Inter Press Service
Amid nearly universal condemnation of Monday’s pre-dawn Israeli assault in international waters on a flotilla carrying humanitarian and reconstruction aid bound for Gaza, the administration of President Barack Obama has steadfastly avoided assigning blame.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters that Washington supported a “prompt, impartial, credible, and transparent investigation” into the incident, in which at least nine civilian passengers aboard the flotilla’s largest vessel were reportedly killed, apparently by gunfire from Israeli commandos.
Reiterating Washington’s “regret” over the loss of life, she also insisted that the administration would continue to press Israel to ease its blockade against Gaza, calling it “unsustainable and unacceptable”.
She added that the incident highlighted “the urgency” of peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestine Authority (PA) which are supposed to begin this week with “proximity talks” mediated by Obama’s Special Envoy, George Mitchell.
In a brief visit to the United States on Tuesday, however, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu complained about Washington’s passivity in the face of what he called the psychological equivalent of “9/11 for Turkey”, adding, “I am not very happy with the statements from the United States yesterday.”
Although Israel’s government has imposed a virtual blackout on independent media coverage of the assault and its aftermath, it has been reported that most, if not all of the dead, were Turkish civilians.
One of the sponsors of the eight-ship “Freedom Flotilla”, the Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH), is based in Turkey, and the lead ship that came under assault, Mavi Marmara, is Turkish-flagged. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan Monday accused Israel of “state terrorism”.
“We will not be silent about this,” Davutoglu reportedly told a small group of reporters here Tuesday, noting that Ankara intended to bring the matter to NATO, a collective-security organisation of which both Turkey and the U.S. are members. “We expect the United States to show solidarity with us.”
In many ways, the weekend’s incident could not have come at a worse time for Washington.
The administration had hoped that this week’s launch of the proximity talks would help defuse growing frustration and anger in the Arab world over Obama’s failure to back up the pledge he made in Cairo exactly one year ago this week to “personally pursue (a two-state solution) with all the patience and dedication that the task requires” and to alleviate what he called “the continuing humanitarian crisis” in Gaza.
The appearance of momentum on the Israeli-Palestinian front, the administration believed, would enable it to rally greater international – and especially Arab – support for its drive to impose stronger sanctions at the U.N. Security Council against Iran if it rejects Western demands to curb its nuclear programme.
While the proximity talks may yet proceed – indeed, U.S. officials told reporters Tuesday that their main immediate focus was to prevent the flotilla incident from derailing the talks – they will almost certainly be overshadowed by the weekend’s events and their aftermath.
Indeed, Hamas, which Washington has boycotted, is likely to emerge stronger vis-à-vis the PA and its president, Mahmoud Abbas, as a result of the Israeli assault due to the renewed international attention to the situation in Gaza and the virtual certainty that Israel will now come under unprecedented pressure to significantly ease – if not lift the blockade – against it, according to analysts here and in the region.
“For years, many in the international community have been complicit in a policy that aimed at isolating Gaza in the hope of weakening Hamas,” the International Crisis Group (ICG) said in a statement that condemned Israel’s assault and called for an end to the blockade Tuesday. “One hopes (this incident) can provide an opportunity for a long- overdue course correction.”
Egypt’s decision to open its border with Gaza, as well as reports that Abbas himself may soon travel to the territory in a new bid for reconciliation, suggests that the Islamist group has already become a major beneficiary of the Israeli assault.
Any strengthening of Hamas’s position will almost certainly make Abbas less inclined to compromise in any negotiations with Israel, according to experts here and in the region.
Iran, too, is likely to benefit – albeit indirectly – by the flotilla fiasco, if only because it refocuses international attention on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in ways that undermine U.S. credibility.
Already, the incident was the focus of a lengthy Security Council meeting overnight Monday that resulted in the issuance of a presidential statement that, among other things, condemned the violence and called for an investigation.
The fact that Washington worked hard to water down the statement as much as possible – by, for example, ensuring that it not blame Israel explicitly for the deaths or rule out an investigation conducted by Israel alone – clearly angered Davutoglu and Arab diplomats and reportedly frustrated even some of Washington’s European allies that had already publicly condemned Israel’s role.
In any event, the Council is expected to follow up the matter in the coming weeks, the same period of time that the administration had set as a deadline for pushing through a new sanctions resolution against Iran.
On the domestic political front, the latest incident could also compromise Obama’s month-long effort to reassure the right-wing leadership of the organised Jewish community – whose support for Democratic candidates in the November mid- term elections is considered critical to the party’s retaining control of Congress – of his “unshakeable” commitment to Israel’s security.
That effort was to be capped Tuesday with a high-profile White House tete-a-tete between Obama and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to demonstrate that the contretemps between the two governments over U.S. demands earlier this spring that Israel freeze settlement activity in East Jerusalem had been satisfactorily resolved.
But Netanyahu, who was in Canada when the assault took place, cancelled his visit to return home to deal with the growing international outrage that followed the attack.
If outrage continues to mount – particularly as the hundreds of flotilla passengers offer a substantially different version of the raid than the one that has so far been monopolised by the Israel Defence Forces – and if Israel cannot be persuaded to substantially ease the blockade on Gaze, the diplomatic costs of hosting Netanyahu may become exorbitant.