The Geopolitics of Israel vs. Flotilla

So given that it’s the only game in town, let’s start provocative? The only group who behaved rationally are the Israeli commandos and the Americans. And perhaps the Turkish government.

The Israeli position on the Gaza blockade is understandable (which is not to say optimal). The Palestinians elected Hamas, a militant group to Israel that lobs rockets at them and talks of driving it into the sea – as well as being seen as a defender of and social services provider to the Palestinian people, which accounts for its domestic popularity. Israel is caught between a rock and a hard place. How to dislodge Hamas from power? And how to appease the settler and nationalist lobbies? And do it without attracting (too much) international opprobrium. Some kind of blockade begins to seem like an eminently reasonable idea.

Maintaining this blockade required that it be credibly enforced. By international conventions on the laws of the seas, Israel was well within her rights to conduct a stop and search on the flotilla prior to its embarkation to Gaza. But how stupid do you have to be to do this as an armed boarding in international waters? Now even lawyers can’t defend you, only ideologues are left.

Some of the peace activists and so forth on the ship were idealists, but a large number were clearly fanatics. Sorry, but if you bring knives and iron bars to a gunfight with IDF commandos, you richly deserve your Darwin’s Award. The reaction of the commandos was understandable – it was fire or be lynched. But the blowback, in this age of live Internet feeds and Facebook and Twitter, was both inevitable and inevitably against Israel’s interests. Europeans already hold negative opinions on Israel and need little cause to be reinforced in their views of its badness, and even sentiment in the US may shift towards a plague-on-both-your-houses position.

So Israel screwed up from the get go. Real story – bunch of angry young men attacked IDF soldiers who were reluctant to fire, but eventually had to in order to avoid getting killed. Media story – Israeli pirates assaulted and murdered 9 good-meaning civilians and confiscated their property. Mission accomplished for the anti-Israel propagandists. Total fail for the IDF.

True, they’re somewhat responsive – the IDF spokesperson is busy on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, disseminating material like this video. But even their efforts seem to be subpar, even ham-fisted. Said video purports to show “Weapons Found on the Flotilla Ship Mavi Marmara Used by Activists Against IDF Soldiers”. But if you have a look at it, the only weapons there seem appear to be things like hammers and knifes and machetes and the like – not exactly national security threats to Israel. I mean really, Israel, you’ve seized the boats. What’s so hard about simply “discovering” crates packed full of assault weapons and explosives on the ship? The “Freedom Flotilla” propagandists aren’t afraid to play dirty with information; why can’t you be at least equally ruthless about it?

The United States is stuck in a bind. Israel is a vital geopolitical ally, its bridgehead to the oil-rich Middle East. It can’t throw it down the river. But nor can it really defend it too vigorously, since other allies and semi-allies – the Europeans and Turks – have condemned the action. Hence Obama’s position of ambiguity on the issue is understandable, and the least politically damaging of all possible actions. (It also happens to be the most truthful position).

Finally, the one clear winner in this mess is Turkey. First, using the people on the flotilla as its pawns, Turkey massively raised its prestige in the Muslim world by portraying itself as a defender of the Palestinians (and taking this mantle from regional competitor Iran). Of course, the Turkish state couldn’t care less for the Palestinians or human rights – as is true of every single other Middle East state – but it does care for its image amongst the Arabs, especially given that European rejection and Russian reassertion in the Caucasus has left the Fertile Crescent as its only remaining path for expansion in the near future.

Second, this has given Turkey a convenient excuse to freeze relations with Israel, with loud proclamations about Israeli barbarism, the ordering of Israelis out of Turkey, the cancelling of joint military exercises, and talk of providing the next aid with a military escort. But beneath the surface, things remain more placid – for instance, Turkey still expects Israel to deliver drones. And this attitude is not surprising, since the balance of power between Turkey and Israel has shifted to the former since the end of the Cold War.

During the 1960′s-70′s, Turkey had to contend with a powerful Soviet Union and its high armed client regimes in Syria and Iraq; a close relationship with Israel made manifest sense for both. But the Syrian military is now a shadow of its former self; Iraq is a non-player; and Turkey has reached a temporary accommodation with Russia, freeing itself to pursue its interests in a neo-Ottoman direction. Hence, unshackling itself from being associated to the West or to Israel is important to the success of Turkey’s larger geopolitical ambitions to becoming a hegemon in the Near East (a trend which must bring some disquiet to Israeli strategists).

