The Changing Middle East
The Changing Middle East
by Sarah Ann Haves
Most of the global public would look at May 31, 2010, as the day that rapid change took place in the Middle East. That is the day that Israeli naval commandos boarded the Mavi Marmara ship, one of several ships in a Turkish sponsored flotilla that was trying to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza.
As they descended on ropes from helicopters, the Israeli commandos faced violent Islamic extremists. Using metal bars, knives, clubs, and a pistol they grabbed from an Israeli soldier, the extremists seemed intent on a lynching. Acting in self-defense, the Israeli commandos shot and killed nine men. On the Israeli side, several commandos were wounded by the extremists. At least one commando was seriously injured in the head, and then further hurt when he was thrown over the ship railing.
The flotilla of ships claimed to be carrying humanitarian aid and peace activists to Gaza. But, along with the aid and activists were at least 40 terrorists on board the Mavi Marmara ship, some of whom were on Israel’s most wanted list. Activists on board other ships in the flotilla surrendered to Israeli military forces without incident.
Israel botched the takeover of the Mavi Marmara ship because the Israeli navy had faulty intelligence and was not prepared to meet terrorists on board. All those who died were Turkish nationalists. The incident caused an unprecedented global outcry. Many embassies around the world demanded an explanation from Israeli diplomats, and countries were quick to cut off ties with Israel. The Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan blasted Israel in the media, downgraded relations with the Jewish State, and has since threatened to take the matter to the international court, accusing Israel of war crimes. After the flotilla incident, nations began to demand that Israel not only open up its border crossings into Gaza, but also allow the Gaza sea port to be developed and opened to ship traffic.
Before this crisis, there were already telltale signs that change was coming to the region, but no one expected that a flotilla of ships would start a war of attrition at sea. Now, Israel waits for more ships to try and break the Gaza blockade.
RELATIONS WITH AMERICA AND EUROPE
Since the flotilla crisis, Israel has yielded to American pressure, and opened up the border crossings to allow all food supplies and household goods into Gaza. The only materials being held back are those that could be used by terrorists to make rockets. Israel will also not allow any arms to get to the Hamas terrorist regime that rules Gaza.
Bowing to the demands of President Barack Obama’s Administration, Israel has agreed to allow economic prosperity to flourish in Gaza, even though it’s expected to greatly strengthen the political power of Hamas, and increase the group’s popularity among Gaza’s residents.
Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has also agreed to allow EU inspectors at Israeli border crossings, which, in essence, means that Israel will be sharing some control of the Gaza periphery. This is an unusual step and could pave the way for Israel to eventually agree to a permanent international monitoring force along its borders. Until now, Israeli officials have cited the failure of such forces to have an impact on arms smuggling. This has been the case in Lebanon where UN international forces have not stopped weapons transfers to Hezbollah, under the requirements of UN Security Resolution 1701. This resolution was supposed to be enforced after the Second Lebanon War, but the resolution was never really implemented.
Because of increased tensions between Netanyahu and Obama, Israel’s Prime Minister has put his Defense Minister Ehud Barak in charge of Israel’s strategic cooperation with the U.S. Barak has used this influential position to appease the Obama Administration. He has threatened Netanyahu that his Labor Party may bolt the Israeli government if certain conditions are not met. Those conditions are, apparently, Obama’s current demands of Israel.
This attempt by the Obama Administration to influence Israel’s foreign policy, and to pressure Israel’s coalition members, could eventually lead to a political shake-up of the Israeli government. Since the flotilla crisis, a weakened and isolated Israel has given the Obama Administration more leverage on the diplomatic front. Despite Israel’s recent concessions regarding Gaza, the White House has stated that it will work with its international partners to explore additional ways to improve the situation in Gaza, including greater freedom of movement and commerce between Gaza and the West Bank.
