The contrived Turkish-led aid flotilla crisis was intended to force Israel to lift its arms blockade of Gaza. While the Israelis were victorious in forcing the flotilla to its demands, the political outcomes are still reverberating around the globe.
For now the Islamist forces have been emboldened, Turkey has been added to the list of terrorism supporters and long-term Israeli security has been weakened.
But what’s President Obama going to do? It appears the President is inclined to lean on Israel to accept more risk in Gaza—abandon the blockade, which would further radicalize the region vis-à-vis greater Iranian influence and increase violence against Israelis.
Obama isn’t averse to leaning on Jerusalem because U.S.-Israeli relations are already on the skids. The Israeli intelligence chief Meir Dagan told the Knesset last week that “bit by bit, Israel is becoming less of a strategic asset for America.” The result is to downgrade Israel’s importance for America and increase pressure for Jerusalem to realign itself with U.S. interests.
U.S. National Security Council spokesman Mike Hammer was quick to declare Obama’s position. “The current arrangements [in Gaza] are unsustainable and must be changed,” Hammer said. He offered no alternative to the blockade nor defended Israeli actions.
Obama’s Middle East policies have no traction. He made his famous speech to the Muslim world last summer from Cairo University promising change, but so far his Mideast initiatives have fallen flat. There is no positive movement on Israeli-Palestinian peace; Syria quit peace talks; diplomacy failed with Iran; Iraq is in political turmoil; and the Afghan war is going badly. Terrorists squeezed from war zones are turning up in Yemen to Detroit.
Things got even worse last week. A six-ship aid flotilla organized by a terrorist-leaning group from Istanbul tried to crash Israel’s blockade of the radical Hamas-run Gaza Strip. Israeli commandos intercepted the flotilla before it reached Gaza, which resulted in a violent clash that infuriated its sponsor, Turkey, and created an international backlash against Israel.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defended the blockade. It was meant to keep weapons out of the hands of the Iranian-backed Hamas and he would “not allow the establishment of an Iranian port in Gaza.” The U.S. State Department accuses Iran of providing “extensive” funding, weapons and training to Hamas.
Obama will lean on Israel to quickly repair relations with Turkey. Turkey’s Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said, “Israel stands to lose its closest ally in the Middle East if it does not change its mentality.” Erdogan rejects claims that Hamas is a terrorist organization.
Obama needs Erdogan’s help to safely withdraw American forces from Iraq and facilitate a solution with Tehran on its nuclear program. No doubt Turkey’s ally Tehran welcomes international pressure focused on the Israeli blockade rather than its nuclear program and not surprising, on June 6, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei offered Iran’s navy to escort aid ships to Gaza.
But Obama could push Netanyahu too hard. Hamas is a terrorist organization according to the U.S. Department of State and has a declared goal of destroying Israel. It has rained thousands of rockets from Gaza on Israeli settlements and Netanyahu indicates those rockets can already reach major Israeli cities.
Under international law “Israel has every right to interdict this weaponry and to inspect the ships that might be transporting them,” Netanyahu told his nation. He explained, “We have already interdicted vessels bound for Hezbollah and for Hamas from Iran, containing hundreds of tons of weapons.” That’s why, Netanyahu said, “Israel simply cannot permit the free flow of weapons and war materials to Hamas from the sea.”
The flotilla crisis was manufactured by Hamas sympathizers and perhaps with support from Turkey’s Islamist governing party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP). That explains why the Turkish government said the flotilla was a civilian initiative, but it appears the operation was sanctioned by the AKP to increase Turkey’s credibility in the Muslim world and distance itself from Israel.
Nearly 700 activists joined the flotilla hosted by a Turkish aid group, the Foundation for Human Rights and Freedom and Humanitarian Relief, known by its Turkish acronym IHH. A press report indicates law enforcement recently found firearms, explosives and bomb-making instructions, along with a jihad flag in IHH’s Istanbul offices. Stratfor, an American intelligence think tank, reports the IHH bought the Mavi Marmara cruise ship that led the flotilla from “the Istanbul municipality at a hefty discount.”
Israel outlawed the IHH in 2008 because of its ties to Hamas. Last year, the IHH leader, Bulent Yildrim, spoke defiantly in Gaza City, “We are not afraid of anyone but Allah.” Yildrim is accused by French intelligence of recruiting soldiers for the “coming holy war [jihad]” and allegedly dispatched men to war zones to gain combat experience.
On May 30, the day before the flotilla confrontation, Hamas television showed an interview with Yildrim. “We will not allow the Zionists to get near us and we will use resistance against them,” Yildrim said. He continued, “How will they wage resistance? They will resist with their fingernails. They are people who seek martyrdom for Allah, as much as they want to reach Gaza, but the first [martyrdom] is more desirable.”
The Turkish government allegedly inspected and approved all passengers and cargo prior to departure. But well-known terrorists and terror sympathizers from many countries were aboard. There were Jordanian, Yemeni, and Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood delegations, the group that inspired the creation of al Qaeda. There were Kuwaiti Salafists, convicted arms smugglers and Algerian Islamists seeking “martyrdom.” The flotilla organizers asked all participants to “write their wills.”
Netanyahu said Israel offered “to deliver the goods on board the flotilla to Gaza after a security inspection.” The Israeli commandos tried to persuade the ships to alter course but the terrorists “rejected” the offers and taunted the Israelis shouting “Go back to Auschwitz,” officials said.
The Israelis knew the flotilla was looking for a fight which makes Jerusalem’s decision to board the Mavi Marmara, where nine activists died, hard to understand. Jerusalem will investigate to determine why other less deadly courses of action weren’t followed.
Israeli commandos rappelled from helicopters onto the ship’s deck and “Were met with a vicious mob. They were stabbed, clubbed, and fired upon. They were going to be killed and they had to act in self-defense,” Netanyahu said.
YouTube videos show the terrorists were battle ready. They are seen waiting on the ship’s deck outfitted with gas masks, bulletproof vests and portable communication devices. Israeli forensic experts found casings belonging to a weapon that was not used by the commandos and the Turkish captain reportedly told the Israelis the “mercenaries” threw their weapons overboard after the commandos took control of the vessel.
The flotilla crisis has clear winners and losers. Iran and Hamas win because there will inevitably be some loosening of the blockade. Israel becomes the biggest loser because Obama will force Jerusalem to accept something less than the current blockade and thereby put Israel in greater jeopardy.
The big unknown is Turkey — will Ankara continue to gain credibility in the Islamic world through its anti-Israeli stand? Obama’s policies are encouraging Turkey to do just that. As for Obama, he may gain praise for being tough on Israel, but in the long-term U.S. national security will be weakened as the terrorists gain confidence in their success.