Israel’s early morning raid on a flotilla of humanitarian aid ships bound for Gaza, which reportedly left at least nine people dead, drew condemnation from international leaders and sparked protest in many parts of the world. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu cancelled his meeting with President Obama in Washington on Tuesday and returned home from Canada.
Nathan J. Brown, Michele Dunne, Marina Ottaway, and Paul Salem react to the crisis and what it might mean for the peace process, Turkey’s relations with Israel and the United States, and the situation in Gaza.
Nathan J. Brown
Nonresident Senior Associate, Middle East Program
The Obama administration began with an impossible situation in Gaza—a political division, a diplomatic dead-end, and a humanitarian crisis. Faced with an impossible situation, it decided to deal with what seemed to be a merely difficult one: Israeli–Palestinian diplomacy focused on a two-state solution. But ignoring Gaza may have been a deep mistake.
Before this incident, the White House was focusing on a minor but real accomplishment—the launch of indirect talks between Israelis and Palestinians. With that process just getting started and trips to Washington by Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas originally planned in the next two weeks, events in Gaza could not have come at a worse time for Obama's diplomacy. The fallout from the raid will likely increase pressure to reconfigure the Israeli and Egyptian blockade of Gaza (there may be a push for more international involvement or for allowing more goods into the area), create a crisis in Israeli–Turkish relations, force the United Nations Security Council to react, and move European governments to insist that the issue of Gaza be addressed sooner rather than later.
While the international community will line up against it, Israel is unlikely to face any concrete consequences, such as sanctions, for the raid. But, today's events will hurt Israel's relations with many actors in the international community and complicate diplomacy for the next several months.
It is difficult to say how this will impact the indirect talks that are currently underway. Few people expected great progress from the talks, so it is unclear if there is a truly viable peace process to disrupt. Still, regardless of the prospects of the indirect talks, Washington had invested political and international capital in to get them started in the hopes of eventually moving to direct negotiations between Israel and Palestinian leaders.
The Obama administration had been focused on a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict and spent considerable U.S. attention trying to move the two sides forward. But the United States has not paid as much attention to improving the situation in Gaza or to relations between Fatah and Hamas. Without a solution to Palestinian divides and the crisis in Gaza, real movement on the peace process remains unlikely.
Senior Associate, Middle East Program
It’s too early to tell the ultimate ramifications of Israel’s deadly raid. Events will transpire quickly over the next several days and the consequences will become clearer as key players respond. Certainly this tragic incident highlights the unsustainability of the situation in Gaza, where there is no recognized government and there is a need for some kind of reconciliation or at least power-sharing project that reunites the West Bank and Gaza under internationally recognized leadership.
Regarding the impact on Israeli–Palestinian indirect talks, damage control will be critical. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Barak will need to move quickly and forcefully to address the toll in human lives and the level of force used in order to mitigate the damage to their credibility and international standing. Canceling Netanyahu's trip to the White House was the first step in this direction. It would have been impossible to manage the situation from Washington, and Netanyahu needed to return home to handle it directly.
This incident will raise questions—not for the first time—over whether Netanyahu can be a dependable partner for the United States and whether he can help move Israeli–Palestinian talks forward. The approval of a large new construction project in East Jerusalem during Vice President Biden’s trip there in March led to questions about Netanyahu’s control over his own government, and this far more serious incident does so again.
Israel’s relations with other players—particularly Turkey and the European Union—are likely to be hurt. Countries are demanding an explanation for the raid and Turkey requested an emergency session of the United Nations Security Council on Monday afternoon to discuss the attacks. The United States will be faced with tough choices as to how to react.
It is not yet clear how this incident will affect President Mahmoud Abbas’s planned visit to Washington next week. Palestinians are obviously outraged and will face pressure to end indirect talks and possibly cancel his trip to the White House. Whether or not he does so will depend partly on whether U.S. and Israeli reactions are adequate to alleviate some anger and minimize the diplomatic crisis.
