Jun 4th 2010

When Reason is forsaken

by Alon Ben-Meir

A noted journalist and author, Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is professor of international relations and Middle East studies at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University. Ben-Meir holds a masters degree in philosophy and a doctorate in international relations from Oxford University. His exceptional knowledge and insight, the result of more than 20 years of direct involvement in foreign affairs, with a focus on the Middle East, has allowed Dr. Ben-Meir to offer a uniquely invaluable perspective on the nature of world terrorism, conflict resolution and international negotiations. Fluent in Arabic and Hebrew, Ben-Meir's frequent travels to the Middle East and meetings with highly placed officials and academics in many Middle Eastern countries including Egypt, Israel, Jordan, the Palestinian territories, Syria and Turkey provide him with an exceptionally nuanced level of awareness and insight into the developments surrounding breaking news. Ben-Meir often articulates

It is always easier to assess a situation like the Gaza flotilla fiasco in hindsight. The Israeli, Turkish and European governments and the aid organizations involved have all made a series of grave mistakes, and what we are left with are mores lives lost, no resolution to the blockade, and a tarnished image for all sides involved in this ugly predicament. But what is most disturbing, is that so many of us who have been privy to the gradual deterioration between Turkey and Israel since 2008 saw these events play out in slow motion while neither side made adequate efforts to mitigate the crisis. I personally have been to Turkey four times in 2010 alone, and in every visit I became more entrenched in trying to mend the deepening rift between Israel and Turkey in a climate of blame and political point-scoring. One month ago when the topic of Turkish aid ships breaking the Gaza blockade was being circulated among officials on both sides, there was ample time for diplomacy and sound reasoning.

Unfortunately, instead of engagement or any genuine effort to allay their conflicting positions, both Israel and Turkey assumed a zero-sum approach from which they refused to budge, knowing full well that this could only undermine what is left of their former strategic relationship. The latest tragic episode is most worrisome not merely because sound reason was forsaken, lives were lost, and the Palestinians in Gaza are no better off. Ultimately, this flare-up is distracting the international community from the most pressing issue at hand, which is how to find a cohesive policy to deal with Iran's menacing nuclear program. So at a time when coalition building and strategic partnerships are desperately needed if Israel, Turkey, the EU and Arab states would like to prevent Iran's nuclear weapon developments, myopia and political pandering has prevailed. In hindsight, no one can say they did not see this episode coming.

To date, much of what has been reported about what precipitated this terrible incident has been inaccurate at best. The diplomatic and military blunders cannot and should not be chalked up to on-the-spot actions and reactions, as both governments knew only too well that a failure to reach a diplomatic solution would bear serious consequences. All sides let their bullish doctrines guide their decisions, and have chosen to act by who is morally right or wrong versus how can the universal problem of Hamas' violence and the Palestinian civilian needs be solved pragmatically. Turkey and Israel have decided to challenge each other in brinkmanship instead of focusing on solving their conflicting positions or repairing the damage to their bilateral relations which remains essential to both sides' national security interests. This of course flies in the face of Turkey's much lauded "zero problems with neighbors" strategy and Israel's strategic relationship with Turkey as a fellow democratic ally and a bridge between East and West.

Although Turkish high officials did not participate directly in the planning of the dispatch of the flotilla, it is clear that they were entirely aware of the mission in advance and the boats, flying Turkish flags, had the support of Erdogan and the AKP government. Previously Turkey had made numerous attempts to persuade the Israelis to allow it to sail the flotilla directly to Gaza, though the contacts between the two countries were limited and did not directly involve high level officials from either sides. Concerned over the content of the cargo, Israel insisted that it would allow some of the construction materials in the cargo to go to Gaza, provided it was first inspected by Israel's security at an Israeli port. This offer was flatly rejected, as Ankara views the Israeli blockade to be unlawful and is unwilling to abide by it. The question remains though, if the purpose of this mission was to provide the Palestinians in Gaza with humanitarian aid, what difference does it make how the materials get there as long as it ends up in Gaza? Knowing categorically that Israel will not let any country or organization force its way into Gaza without consent, this mission turned from a humanitarian effort to a PR stint before leaving shores. While there is certainly the need to end to blockade of Gaza and increase the types of aid let in, political pandering, populism and a high stakes blame game all trumped the actual goal of ameliorating the conditions in Gaza. Turkey's final calculation was that whether Israel allowed the flotilla to reach its destination, or if it barred the ships to cause an international disaster, it should be a win-win situation for Turkey, who dismissed potential and unforeseen violence.

