Asserting its need to be secure from future terrorism launched from Gaza, Israel used force last week to maintain a blockade that has been creating a humanitarian cataclysm for the people of Gaza. In the early days following the attack on the aid flotilla, the Israeli military interpretation of events dominated much of the popular media coverage in the United States. Gradually, though, attention shifted to the incident’s negative impact on Israel’s international standing and the security implications of continued international and regional uproar. Key American interests are at risk, as well. Israel’s administration of the blockade and specifically its military action of May 31 are also undermining strategies that are designed to protect real interests affecting US national security. This will continue into the future, as this incident is likely to be followed by more international efforts to run the blockade.
Unless there is success in resuming meaningful progress toward Palestinian-Israeli peace, the Obama Administration will lose its early momentum toward restoring confidence in our Middle East role. Obama highlighted the centrality of this effort in one of his first acts as President, when he appointed a heavyweight peace mediator, former Senator George Mitchell, to the job of special envoy to the Middle East. Mitchell may be able to resume lost momentum. PLO Chairman and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will keep talking to Mitchell, who has again flown to the region for proximity talks with Palestinians and Israelis. After this week’s events, Abbas is nervously looking over his shoulder at a Palestinian constituency that is very sympathetic to the suffering of the Gazans, and is less likely to agree anytime soon to the direct talks Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu wants, thereby stalling the negotiation process. Paradoxically, this may increase pressure on Netanyahu to make substantive concessions in the course of the proximity talks, something he would have preferred to do in direct talks. Netanyahu’s hints of greater flexibility in direct talks may, of course, have been empty gestures, but now he does not have the same degree of flexibility.
It has been American strategy to build up Abbas and his Prime Minister, Fayyad Salam, at the expense of Hamas in Gaza. Both the United States and its European allies have put substantial resources into this effort. It has shown some success on the ground in the West Bank in the form of gradual improvements in economic conditions and civil society development required for eventual Palestinian statehood. Key Arab allies of the United States, particularly Egypt, have found it acceptable to defer dealing with the problem of Gaza through this approach. The action against the Gaza relief flotilla, however, has highlighted Abbas’ weakness and upped the pressure on him to appease the anger of his Palestinian constituency. By further undermining the Palestinian authorities in Ramallah, the evolution of the Gaza humanitarian crisis makes it harder for President Abbas to negotiate credibly for the Palestinian people as a whole.
Even more serious for the United States are the dire effects on its ability to protect national security interests in the greater Middle East. The Gaza flotilla events have undermined America’s claim to be a reliable strategic partner of our NATO ally Turkey, as well as key Arab and Muslim states whose cooperation the US needs. While we have made some progress in the past year and a half in getting them to trust our policies toward Iran and Al Qaeda, the festering sore of Palestine has increased the reluctance of those governments to take risks for our shared security concerns. For as long as the West Bank continues losing land and territorial contiguity and Israeli settlements become more firmly entrenched, Muslim governments will doubt America’s commitment to the two state solution. As long as Gaza is a concentration camp of misery without any signs of a meaningful peace process for Palestinians, there will be more opportunity for Iranian influence and radical groups committed to terrorism to take hold.
If the Netanyahu government had purposefully tried to validate claims of damage to America’s regional security strategy due to the Israeli-Palestinian standoff, they could not have done a better job. That the latest downward turn on the spiral of regional crisis took place on Memorial Day is an irony that is hard to ignore.
Assertions and opinions in this Commentary are solely those of the above-mentioned author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Middle East Institute, which expressly does not take positions on Middle East policy.