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).

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