Certainly Prime Minister Erdogan's fiery rhetoric and repeated verbal assaults against Israel have made any diplomatic discourse near impossible to conduct. Mr. Erdogan could have easily listened to his advisors and prevented the flotilla from sailing, but he did not. From his perspective, challenging Israel now while riding the wind of popular support from the nuclear enrichment deal he signed with Iran and Brazil was sure to drum up some much needed political populism and support. This type of card playing is a risky game for Turkey, because for the price of the Arab and Turkish street the AK Party can forsake the political, economic and military partnerships that have defined its rise to prominence in the past decade.

The Israelis can also not claim any moral high ground in this matter. First and foremost, Israel failed to exhaust diplomatic channels and reverted to a stubborn resistance against acknowledging and dealing with what the international community sees as a serious humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Israel felt assured about the correctness of its position, however it considerably miss-assessed how determined the ships were in trying to break the blockade. Israelis claim the blockade of Gaza is legal because it is imposed on an internationally recognized terrorist organization which is sworn to its destruction. They insist that food and medicine are being provided to the Palestinians in ample supplies, and that the only way to weaken Hamas is to maintain the blockade. Israel's fixation on dealing with Hamas with an iron fist has prevented any rational discussion about the utility of the blockade, in spite of clear evidence that the blockade has failed to achieve its expressed purpose.

Furthermore, the Israeli misjudgement was compounded by a number of factors to which Israel had complete control. Israel could have insisted on conducting the inspection on international waters instead of commandeering the flotilla to an Israeli sea port. It could have conducted the interception during the day rather than under the night cover when visibility is limited, increasing the risk of accidents and miscalculation. It is also hard to imagine how an Israeli commando elite unit known for their unmatched skills could botch up a relatively simple mission. On top of this it appears that the Israeli intelligence knew little about both the cargo and the passengers on board of the ships which could have also changed the nature of the Israeli operation. Why Israel's navy seals failed to disable the last Turkish ship, the Mavi Marmara, remains a puzzle. The aid ships may have been a PR trap to draw attention to the incongruity of Israel's blockade, but Israel fell for the bait, and nine people were killed while the world watched. In this respect, Israel failed to wield the power of restraint, and no moral argument will be able to make up for this.

But to the crux of the issue, how Israel intends on putting an end to the drama and rage that the Gaza blockade has incited is yet to be seen. It does not require much political savvy to realize that the aid offers from Turkey or Qatar were politically motivated by self-interest, yet they still presented a better and more moderate offer than letting Hamas stand for the Palestinians in Gaza. Israel must decide whether the blockade has caused more damage to its international standing-at a time when it is trying to drum up support against Iran-than the presumed added security it provides. Israel simply has no long-term strategy on how to deal with Hamas. More than any of its predecessors, the Netanyahu government believes that Hamas understands only the language of force, and although force can help Israel in defence it simply cannot change ideas that come out of deep convictions. Hamas thrives by its defiance and as long as its strategy of evoking a global outcry about the suffering of the Palestinians in Gaza is succeeding, it has no incentive to change course. By its own actions, the current Israeli government has provided Hamas with the best public relations stunt. Israel should not only investigate what went wrong in the way it has intercepted the ships, thoroughly and transparently, but what strategy must be developed to bring the blockade to an end. Israel can and should work with many international bodies that are eager to be part of the solution because the next nasty episode to break the blockade is only around the corner. To simply be better militarily equipped and logistically prepared to tackle the next ship with aid, as Israeli officials have stated, is self-deceiving and dangerously counterproductive.

The world will be watching what Israel will do next. Israel may not be able to persuade Turkey to change course or its rhetoric, but this debacle is no longer about Turkey or any bilateral matter. Regardless of Turkey's position or motivations, Israel must find a solution to end the blockade on its own within the parameters of its national security requirements. And if it wants the support of its only remaining staunch ally, Israel must move with deliberation to work with the US to advance proximity talks with the Palestinians in the West Bank to show visible progress toward a two-state solution. This will not only refocus the attention on Iran which is Israel's main concern, it will also enhance the US credibility in the region and improve frayed US-Israeli relations, which remain critical to progress on all fronts.

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