supportive of the US and Israeli efforts in dealing with Iran.

It has now become increasingly evident that the Israeli-Turkish crisis over the tragic flotilla affair was driven by political ambitions, rather than by human compassion to provide the Palestinians with more humanitarian aid. Turkey must demonstrate that it really cares about the Palestinians rather than using their plight for domestic political gains, all which could have averted the Flotilla crisis. Turkey--who seeks to assume regional leadership--must too play a more constructive and responsible role. What happened on the decks of the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara was not murder or massacre as some Turkish officials have portrayed it, and it certainly was not "state terrorism" as Mr. Erdogan most regretfully characterizes it. To describe the tragic death in these terms simply further aggravates the already tenuous relations between the two countries and pushes them to the brink of crisis at a time of extraordinary regional volatility. This is a development that serves neither Israel's nor Turkey's ultimate strategic interests.

It is abundantly clear that the situation in the Middle East is becoming increasingly more dangerous. Iran is speeding toward acquiring nuclear weapons, the tension between Israel and Hezbollah is rising, Syria is assuming a steadily more aggressive posture toward Israel and Hamas is riding high on the waves of the flotilla disaster. The room for miscalculation is forever present, and any small incident could trigger a regional conflagration. Israel must work closely with the United States to change the equation for the better. This is the moment that will define American-Israeli relations for decades to come.

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