Friday, June 04, 2010

After the blame game: What should the US do?

Let us begin with sticking a pin into one balloon of myth: There is no ground for claiming that the Turkish government sanctioned the whole or part of the flotilla heading towards Gaza.

On the contrary, my sources in Ankara have told me -- anonymously because it goes against the prevailing emotional state in the capital -- on more than one occasion that the organizers were “advised politely” not to take the journey. This was as much as it could have done.
It is more than obvious that it is a war of propaganda. While the sworn enemies of Israel use the massacre to pump up anti-Semitic hysteria, the other side has chosen the Humanitarian Aid Foundation (İHH) -- an Islamist charity organization -- as the real villain.

As much as the first, the latter is a deeply immoral, shameful choice. Civilian ships were violently boarded in international waters by the security forces of a state, using armed weapons, and nine people were killed. Those killed were not Israeli soldiers; all were civilians. This act of ultra-violence should by no means be watered down. States and their forces are expected to act responsibly, and Israel completely failed.

“Israel’s government and its military have now put themselves into a corner,” stated a prominent foreign minister of the EU in a conversation yesterday. “This is a very dangerous situation because the more attacked it feels, the more aggressive and desperate it may become. We must change the cycle and think of ways to solve the problem on various levels.”

As Israel’s policy of siege in Gaza now seems to have come to an end, it is obvious that the bloody incident and its aftermath may lead to a pattern of sending similar flotillas to break the Gaza blockade. This may bring the Middle East and the eastern Mediterranean to the brink of a lethal confrontation.

One of the first tasks must be to lay on the table a well-prepared proposal to open a transport line between the Port of Ashdot and Gaza, preferably under UN supervision. It would be easy to reach an international consensus since the alternative is a pattern which will anger “the cat in the corner.” If the UN can manage to set up such a mechanism for the controlled flow of aid into Gaza, it could also set the stage for lifting the blockade with the consent of all sides involved.

But, in the long term, the ball is in the White House’s court.

As Michael Young from the Daily Star (of Lebanon) writes: “As the United States watches this shipwreck, it seems helpless to prevent it and has no backup plan to defend its own aims in the region. Palestinian-Israeli peace is desirable, and President Barack Obama was right to explore ways to restart negotiations; but now is the time to reassess, events in recent days bringing home the reason why. What is Obama’s Plan B? Israel is becoming more isolated internationally by the day; America’s Arab allies, particularly Egypt and Saudi Arabia, are weaker than ever; and even the United States itself is losing its primacy in the Middle East by pursuing an elusive victory in Afghanistan and abandoning a rare success in Iraq. … If one had to wager on the shape of the region in the coming years, it would be reasonable to put money on America’s enemies. Iran, Syria, armed Islamist groups such as Hizbullah and Hamas, even American allies such as Turkey that have chosen to fundamentally overhaul their connection with Washington and Israel, are showing themselves to be far more adept at playing to Middle Eastern vicissitudes than the Obama administration. A new regional order is taking shape, and Washington is still using weapons from the old order.”

Old approach, indeed. But the fresh signs coming from Washington (as reported by The New York Times yesterday) are promising, although they are extremely cautious. It is one of those times that demand full-scale realism and what the Obama administration officials hint as a “shift of policy” (a new approach, as one official put it) may come as a product of urgency -- simply because there were civilian deaths in an unjustified act of violence.

How realistic is it, then, for Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu to demand an immediate lifting of the blockade? Well, every actor -- including those in Ankara knows -- that lifting the blockade cannot take place without persuading Israelis to sit at a table and discuss their three main concerns: the security dimension related with Hamas attacks on Israeli soil; the political dimension linked with Hamas refusing to negotiate with Israel under any circumstances; and the demand, which has been on the table for a long time, that Hamas release captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

However damaged the relations between Israel and Turkey may be, there is much room for every state involved to turn the crisis into an opportunity. The contribution of Turkey in having captive British soldiers released from Iran has been widely appreciated, and even if Ankara feels outraged over the Israeli killings and the overall brutality, it may conduct positive, pro-solution efforts through cooperation with the White House, partly because it has now gained bigger respect from Hamas, which means being a more powerful influence that may be able to help change their obstinate policies.

But let us repeat: It must be a wake-up call for Washington, and politicians there must reset their thinking about a changing region and work much harder to persuade mentally deadlocked colleagues in Israel out of the dark corner they have pushed themselves into.

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