Comments

  1. Anatoly,

    I have a column (sort of) about this issue in INOSMI tomorrow, but I just wanted to outline some areas of disagreement I have with your analysis here

    1) The Obama administration’s reaction has been anything but “evenhanded” (perhaps it’s evenhanded in comparison to the fanatical Israel-loyalty demonstrated by Bush, but that’s not a very good comparison is it?). Pretty much every other country in the world was expressing 11 on a scale of 10 diplomatic outrage, while the United States was studiously working to shelter Israel from any harsh censure or condemnation at the UN.
    2) I don’t think I would attribute this trip solely to “Turkey” or the Turkish state. Surely there are some people, perhaps even a great number, in Turkey who actually do care for the Palestinians. Yes politicians use this issue cynically, they use every issue cynically since it’s basically their job, but the Palestinian issue has a real street-level resonance in the Middle East that few others do.
    3) I don’t think the Israeli commandos were nearly as “reluctant” to fire as you think. The one US citizen who was killed had four gunshot wounds TO THE HEAD. That does not suggest, to me at least, that the soldiers were taking any special effort to avoid using lethal force.
    4) Do you really think that Israel is actually a “bridgehead” for the US in the Middle East? I think even the head of the Mossad now admits that Israel is something of a “burden” on the US. Maybe this burden is worth bearing, maybe not, but it seems pretty hard to argue that the US gets anything significant out of the relationship

    • Looking forwards to your point of view. In response to your disagreements:

      Re-1) Condemnatory rhetoric is cheap. The US faces a challenging act in balancing its relations with Turkey and Israel and the wider world, unlike the other countries whose words don’t carry anywhere near as much consequence. But there’s some signs that the US is considering a major shift in its position towards Israel…
      Re-2) I agree. People are far more emotional than politicians, and the flotilla was a civic project albeit with plenty of Turkish state endorsement. My main point with this post was really to try to clear away much of the moralistic BS in which people scream about how right the Turks are to be outraged at piratical Israel, etc. True enough for ordinary Turks or the “Arab street”, but not really the calculus by which states operate.
      Re-3) I’m not sure they had any choice. “Pray and spray” is not what professionals do, while going for non-vital areas may have only enraged the crowd further. I don’t know, none of us were in their shoes. But these are well-trained guys and I’m fairly certain that “Let’s go and gruesomely kill these hippie losers so everyone knows how badass we are” wasn’t at the top of their thought processes. The commandos were put into a very sticky situation by Israeli bureaucratic incompetence, which is where the real blame resides IMO.
      Re-4) The head of Mossad realizes that the US looks out for its own interests and should the advantages of its patronage of Israel begin to be outweighed by the disadvantages it will be cast aside. I think his words should be interpreted as a warning to Israel’s political elites that their present isolationist course is dangerous and unsustainable – not as an admission that the negatives outweigh the positives for the US (which I do not think is the case even now).

      • Doug M. says:

        ‘“Pray and spray” is not what professionals do, while going for non-vital areas may have only enraged the crowd further… these are well-trained guys’

        Actually, the Israelis’ own reports claim that ‘going for non-vital areas’ is exactly what they tried to do — they say that, after they took several casualties, they started shooting low, at legs, to disable. Forensic examination of the dead and injured should provide some idea of how accurate that is.

        Well trained guys: possibly not. The IDF is not trained in crowd control! The assumption seems to have been that they could take control of the ship more or less by intimidation; when that went south, quite possibly there was no Plan B.

        Note that there’s quite a bit of evidence from the Gaza invasion that IDF soldiers, when caught off balance, can turn very nasty indeed. There’s the Goldstone Report, of course, but if you don’t like that there’s also the Israeli NGO Breaking the Silence (www.shovrimshtika.org), which collects soldiers’ own testimonies about their experiences.

        IDF institutional culture is its own interesting topic. To make a long story short, they do not follow the American/Western European model of building their army around experienced senior NCOs. By Western standards they have few NCOs, and almost all are technical rather than combatants. Instead, they’re using a model derived from — wait for it — late Tsarist Russia: promising soldiers are sent to OCS, young officers are expected to lead from the front, and the survivors rise to field rank.

        This leads to certain institutional strengths (like flexibility, aggression, and rapidly learning from experience); it also leads to certain institutional weaknesses (like an excess of aggression, and sometimes learning the wrong lessons from experience).

        But that’s a topic for another time.

