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Experts mull Gaza flotilla fallout
Washington Jewish Week / June 17, 2010

By Larry Luxner

One blasted the “negative” role of Turkey and its growing hostility toward Israel. Another lamented the lack of “moral leadership” in the Jewish state, and a third called the IDF’s recent attack on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla a “tragedy, a catastrophic failure.”

Last Thursday night, nearly 300 people crammed into the auditorium of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington to hear three top Middle East experts offer their take on the May 31 incident, which has galvanized the world and thrust Gaza into the spotlight once again.

The panelists were David Makovsky, director of the Washington Institute’s Project on the Middle East Peace Process; Aaron David Miller, public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center, and Yoram Peri, director of the University of Maryland’s Joseph and Alma Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies.

Moderating the event was Washington Jewish Week editor Debra Rubin. Each panelist was given 15 minutes to make his presentation, with a question-and-answer session following the three speeches.

Makovsky is a former journalist who in 2009 co-authored, with Dennis Ross, “Myths, Illusions and Peace: Finding a New Direction in the Middle East.” He noted that the first casualty of the IDF’s naval attack on the flotilla — which left nine Turkish citizens dead — will undoubtedly be Israel’s three-year blockade on all but essential goods into the densely populated Gaza Strip, home to 1.5 million Palestinians.

“Right now, the roof is caving in on the blockade. There’s going to be some reassessment on how to sustain it in a way that makes sense,” he said. “The Israelis fear that if they let in cement and steel, it’ll go for Hamas weapons and bunkers. There has to be a way to monitor this.”

Makovsky added that “the U.S. and Israel are working behind the scenes on this to refocus the blockade and make it sustainable” before June 28, when Netanyahu is scheduled to visit Washington.

Blasting Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan as an Islamist troublemaker, Makovsky said Israel’s 15-year honeymoon with the Turks is clearly over.

“The United States tried reaching out to him, and one of Obama’s first overseas trips was to Turkey,” he said. “There’s a lot of anger at the White House and the State Department now. I hope some of it is made public, because the United States must deter others who try to oppose American interests.”

Miller agreed, noting that “the Turks in particular have played a very destructive role here. Erdogan’s motives go well beyond the flotilla. He’s unhappy with [Turkey’s failure to achieve] entry into the European Union. Turkey’s role in NATO has fundamentally changed as a consequence of the end of the Cold War, so now Erdogan sees a new role for himself as Mr. Palestine.”

Miller, author of the 2008 book “The Much Too Promised Land: America’s Elusive Search for Arab-Israeli Peace,” said the truth matters little when sorting out who was responsible for the bloodshed that day in international waters, more than 90 miles off the coast of Gaza.

“There is no agreement anymore on reality. We may never know what happened on the Mavi Marmara. Even if we did, it wouldn’t do much to change the character of each side’s assessment.”

This, says Miller, is a general reflection of the enemies’ “fundamentally divergent narratives” about what constitutes Palestine.

“The problem in Gaza will not go away. If the Israelis open up the blockade, and they will, it’ll be viewed as a victory for Hamas,” the scholar explained. “The reality is that the Israelis aren’t just interested in the security component. There’s also Gilad Shalit. Politically, it is impossible for any Israeli government to make nice to Gaza while Shalit is still being held.”

He added: Hamas has the power to make peace with Israel but not the incentive. Mahmoud Abbas has the incentive to make peace with Israel, but not the power. What transpired in Gaza would never have occurred under Arafat’s tenure.”

Unfortunately, that same malaise seems to affect Israel as well, he said.

“Israel’s leaders of today lack the moral authority and skills in matters of warmaking and peacemaking. The leadership deficit that confronts not just Israel but the region at large is missing a fundamentally critical ingredient that will be required for ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” he said, suggesting that only “transformed hawks” — not leftists — can bring about peace.

The most stinging criticism of Israel came from Peri, the only Israeli on the panel. While insisting that the IDF acted in self-defense and that its actions were legal under international law — according to Article 42 of the United Nations charter — Peri said that tactically the commando raid was a blunder of historic proportions.

“Nine civilians were killed. Every person who was killed is a tragedy, and Israeli soldiers were severely injured,” he said. “Secondly, it was a failure from an operational point of view.”

Peri, who’s written extensively on Israeli media, politics and society, said his country’s position in the world has weakened dramatically as a consequence of the May 31 confrontation.

“Gaza has again become a major topic in the international consciousness. The relationship between Jews and Arabs has really suffered, and the Turkey-Syria-Iran axis has become much stronger. The entire balance of power in the Middle East is changing. The U.S. is weaker than it was, as are moderates like Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Peri lamented the fact that Israel was forced to relax its blockade against Gaza without getting anything in return. He suggested Israel should have used “more sophisticated techniques” like disabling the boat or sabotaging it beforehand.

“It was obvious that people on the ship were waiting for the Israeli soldiers. They were begging for them to come,” he said. “So take the helicopter and drop flowers instead. You can use all sorts of PR tricks. The fact is, because of what happened with the Goldstone report, the Israelis were very cautious this time not to use too much force. So they went to the other extreme and didn’t give the soldiers enough weapons to secure themselves — not knowing they’d be attacked.”

Peri added: “Many elements of the blockade do not relate to security at all. One reason for the blockade was to punish the civilians who voted for Hamas. But you cannot do that in the modern world [without] the entire world criticizing you.”

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