Director, Middle East Program
In the immediate future, the Israeli decision to stop the flotilla of boats coming into Gaza puts the United States in an extremely difficult position.
Condemnation of the Israeli action has been strong, not only in Turkey and Arab countries, but in most European countries as well. In comparison, the initial response from the White House is completely inadequate and President Obama will need to choose how forcefully to react. Obama must decide whether to sacrifice his credibility in the region in order to continue a well-established U.S. tradition of mild rebukes toward Israel, or break with “business-as-usual” policies and condemn the Israeli action.
Regardless of how the United States responds, this will make peace negotiations more difficult in the near future. But the longer-term consequences of today's events are more important. In addition to the predictable Arab reaction, two things have been noticeable. First, there has been a harsher than normal response from European countries. This could potentially reopen U.S. tensions with Europe that developed during the Iraq war and have slowly begun to heal under the Obama administration. While this is not good for U.S. foreign policy, tensions that could arise between Europe and the United States will eventually abate and diplomatic ties will return to normal.
Second, the most delicate issue is how this incident will affect relations between Turkey and the United States. Turkey has been moving away from the United States and Europe for several years. Ankara is choosing not to be on the periphery of Europe and NATO, but to be at the center of its own region—it looks at the Middle East based on its own interests, not through the eyes of the West. In practice, Turkey has defined those interests as requiring "zero problems with its neighbors.”
While the policy was not directed against the United States or Israel, it has created serious tensions because Turkey does not want to have problems with Iran or with Hamas in Palestine. Today's events are going to make matters worse as Turkey feels directly involved in the crisis. The boat that was boarded by the Israelis took off from Turkey and Turkey claims that it was thoroughly inspected for weapons before departure. Thus, Turkey perceives Israeli accusations that there were weapons on board as an accusation against Turkey and many of the victims are apparently Turkish citizens. Relations between Turkey and Israel had taken a definite turn for the worse and it is now unlikely that they will improve any time soon.
Relations between Turkey and the United States are also at a critical juncture because Turkey was offended by Washington's off-hand dismissal of the nuclear fuel agreement with Iran negotiated by Turkey and Brazil. Relations will only worsen if the U.S. reaction to today's incident leads Turkey to conclude that the United States condones Israeli actions. Washington must think carefully about the long-term implications of its response.
Director, Middle East Center
The Middle East is awash with negative reaction to Israel’s decision to halt the flotilla headed for Gaza and the reported deaths that resulted when its soldiers boarded one of the ships. With extensive coverage from the regional and international media, heated responses will continue in the coming days. We are already seeing protests erupting throughout the region and at Israeli embassies around the world.
There has been a particularly explosive reaction from Turkey, under whose flag the boarded ship was traveling and from where the majority of the activists in the flotilla appeared to come. Thousands of Turks have taken to the streets to protest, and Ankara has recalled its ambassador from Israel and called for an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council.
Turkey has traditionally been Israel's closest Muslim ally, but relations between the two countries have been rocky since the 2008 war in Gaza. In 2009, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip exchanged angry words with Israeli President Shimon Peres at the World Economic Forum in Davos. The raid is likely to drive a further wedge between Ankara and Jerusalem.
In recent years, Turkey had positioned itself as a moderate state able to mediate regional conflicts as part of its “zero problems” foreign policy strategy. This was seen most recently when Turkey, with Brazil, took a leading role in negotiating a deal with Iran to ship some of Iran’s low-enriched uranium to Turkey as part of a broader effort to stabilize tensions over Iran’s nuclear ambitions. In light of this raid, the United States and Israel are likely to loose Turkey’s mediating role in the region.
More broadly, today’s incident is unlikely to fundamentally change much in the Arab world. There is already widespread anger toward Israel across the region. But the situation underlines the hostility felt for Israel and its policies by neighboring countries at a time of timid movement on the peace process, moving the situation from bad to worse.