Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The game just changed: Implications of the Gaza Flotilla attacks on the future of the Middle East (Update)

In the wake of the Israeli attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla delivering humanitarian aid despite Israeli naval blockade (contradictory to International Law surrounding occupied territories), one thing is very clear: we are stepping into unchartered territory as far as the Middle East is concerned. There has not been a single game changer as important as this one save for the Balfour Declaration of 1917 or the 1947 creation of an  Israeli state. In a period of 24 hours, Israel's credibilty has took an enormous hit with condemnations flooding in from Russia, Turkey, India, China, Brazil, France, Spain and other nations. Both Istanbul and Athens cancelled their military exercises and even staunch supporter Canada has to issue a statement of regret (in contrast with the 2006 invasion of Lebanon, which was categorized as a "measured response"). Israel has just lost the war for global public opinion with important implications for the future of this region.

For one, Israel can no longer claim the moral high ground in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If the first and the second intifadas and the subsequent suicide bombings garnered sympathy for Israel, then the killing of at least 9 (estimates vary from 9 to 10) civilian aid workers just shifted the sympathy towards the Palestinian cause, that is if the Palestinian leadership (both PLO and Hamas) continues to have good sense to let the matter work itself out. Israel may have been successful in preventing its blockade on Gaza from being breached, but it certainly has not done its cause a favour.

This incident may also mark the end of Israel's bilateral relationship with Turkey, its only ally among Muslim nations. Already three naval exercises slated between these two nations have been cancelled. Considering that the flotilla sailed its final leg from Nicossa in Turkey under the direction of a Turkish Human Rights organization IHH and that most of the dead and injured were Turkish nationals, all options are on the table. While all out war is not in the future, Israel will no longer be seen as a state friendly to Turkish interests. Turkey may have already forgone its right to veto Israel's membership in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) sending a message of goodwill to Israeli politicians and the public but in light of this incident, there is already ample proof that this will be the last time it does so. Hostile vocabulary is already being utilized by the Turkish state with foreign minister Davutoglu stating  "Turkey sees Israel as a terrorist state and will behave accordingly" in a speech to the United Nations security council. In his most recent address to the Turkish Parliament, Prime Minister Endrogan stated that "This attack should definitely be punished" adding "No one should test Turkey's patience." At the very least Turkey will push for an official apology and an international investigation of this incident. It will also try to free the ships held by Israeli authorities and call for the end of the blockade of Gaza. Turkey may also file a case against the Israeli state at the International Courts in Hague. On an international stage, Turkey may no longer support Israel at international forums such as the United Nations Security Council,  NATO and OSCE.

Thirdly, this incident has the potential to become a big headache for the United States policy in the Middle East and the Muslim world. The continuation of unilateral support for the state of Israel without any major change will damage the tentative credibility of the U.S in the Middle East and among Muslims abroad, laying  waste Obama administration's efforts for greater dialogue. There is some evidence for this already. On the flip side, the shift in public opinion may provide the United States with an opportunity to set terms for its support for Israel which in recent times has boldly opposed its dictates. Though the U.S. may face considerable opposition from hardcore Israeli supporters, Israel will ultimately be at a greater disadvantage.

On the domestic front, there are two possible outcomes that may result from Israel's international embarassment. If the current Israeli government; a coalition between Netanyahu and right wing parties such as Shas and Yisrael Beiteinu survives this crisis and continues to defend these actions using the argument of Israeli sovereignty, then it will have to face the daunting prospects of increased Israeli isolation on a world stage. But given Israel's dependence on foreign trade as highlighted by the government's vehement attack on Salam Fayyad's call to boycott settler produced goods, an uncomprimising stance will ultimately be detrimental. On the other hand, if this coalition falls then Israel will face domestic uncertainity only a year after its tutmultous elections.

Finally, the attack on the Gaza flotilla will have a definitive impact on the current U.S faceoff with Iran over its uranium enrichment program. With Israel's credibility on the world stage in bad shape, it's call for increased sanctions and military action are unlikely to be heeded. Additionally, it will complicate U.S. plans to rally Middle East opposition to Iran's nuclear program given that Egypt; one of its closest allies in the Middle East just eased its blockade on Gaza and both Lebanon and Turkey are still annoyed over Washington's decision to accept a Turkey and Brazil brokered agreement with Iran.

Given the plethora of possible outcomes, I for one will be keeping a close eye on the Middle East for some time.

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