Analysis: Preventing the road from getting steeper

Last year’s flotilla disaster is motivating the State Department to be more proactive; criticizes expedition as "irresponsible, provocative."

Gaza activists in Athens 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Gaza activists in Athens 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
WASHINGTON – Long before any ship’s bow from the Gaza-bound flotilla has crested the Mediterranean this summer, the US State Department issued a lengthy statement criticizing the expedition’s participants and strategy.
“Groups that seek to break Israel’s maritime blockade of Gaza are taking irresponsible and provocative actions that risk the safety of their passengers,” the statement, issued by State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, declared.
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Last year, it wasn’t until a melee at sea between the vessels trying to break Israel’s Gaza blockade and the IDF left nine Turkish activists dead that the US put out a statement, in that case primarily expressing concern for the loss of life and the humanitarian situation in Gaza.
Of course, this year the US government has the benefit of knowing what a disaster the Free Gaza flotilla precipitated in the past, and the memory of that encounter is certainly motivating the State Department to be more proactive.
Where last year there had been reluctance to delve into the legalities of American participation in the flotilla, the recent statement, distributed on Friday, gave a stark warning.
“We underscore that delivering or attempting or conspiring to deliver material support or other resources to or for the benefit of a designated foreign terrorist organization, such as Hamas, could violate US civil and criminal statutes and could lead to fines and incarceration,” Nuland stressed.
And where previously quiet conversations had been held to dissuade the vessels from sailing, Friday’s statement could not have been louder and clearer.
“We urge all those seeking to provide such assistance to the people of Gaza to use [existing] mechanisms, and not to participate in actions like the planned flotilla,” Nuland said.
But such stern US efforts at dissuasion come not only with the hindsight of the past but with an eye toward the future.
This year, ship bound for Gaza aren’t the only troublesome threat on the horizon; there’s also the looming possibility of a Palestinian appeal to the UN General Assembly for a recognition of statehood in September.
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The United States is laboring mightily to prevent the Palestinians from taking that step, or at the very least to keep the Europeans from voting in favor of such a unilateral declaration should it be proposed, out of the belief that without the “moral minority” of the West, such a declaration would lack serious diplomatic heft.
To that end, US President Barack Obama outlined a controversial framework for restarting talks between Israelis and Palestinians in his Middle East speech in May, and has dispatched key aides to prod both sides toward the table – and to lobby Europeans to back his suggested model over the Palestinian UN bid.
America opposes a unilateral declaration at the UN because it doesn’t believe it will lead the parties to the negotiating table – in fact, it believes that it could instead harden the lines of each side – and because its close ally Israel is so vehemently against it. But the effort to derail the Palestinian strategy is also given urgency by Obama’s own difficult position: he himself called for the UN to endorse a Palestinian state in 2011 at last year’s opening of the General Assembly, meaning he would be put in the position of voting against his own vision should the Palestinians force a vote.
With the stakes so high, the administration is keen not to have anything to make its job at the UN harder. And another flotilla fiasco, where the US is put on the spot to defend Israel in defiance of the demands of much of the international community, would only make the road to September steeper.
The US, after all, had to use its considerable influence last year to keep the UN from mandating an investigation into Israel’s activities along the lines of the infamous Goldstone Report, which charged that Israel had committed war crimes in its fight against Hamas in the winter of 2008-2009.
The last thing the United States wants to do is to expend political chips at the UN during the coming days, when the new flotilla is expected to arrive off the Gaza coast. That could leave it with a very weak hand come September.