Flotilla Fallout Continues for Israel…and the U.S.

I’ve been off at a wedding for most of this week and, poring over old headlines, I noticed that the flotilla incident in the Med continues to have drastic fallout for Israel and, by extension, the U.S.

By announcing that the easing of Israel’s land blockade of the impoverished Gaza Strip, P.M. Bibi Netanyahu gave us a rare glimpse of Israel bowing to international pressure. But because the U.S. played such a timid role in applying that pressure, Netanyahu’s move underscores (again and again) the U.S.’s inability to make serious progress in its regional agenda.

In contrast, middle powers like Turkey find themselves gaining concessions with their bold rhetoric and aggressive diplomacy. It’s a reversal of the trope that Arabs only understand pressure; Israelis now find themselves unable to face tough changes without a slap to coax them.

In an important piece on Time.com, Tony Karon ran down the winners and losers of the end of the Gaza blockade, including this biting observation about the U.S.:

That the blockade collapsed under pressure is also an embarrassment for the Obama Administration because Turkey’s more muscular challenge will be seen throughout the region to have forced a change in Israeli behavior — something that Obama’s polite entreaties have failed to achieve. (The President had urged the Israelis more than a year ago to ease the siege, to little effect.)

Indeed, this has much wider implications than for just Gaza.

Obama had numerous opportunities to exert serious pressure on Israel over the first year and a half of his presidency — on issues like settlements as well as the Gaza siege — and failed to so either by quickly retreating (settlements) or coming up short from the start (the siege).

Instead, Turkey, the region’s rising star, stepped into the breach. Along the way, however, Turkey’s relationship with Israel took a perhaps irreversible hit, not to mention the lost lives of nine Turkish citizens. This is not good for anyone in the Mid East, particularly the U.S., which relies on Turkey’s strategic location and its fast-growing clout in the region.

Easing the blockade in the face of pressure also undermines justifications for the strategy in the first place. All the talk of self-defense and security now rings hollow. A long-time astute observer of Mid East affairs, Media Matters’ MJ Rosenberg, picks up on this:

Everyone knows that if the Gaza blockade were necessary to Israel’s security, Netanyahu would be maintaining it and every friend of Israel would back his stand. But it isn’t, and so he can simply say “never mind.”

[…]

So ending the blockade makes Israel safer.

J Street is too polite to say it, so I will:  “We told you so.”

We knew all along that the blockade on civilian goods was designed as a form of collective punishment on Gaza’s civilian population.  We knew that it served no legitimate purpose.  And we knew that those who protested it as punitive were right.

Netanyahu himself has now admitted it.

The starvation of the Gaza Strip’s 1.5 million residents was a sham, based on now-known fallacies.

Karon connects Israel’s siege strategy to its brutal invasions of Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza in 2008. On Foreign Policy’s Middle East Channel blog, in a post highly critical of Western complicity in the blockade, Geoffrey Aronson finds the roots of the strategy even father back — as part of Israel’s 2004 plan to unilaterally disengage from its Gaza settlements.

Indeed, has the international community, and particularly the U.S., addressed this stuff strongly in the past six years? Nope. The lobby and the neocons were cheering it all on. Now the Obama administration — dare I say it — dithers, occasionally dipping its toe only to yank it back out.

On Foreign Policy, Marc Lynch chimed in that he thinks Obama deserves some credit for the blockade deal, despite the fact that it likely means U.S. acceptance of a whitewashed investigation of the flotilla incident. I tend to agree, but I wonder how long the U.S. can go on like this, jumping on the backs of issues only when others have pressed them.

Now that this six-year-old strategy has been exposed as a fraudulent cover for collective punishment, how long can the U.S. get away — before irreversible decline of its regional power (if it hasn’t already arrived) sets in — with issuing mild condemnations of Israeli malfeasance buried under full-throated endorsements of the policies they represent?

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Ali Gharib

Ali Gharib is a New York-based journalist on U.S. foreign policy with a focus on the Middle East and Central Asia. His work has appeared at Inter Press Service, where he was the Deputy Washington Bureau Chief; the Buffalo Beast; Huffington Post; Mondoweiss; Right Web; and Alternet. He holds a Master's degree in Philosophy and Public Policy from the London School of Economics and Political Science. A proud Iranian-American and fluent Farsi speaker, Ali was born in California and raised in D.C.

24 Comments

  1. The only thing Israel would understand is US warships breaking the Gaza blockade.
    But of course for that to happen we would have to have a leader who was actually driven by our own American interest.

    Someone go exhume Eisenhower… because there is nothing alive in DC with any interest in American interest.

  2. The optimism about Israel ceding on US pressure is illusory.As J.Cook and others (Amira Has,for instance)noted the changes are minimal.But in the same time blatantly following Israel pressure on US ,new sanction and military concrete threats are taken these days on Iran.Yesterday sill two Palestinians were killed in Gaza fired from Israeli planes.The life in Gaza remains miserably for 1.5 millions people how Israel wants

  3. I hope you’re right, Jon. But I don’t have such a generous view of Israel’s “partial backdown” as you do. I’m more inclined to agree with Jonathan Cook, who writes:

    “Even if many items are no longer banned, they still have to find their way into the enclave. Israel controls the crossing points and determines how many trucks are allowed in daily. Currently, only a quarter of the number once permitted are able to deliver their cargo, and that is unlikely to change to any significant degree. Moreover, as part of the “security” blockade, the ban is expected to remain on items such as cement and steel desperately needed to build and repair the thousands of homes devastated by Israel’s attack 18 months ago.”

    So, as Cook concludes, the Gazans will be starving a bit more slowly. How long can we count on a “sooth[ed] world opinion” — especially if the humanitarian flotillas keep sailing in and getting media coverage?

  4. The shift isn’t as tectonic as one might think. The U.S. remains the number one military power in the region, the guarantor of Gulf security. A year from now Turkey will not have increased its influence further. Nor I suspect will Iran have done so. Both countries will be experiencing serious domestic difficulties.

    The U.S. is indeed dithering — because its mindset and policies are schizophrenic. So long as we pursue a half-Israeli, half-American course, we will look ineffectual and damage our own interests.

    Israel’s partial backdown in Gaza can also be viewed as a wise tactical retreat on its part, soothing world opinion to some extent and keeping the American ally sweet. But the moral and demographic problem of the Palestinians remains, and is inescapable. Like Poe’s tell-tale heart, the growing Arab majority in Palestine is ever in the Israelis’ minds. An apartheid Jewish state cannot long stand.

  5. Mild or forceful, US condemnation is no longer worth a rat’s ass, given the shifting of the tectonic plates of power in Middle East. Look for “Who lost the Middle East?” as a headline, coming soon.

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