A defining moment for US-Israel relations

Israel must work closely with the US to change the current equation in the region for the better.

netanyahu obama 311 (photo credit: AP)
netanyahu obama 311
(photo credit: AP)
Regardless of the intended purposes of the blockade of Gaza, the tragic incident surrounding the flotilla has brought it into international focus, and Israel will find itself under increasing pressure from foes and friends alike to lift the blockade in the coming weeks. Although Israel has legitimate security reasons to maintain the blockade – to prevent certain materials, including weapons, from entering Gaza – that should not preclude finding an alternative arrangement that can still satisfy its security concerns.
The tragic events on the flotilla should serve as a catalyst for Israel, Turkey and the US to change the regional political environment for the better before the conflict and rising tensions spin out of control.
Israel must do what best serves its national security interests, but at this point it is necessary to take a much wider view of those interests because the prospect of regional instability is forcing other players, such as the leading Sunni Arab states, to reassess their position, especially in the wake of the growing Iranian nuclear threat. Added to this is the uncertainty about Iraq’s future stability and how the brewing Israeli-Lebanese tension might play out.
SINCE THE Gaza incursion in 2008, Israel has had ample opportunities to demonstrate a gesture for peace, ease the blockade and show that it rewards nonviolence. Yet little progress has been made by the Netanyahu government, and unfortunately Israel now has less maneuvering room and faces mounting pressure to act. To prevent a continuation of this downward spiral, there is no better time than now to take the lead, demonstrate creativity and take a number of steps which could change the dynamics without being apologetic.
To start with, Israel must waste no time to expand its own inquiry into the tragic flotilla events. As it has been said time and again, the investigation must be credible, thorough, transparent and comprehensive. To do this, the US, Turkey and EU representatives should be invited to take part. Israel should have nothing to hide, but even if its military is found responsible of terrible negligence leading to the death of nine Turks, there is no better way to settle the matter than through such a multinational investigation, while leaving no doubt about the integrity of the inquiry.
An investigation with Turkish participation could, at a minimum, offer the hope that the arduous process of reconciling relations could begin sooner rather than later. The investigation will also make public the nature of the conditions in Gaza, which have been distorted by all sides. In the final analysis, it is up to Israel to demonstrate that political pandering has been at play by those self-described champions of the Palestinian cause, but that can be proven only if it shares with outside powers the true picture about and inside Gaza.
Next, it must take the lead in demonstrating that the blockade was not arbitrary, and regardless of its effectiveness, it is willing to lift it as long as its legitimate security requirements are fully met. It must work closely with the US and select European nations, such as Germany and France, along with Egypt and Turkey, to find a way to end the blockade while making absolutely certain that any and all construction materials are used strictly for civilian purposes.
The Obama administration could spearhead the creation of a monitoring group that Israel can trust. This will also allow the monitors to have a much better sense about Hamas’s internal operations and may in fact reduce rather than increase Hamas’s militancy. Whether or not Hamas accepts the new arrangement, Israel will succeed in internationalizing the Gaza burden, rather than own it lock, stock and barrel.
Under any circumstances, Israel must develop a new strategy to deal with Hamas. The present situation is not only unsustainable, but extraordinarily volatile and dangerous. The current policy does nothing but play into Iran’s hand. To be sure, the blockade has run its course and become a major liability to Israel’s international standing, rather than an asset from which it might still realize some future gains.
WHEREAS THE first two measures are critical and require immediate attention, Israel must also move deliberately to make significant progress with the Palestinian Authority in the proximity talks. The Obama administration has invested heavily in its effort to restart the negotiations.
Although Israel must under any circumstances make some important concessions to move the peace process forward, making such concessions now is particularly important because this can achieve a number of Israeli and American objectives.
Other than help mend Israel’s strained relations with its most critical ally, it would also
enhance America’s credibility in the region, especially following theinitial failures. A discernible progress would also shift fromproximity talks to direct negotiations – something that the Netanyahugovernment seeks – and encourage the Saudis and other Arab states to bemore openly supportive of the US and Israeli efforts in dealing withIran.
It has now become increasingly evident that the Israeli-Turkish crisisover the tragic flotilla affair was driven by political ambitions,rather than by human compassion to provide the Palestinians with morehumanitarian aid. Turkey must demonstrate that it really cares aboutthe Palestinians rather than using their plight for domestic politicalgains, all of which could have averted the flotilla crisis. Turkey,which seeks to assume regional leadership, must play a moreconstructive and responsible role.
What happened on the decks of the Mavi Marmara wasnot murder or massacre as some Turkish officials have portrayed it, andit certainly was not “state terrorism” as Prime Minister Recep TayyipErdogan most regretfully characterizes it. To describe the tragicdeaths in these terms simply further aggravates the already tenuousrelations between the two countries and pushes them to the brink ofcrisis at a time of extraordinary regional volatility. This is adevelopment that serves neither Israel’s nor Turkey’s ultimatestrategic interests.
It is abundantly clear that the situation in the Middle East isbecoming increasingly more dangerous. Iran is speeding toward acquiringnuclear weapons; the tension between Israel and Hizbullah is rising;Syria is assuming a steadily more aggressive posture; and Hamas isriding high on the waves of the flotilla disaster. The room formiscalculation is forever present, and any small incident could triggera regional conflagration. Israel must work closely with the US tochange the equation for the better. This is the moment that will defineAmerican-Israeli relations for decades to come.
The writer is professor of international relations at theCenter for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches international negotiationand Middle Eastern studies. www.alonben-meir.com