        Doug M.

  2. Yes, Israel did act rationally (if out of a sense of paranoia about terrorism). I wonder how much of an impact a more regionally powerful Turkey would be for Israel. I mean, Turkey does not wish or say that they wish, destruction upon Israel. Would it be something akin to a squabble over regional influence and resources?

    I also wonder the roles that Greece, Cyprus and Egypt will play in this unfolding drama.

    • Would it be something akin to a squabble over regional influence and resources?

      I don’t think so. Though Israel is strategically secure (in the last resort thanks to its nukes), it can’t really project soft power onto its neighbors because of its small economy and unpopularity. Since Turkey has far, far better opportunities, there isn’t really room for squabbles on this issue. Most likely outcome, IMO, is that if the US stops propping it up like it has before, Israel will have to accommodate itself to Turkey’s vision for the region.

      I also wonder the roles that Greece, Cyprus and Egypt will play in this unfolding drama.

      Probably not much. Greece sharply rebuked Israel, but won’t do anything drastic for the simple reason that they don’t want the Turks getting too powerful. Egypt is also going to make some noises and a few symbolic gestures, like opening a corridor to Gaza for a few days, but won’t risk anything more because Mubarak really doesn’t like Hamas, which is just an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood that has a tense relationship with the Egyptian secular state.

  3. Doug M. says:

    Discovering crates full of assault weapons would be tricky, given that the loading of the ships was very public — the organizers went to some trouble to make obvious the peaceful nature of their cargo.

    Paradoxically, this may have helped lull the IDF planners into a foolish sense of security. “These guys are just a bunch of hippies — they’ll be no trouble at all!”

    Also, I think you’re missing at least one important aspect here: this was a chess move by Erdogan and his AKP in their multi-front political, legal and constitutional struggle with Turkey’s entrenched Kemalists. Erdogan was facing a political crisis over proposed constitutional changes, and possible early elections. He’s now in a much stronger position than he was last week.

    – “Chess move” isn’t exactly right. “Cheap, low-risk high-gain gambit” is more like it. If you play Hearts? Like leading a spade when you hold four low spades and no Queen. Worst that happens is, you clean out some spades at no risk of loss to yourself. Best, you nail someone with the Queen — which is more or less what happened here.

    About the only negative for Erdogan is, he now must ride the tiger of enraged Turkish public opinion.

    Doug M.

    • I think your Hearts comparison is a very good one. What’s even better, you’re not even directly playing yourself, but civic activists who happen to serve your interests!

      • Doug M. says:

        Hearts is not a terribly deep game, but it has its points.

        Here’s a completely random bit of futurism, buried in a blog comment thread:

        Egypt keeps the Gaza border mostly closed-ish because Mubarak hates Hamas. He hates Hamas because it’s basically the Palestinian version of the Muslim Brotherhood, which he has always hated and feared.

        This makes sense from his POV, but it’s… sort of a lowest-energy position. A non-Mubarak Egyptian regime might try any number of other things, including buying off, cutting some deal with, or trying to play Hamas. All these would be higher-risk strategies, but pretty much any Mubarak successor is going to be less risk-averse than Mubarak, at least initially. (It would be very very hard to be more risk-averse than Mubarak.)

        Mubarak, he is not young.

        A post-Mubarak regime would probably spend its first year or two making sure of the succession. But after that, its gaze would surely wander abroad. And the Gaza blockade — which has Egypt de facto cooperating with Israel — has never been popular.

        Doug M.

      • Hi AK,

        I frequently read your blog for the past year or so, and I must say that I truly enjoy it. However I must say that I am a bit dissapointed with this article and theories around “hearts” game. I will summarize my objections:

        1) While you mention the fact that Israeli attack was done on international waters (which is called piracy as far as I know) you do not mention anything about right of self defense in case of such attack. This would automatically dismiss any arguements about knives and bars (which, by the way, can be found in any merchant or passenger ship!)

        2) Assuming that most of the people on board Mavi Marmara were “Fanatics” like you stated, does not change the cause or rhe nature of the humanitarian aid. I was disturbed that you put that label on those people who were doing a noble act-regardless of the motives

        3) You did not mention anything about the legality of Gaza blockade, which is illegal by UN resolution (There are also other UN reports stating that the israeli aid to Gaza is just 1/4th of what is required). I belive this piece of information is required to put things into perspective.

