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    Middle East
     Jun 4, 2010
Page 2 of 2
Nothing new for Israel all at sea
By Victor Kotsev

Some actually benefited. Hamas benefited the most. The bloodshed and the international attention came as a lifeline to the besieged and embattled Islamic movement. Without lifting a finger, Hamas achieved a major propaganda coup against Israel. The blockade was eased a bit, and even Egypt opened Rafah temporarily (thus, even the people in Gaza benefited, albeit less so than their leaders). The movement's political head in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, addressed the activists: "You were heroes, whether you reached [Gaza] or not."

Iran also benefited. "A vote on a new UN Iran sanctions resolution will likely be pushed back due to diplomatic fallout from the Israeli raid on the Gaza aid flotilla, among other reasons," reported Politico on Wednesday. "The Obama administration had been planning to bring a new Iran sanctions resolution to a vote at the

 

UN Security Council on Thursday but diplomatic sources said the vote is not likely to take place this week."

It is unclear what Turkey achieved, other than a practically complete break with Israel. "The Turkish government undoubtedly has wanted to move away from [its close historic] relationship [with Israel]," writes US think-tank Stratfor, "but it faced resistance within the Turkish military and among secularists. The new Israeli action makes a break with Israel easy, and indeed almost necessary for Ankara."

Israel found itself in the middle of a massive, and uphill, public relations battle. The Jewish state faces several uncomfortable scenarios. According to Stratfor:
It is vital that the Israelis succeed in portraying the flotilla as an extremist plot ... Internationally, there is little doubt that the incident will generate a firestorm ... Opinion in Europe will likely harden. And public opinion in the United States - by far the most important in the equation - might shift to a "plague-on-both-your-houses" position ... The next steps will involve calls for sanctions against Israel. The Israeli threats against Iran will be seen in a different context, and Israeli portrayal of Iran will hold less sway over the world. And this will cause a political crisis in Israel. If this government survives, then Israel is locked into a course that gives it freedom of action but international isolation. If the government falls, then Israel enters a period of domestic uncertainty. In either case, the flotilla achieved its strategic mission.
While not everybody agrees with these predictions, some of them (such as that Turkey severing relations and Iran benefiting) have already come true. Moreover, other influential analysts, such as David Rothkopf, have reached broadly similar conclusions. [11]

Most importantly, we can infer the extent of the damage Israel faces by just how much Netanyahu is on the defensive. "Israeli officials said all 680 activists held would be released, including two dozen Israel had threatened earlier to prosecute charging they had assaulted its troops," reported Ha'aretz on Tuesday. Israel, moreover, promptly delivered most of the cargo of the boats to Hamas, and took steps to ease the blockade.

The Free Gaza movement may have "achieved its strategic mission" according to Stratfor (and most other analysts), but things don't look so straightforward to the organizers. If indeed the flotilla was infiltrated by extremists (which is, in fact, somewhat likely, due to the partnership with the Turkish IHH, [12]) they would bear part of the responsibility, and this would mean that they are now at a crossroads. They could either condemn the violence and seek to tighten non-violent discipline next time (as well as to restore the confidence of the part of their supporters who are dogmatically non-violent), or they could decide to embrace certain violent forms of resistance.

Either way, they would need to do some serious soul-searching and to face some very difficult decisions. Serious fragmentation among their supporters may not occur immediately, at least not while the action is happening, but dissenting and disillusioned voices may emerge from among their ranks.

