The violence that occurred last Monday from the takeover by Israeli commandos of the pro-Palestinian activists' ship, the "Mavi Marmara," was very unfortunate and troubling. At least nine activists were killed and dozens of people were injured, including several commandos. It should not have happened. Although all the facts on the confrontation are not yet publicly available, it would appear that Israel's government and military leaders could have handled the takeover differently so as to have minimized chances of possible casualties as well as the resultant widespread outrage and criticism from around the world.
However, it also seems clear that the Israelis are not the only ones to blame for this tragic outcome. From several reports it appears that a number of the activists physically resisted the takeover, fighting the commandos with sticks and fists, apparently throwing one of the commandos overboard, provoking the commandos to use more force. Additionally, other guilty parties appear to include the Turkish government, previously considered a key and reliable ally of Israel, and IHH, an Istanbul-based Islamic "charity" which was the primary sponsor of the activists' plan to break Israel's sea blockade of Gaza which has been in place since June 2007 when Hamas took control of the Gaza territory after a brief fight with the PLO and the Fatah faction. IHH purchased three of the six ships of which the "Mavi Marmara" was the lead vessel. The seller apparently was the city government of Istanbul. It's been widely reported that IHH has close links to Hamas, still considered a terrorist organization by the U. S. and several of our allies.
This episode represents still another big challenge for President Obama and his administration that he didn't need. He's seriously involved whether he wants to be or not, since Mid-East peace and stability are at stake, the U. S. is Israel's strongest ally by far, Turkey has been a major U. S. partner in NATO and, until this episode, another important friend of Israel. Turkey's government, led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has strongly criticized Obama for not denouncing the Israeli commando operation and stated that Turkey can never forgive Israeli for their actions. Obama has understandably used a good deal of his time since taking office in courting Erdogan. But this same Erdogan does not consider Hamas a terrorist organization and he was one of the first major government leaders to congratulate Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for winning in Iran's presidential election last year. Obama must lead the team reviewing our goals and strategies for dealing with Turkey and the problematic future of Israel/Palestinian negotiations, but presumably Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will also be very actively involved.
There are several noteworthy factors in defense of Israel's broadly criticized blockade. Hamas does not recognize Israel's right to exist and on several occasions their leaders have even made it clear that they are committed to Israel's destruction. They are also opposed to any peace agreement between the Palestinisans and Israel. Of course, their militants have many times sent destructive rockets into towns and villages they've been able to reach in the south of Israel. While it's a rather complicated issue, it would appear that the blockade of Gaza is in fact entirely legal under international law in the circumstances we have here. It's also important to be reminded that Israel still allows humanitarian aid to be provided to the Palestinian people by shipment through their port of Ashdod, located about 40 kilometers south of Tel Aviv. The blockade has been publicly announced for about three years. Everyone involved knew that Israel would not allow any pro-Hamas or pro-Palestinian militants to break their blockade. No one should have been surprised.
It's clear there will be at least one thorough investigation of the confrontation on the "Mavi Marmara." What's not clear is who will be leading and participating in the investigation(s). Israel will most likely have their own. Turkey may have their own, but they probably prefer one led by the United Nations. The outcome of the investigation is not entirely clear either. If it's a U. N. investigation, I suspect there will be strong criticism of Israel. It's less likely there would be any significant direct criticism of Turkey, although the U. S. would no doubt lobby to make sure that's part of the conclusions.
Given the long, largely unsuccessful history of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, despite high-level mediation by several U. S. leaders and political support from the U. N., Hamas' control of Gaza, and this latest incident, it is very difficult to be optimistic about any substantive lasting future peace agreement. However, there are a number of pragmatic action steps that could be very helpful, aside from continuing U. S. mediation. First, an Israeli apology for the deaths and injuries sustained last Monday from their commandos and a clear willingness to stop any further Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Second, though frankly it's quite unlikely, Hamas' recognition of Israel's right to exist, commitment to non-violence, and support of a U. S. and U. N. sponsored balanced and fair peace agreement. Third, also not probable, the Turkish government accepting some blame for what happened Monday and publicly revising their harsh words toward Israel and the U. S. Fourth, the Palestinians in Gaza voting or fighting for a much more moderate position on peace with Israel. Fifth, full support for a balanced and fair peace agreement from Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia.
Clearly, with all the other higher priority major public policy issues President Obama is dealing with, and continuing tough foreign policy issues with Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and North Korea, among others, he cannot justify spending a great deal of his limited time on this subject during the rest of his term. Other political leaders will need to step up, especially those in Israel, the Palestinian territories, and the rest of the Mid-East. The prospects certainly don't look good right now.