        4) No mention on the international aspect of the flotilla. There were people from more than 50 countries, including nobel prize winners-for what its worth. So, this was not a Turkish-fanatics-led operation.

        5) Most important of all, the flotilla is not a chess or hearts move by Turkish government, but a declaration of what Turkish identity has become in the aftermath of economical, social and cultural changes of the last 8-10 years. You call it neo-Ottoman, I call it remembering. I believe the same happened to Russia, in much shorter time than Turkey. So, it seems rather logical to view the current Turkish government as a result of this change in civil society, than to believe otherwise. You are overestimating them and underestimating the rising new social class in Turkey.

        Sorry for this long post. I know that you prefer to leave the emotional/moral bs out but I think you would agree that accounts of human history are full of that. It is powerful stuff :-)

        Warm Regards,
        Yigit

        • Thanks for the comment, Yigit. I welcome opposing views – I know that one can’t please everyone all the time, especially when writing about politics.

          Re-1) Actually, the legal issues are very thorny and multi-dimensional. The laws of the sea dictate that an entity at war with another has the right to mount a blockade and check incoming ships, even in international waters, including neutral ones, on reasonable suspicion that they are carrying contraband. If the ship refuses to stop, it can be boarded; if its occupants attack the boarding party, it can fight back – as seems to have happened here. Of course this boils down to whether Israel is actually at war with Hamas; whether the Gaza blockade is legal; and all kinds of questions about the proportionality or the lack thereof of the Israeli actions.

          Let’s look at the latter. At the human level, the Israeli commandos were being intimidated by guys with knives, some of the Israelis were injured by them, and their response by opening fire was thus eminently understandable, IMO. I mean what would you do if you had an assault rifle and were surrounded by ten aggressive men with cold steel weapons who had already stabbed one of your fellows? I would certainly open fire, and I doubt that I’d have the presence of mind to aim at non-essential parts of their bodies in such a stressful situation. That is not, however, clear the Israelis who ordered the raid of stupidity (certain) or illegal assault on the high seas (debatable).

          Re-2) First, I didn’t say “most of the people” were fanatics – I said a large number of them were. Second, nobility is in the eyes of the beholder. I maintain that to attack or even physically threaten heavily armed commandos, be they Israeli or any other, is a sure sign of fanaticism. Now yes, from the POV of Palestinian nationalists or advocates of Islamic unity, this might be a good kind of fanaticism that can be defended or even praised. But it is fanaticism nonetheless.

          Re-3) Not on paper because the US blocked said UN resolutions. The legality of the Gaza blockade is very much a gray area.

          Re-4) I didn’t say it was led by Turkish fanatics. What I effectively said was that it was endorsed by Turkish authorities, and had a large number of fanatics and idealists. Second, its international nature isn’t really relevant. The big questions are: 1) to what extent are Israel and Hamas at war with each other, 2) stemming from this, the legal status of the Gaza blockade, and 3) whether or not the Israeli commandos acted disproportionately. There is room for debate on all three issues.

          Re-5) I consider Turkey is neo-Ottoman not in the sense that it is trying to recreate the Caliphate or anything of that sort, but in the sense that it is trying to extend its sphere of influence back to what it was in its Ottoman heyday (just as Russia is “neo-Soviet” in trying to reemerge as a north Eurasian hegemon; it doesn’t at all mean that Russia wants to recreate the USSR). It’s not meant to be in the least disparaging; in fact, I think Turkey’s conduct during this crisis was bold, clever, and admirable from a realist perspective.

  4. I agree, Turkey is the real player here. I think Tom Barnett had an astute piece up on this point. (H/t Zenpundit. )

    • I thoroughly enjoyed reading that article. Such a cold assessment of the situation minus all the moralism.

    • Interesting article from Barnett that largely parallels my own thoughts. On the nuclear issue, Turkey’s capabilities are going to increase in the next few years as Russia sets about constructing the four nuclear plants that they recently agreed on.

      • Doug M. says:

        Sure. But the Barnett article makes it sound like Turkey is ready to pop, just waiting for Iran to go first. That’s nonsense. Those Russian reactors haven’t even found financing yet! They are at least five years away from criticality, more likely six to eight.

        Also, any article that presumes to discuss Turkish grand strategy without at least mentioning Turkey’s internal politics gets an automatic Fail. The split between the AKP and the military/Kemalists is broad, deep, and runs right across Turkish society. The two groups have dramatically different strategic visions for the country, and their rivalry is one of the major drivers of AKP foreign policy.