To give an example, this is an excerpt from a speech delivered on October 2, 2008, by Nicaraguan diplomat Miguel d'Escoto Brockmann, then-president of the General Assembly of the UN, in which he refers to the first Free Gaza voyage:
[Mahatma] Gandhi's and [Martin Luther] King's successors in the 21st century have carried out further experiments in the power of non-violent truth to achieve justice and peace in every corner of the world - including, in the last two months, Gaza. The Free Gaza Movement has succeeded in breaking the siege of Gaza by non-violent direct action. After sailing from Cypress, 44 activists from 17 countries landed their two small wooden boats at Gaza Port on August 23, 2008, where a beleaguered people welcomed them ... From the groundbreaking work of Gandhi and King to the ongoing example of the Free Gaza Movement, we can discern the transforming power of non-violence at a crossroads in our history.
Asked for a comment, a leading expert on non-violent social movements requested that his name not be mentioned due to the fact that information about the incident is currently inconclusive, but had this to say:
If the activists did indeed violently attack the soldiers, even if the attack was with non-lethal beating, this was incorrect non-violent practice. Gandhi and Dr Martin Luther King Jr always insisted on disciplined rejection of any form of violence, even in retaliation for savage beatings. This is necessary to maintain the moral high ground and attract political support for the cause of justice. The use of violence by the flotilla activists gave the Israelis the excuse they seek to justify their brutality.
It is hard, therefore, to imagine today an impassioned defense of the Free Gaza movement along the same lines used two years ago by Miguel d'Escoto Brockmann. Moreover, we would be hearing criticism from among their core supporters. (Nicaragua, nevertheless, expressed strong support by breaking relations with Israel over the incident.)

The peace movement, and especially the moderate-left camp in Israel (not to be confused with the extreme left) will probably take a blow, as it does every time Israel's isolation grows. The peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, moreover, may become more difficult. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas already protested strongly the raid, calling it "a massacre".

Egypt (and to a lesser extent Jordan and the US) has come under intense pressure to steer away from Israel. The Egyptian government is no supporter of the activists, especially given the recent memory of the Viva Palestina convoy. Nevertheless, it issued a condemnation and opened the Rafah crossing for three days.

A final big question that remains is the most difficult to answer specifically: how will this incident affect Middle Eastern politics and the larger course of events. Some analysts, such as Asia Times Online's Simon Thurlow, have argued that it "permanently altered world politics". [13] Others have projected apocalyptic scenarios including, on the wilder-speculations side of the spectrum, a naval confrontation between Israel and Turkey. [14]

Barring a major unforeseen development, however, it seems that the bloodshed will strengthen some grim existing tendencies, but will not set new trends. Israel's isolation is nothing new, and neither is the flurry of condemnations from the international community. It is not Netanyahu's first major diplomatic scandal, and not even the first such this year. Turkey's course away from Israel is not new. Iran's evasion of sanctions is not new. Hamas was pleasantly surprised, but the lifeline the incident offered will not last forever.

Much will depend on the exact facts, which will continue to come out in the next days, and on the outcome of the public relations war, which will continue to unfold. For most of those involved, nevertheless, the impact of the incident will be markedly negative. It is possible that further provocations will ensue on both sides, and with the rise in tensions, the probability of more violence will increase. As Ian Bremmer notes, it will likely be a hot, hot summer. [15]

Notes
1. 'Activists threw stun grenades' Jerusalem Post, June 2, 2010.
2. '20 people threw me from deck' Ynetnews, June 1, 2010.
3. What took so long with flotilla film? Jerusalem Post, June 2, 2010.
4. 3 flotilla fatalities 'dreamt of martyrdom' Ynetnews, June 2, 2010.
5. Gaza flotilla passenger: Ship became lake of blood Ynetnews, June 2, 2010.
6. Flotilla passengers attack immigration officers Ynetnews, June 2, 2010.
7. Egyptian guard dies in clashes over Gaza aid convoy The Guardian, June 2, 2010.
8. Law Expert Dr Robbie Sabel IDF action in international waters legal
9. Gaza sanctions: The legal argument BBC, October 30, 2007.
10. Israel's Disinformation Campaign Against the Gaza Freedom Flotilla
11. The Gaza debacle: Political crisis to follow?
12. Turkish Funds Helped Group Test Blockade The New York Times, June 1, 2010.
13. Israel founders in international waters Asia Times Online, June 2, 2010.
14. Turkey and Israel close to brink June 2, 2010.
15. A hot summer in Israel Foreign Policy, June 1, 2010.

Victor Kotsev is a freelance journalist and political analyst with expertise in the Middle East.

(Copyright 2010 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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