        Internal politics are important everywhere. But in Turkey, they’re pretty much critical. You simply can’t make sense of the current government’s actions without taking them into account.

        Doug M.

  5. Doug M. says:

    Well, except for the whole “WOOOO Turkey gonna get the BOMB!” thing.

    Turkey has, at present, zero interest in acquiring nuclear weapons. It’s conceivable that could change, but it would come with significant costs both external and internal.

    Turkey also lacks the capability to produce a nuclear weapon. Turkey has no nuclear power plant, no nuclear industry, and only three small research/experimental reactors (for producing medical isotopes, and the like). It has no large-scale nuclear processing infrastructure whatsoever. If they started tomorrow, it would probably take them 3-4 years with a crash effort.

    Personally I view this as very unlikely under the current AKP government, for a variety of reasons. Things could conceivably change under a non-AKP government and/or if Iran tests a weapon. But otherwise, I would say it’s /extremely/ unlikely that Turkey will go nuclear any time before 2020.

    Doug M.

    Doug M.

  6. There was an earlier post talking about reassessing the costs and benefits of America’s relationship with Israel.

    Has there ever been such a reassessment from the Israeli side? I mean, what can a continued alliance with the United States offer Israel that an alliance with China cannot?

  7. The Israeli position on the Gaza blockade is understandable

    No it’s not for the simple fact that it doesn’t work. Hamas still lobs rockets over the border. The Hamas leadership has turned smuggling goods through the tunnels with Egypt into a commercial enterprise.

    Plus if someone could explain to me how sesame seeds constitute a “security” risk, then I’ll better understand the logic behind the Gaza Ghetto.

    I personally like this one from Hass’ article linked above:

    “The ban on toilet paper, diapers and sanitary napkins was lifted three months ago. A little more than a month ago, following a long ban, Israel permitted the import of detergents and soaps into Gaza. Even shampoo was allowed. But one merchant discovered that the bottles of shampoo he had ordered were sent back because they included conditioner, which was not on the list

    The only people suffering are average Gazans who are in an Israeli imposed open air prison wheHamas thugs are the prison guards. It’s a win-win for Israel and Hamas who both benefit off the blockade. I suggest reading Haaretz’s Amira Hass for what life is like in that miserable place.

    • Sean, I don’t claim that Palestinians don’t get the short end of the stick. They do – in land, water, dignity. But we’re talking about other things here. As you correctly note, the blockade benefits both Israel (who would as soon the Palestinians remained uncompromising because otherwise they would have to face down the settler lobby and come to fairer arrangements at the expense of Israelis) and Hamas (whom the Palestinians elected and who do not want compromise). Hence, leaving aside the various moral or sentimental objections, the blockade is actually eminently understandable. (But as I noted, it is not optimal – either in terms of general human welfare, or Israelis’ and Palestinians’ long-term prospects).

  8. Sinotibetan says:

    Ultimately, Islamists gain the most from this fiasco, in my opinion. To most Muslims, Israel should not even exist and no matter what evidence to the contrary, the Jews will be seen as the great satan and aggressor by Muslims. Will Muslims, regardless of factions, get tired of more secular regimes? Is it possible that in the future, a leader would arise uniting all(or almost all) the disparate Muslim nations into a single political force with Islam as not only a religious tool but a political ideologue(just like Communism was for the USSR and ‘democracy’/'human rights’ are for the West – only more powerful than either because the ideologue is ‘from God’ rather than from ‘puny men’)? We are indeed in tumultous times and though the idea of a united Islamic Union may seem too far-fetched for many of you, I can imagine a Muslim leader of the future who decries the reluctance of secular Muslim states to ‘settle the Palestinian question’ and win popular support(which is strongly anti-Israel). It is in the interests of Islamists to continue provoking Israel because any incidence of Israel commandos fighting out against ‘sweet, pro-human rights, saintly, peaceful’ Muslims(be they Palestinians, Arabs, Turks, Indonesians, Pakistanis etc.) would help them to play victim and demonize the Jews in the eyes of the world. I am not saying that Israel is a saint. Or that all Palestinians are no good or did not suffer from the Jewish-Palestinian conflict. Just that Islamists don’t want the conflict to ever resolve UNTIL they can unite the Muslim world. Then….they will try to snuff out Israel, then the West and hopefully subjugate all non-Muslim nations into dhimmitude for total, global politico-religious conquest.

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