What this signals is Obama’s support for reconciliation efforts between Fatah and Hamas. This would unify the Palestinians, and strengthen their demand for a contiguous independent state stretching from the West Bank to Gaza. It would make it more difficult for Israel to stop arms smuggling, or to stop collaboration between terrorist groups. Any rockets received by West Bank terrorists could be used against Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport, and against civilian populations in coastal cities. If Obama is truly behind Fatah-Hamas unity, it would indicate a significant change in U.S. foreign policy.
Meanwhile, Turkey seems to have aspirations of becoming the mediator in future Fatah-Hamas reconciliation talks. Egypt has been mediating between the two groups for several years now, but has failed to get the parties to agree to certain demands for reconciliation.
INTERNATIONAL APPROVAL AND PRESSURE
Israel still has the approval of the U.S., along with the Quartet (U.S., UN, EU, and Russia) to keep the Gaza sea port closed to direct traffic. This includes inhibiting any new construction of the port which would enhance the ability of Hamas to receive large cargo ships.
Netanyahu said, in a weekly cabinet meeting on June 10, 2010, that Israel would not allow the establishment of an Iranian port in Gaza. Israel’s intent is to prevent Iranian missiles from being smuggled in to Gaza through the port. But, there is a call by some in the European community to allow aid ships to be inspected by international monitoring forces stationed off the coast of Cyprus. Then, after inspection and approval, the ships could sail on to Gaza. This, however, would curtail Israel’s ability to monitor the ships for arms and contraband. So far, Israel has been able to ward off this kind of intrusion into its security efforts at sea.
RELATIONS WITH TURKEY
At one time, the Israeli tourism industry boasted more than 100,000 flights from Tel Aviv to Turkey, which have now been cancelled following the flotilla crisis. At least 500,000 Israeli tourists once enjoyed Turkish hospitality at inexpensive hotels and resorts. Now, some tour companies claim Israeli tourism to Turkey has come to a screeching halt.
Since early June, at least $20 million in trade between Israel and Turkey has been in jeopardy, as well as lucrative arm sales to the Turkish military by Israel’s defense industries. Turkey has been increasingly critical towards Israel since the Gaza War of 2008-2009. Interested in a closer relationship with Hamas, Turkey is gaining popularity in Gaza. Before Operation Cast Lead, Israel and Turkey enjoyed landmark military cooperation and a strategic partnership. Now, Israeli military officials are concerned that the Turkish government’s access to advanced Israeli military technology could result in leaks to the Hamas regime. Turkey has stopped participating in military exercises with Israel, while pursuing upgrades in military cooperation with Syria.
Israeli-Turkish relations were deteriorating long before the flotilla crisis, due to Erdogan’s growing interest in renewing ties with the Islamic world. Turkey had already irritated Israel and the U.S. when it tried, with Brazil, to broker a deal with Iran over its nuclear issue. Turkey and Brazil were the only countries to recently vote against UN sanctions imposed on Iran.
Erdogan’s ambition may be to create an atmosphere for Turkey to become a leading regional superpower. To do this, he seems willing to sacrifice Turkey’s diplomatic and military relations with Israel. Sunni Turkey may want to eventually usurp Shiite Iran in becoming the ultimate defender of Islam. With ties to NATO and the West; and, with a more stable economy than Iran; Erdogan has already extended his influence in the Islamic world, in a way that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has failed to do.
ISRAEL’S P.O.W HELD IN GAZA – GILAD SHALIT
The bolster to Hamas in Israel easing restrictions at the Gaza border crossings also complicates the negotiation process for the release of Israel’s soldier being held captive in Gaza. Hamas has not allowed Gilad Shalit’s family the Red Cross, or humanitarian groups to see Shalit since Hamas kidnapped him on June 25, 2006. Now that Hamas has been strengthened by the diplomatic community, its price for a prisoner exchange with Israel will be higher. Israel has agreed to release several hundred Palestinian prisoners, but Netanyahu refuses to allow terrorists with blood on their hands to return to their homes in the West Bank. He says past experience has proven that these terrorists will try and strike Israel again.
Some analysts say that the flotilla crisis has been a turning point in Middle East history; that a new order has now emerged. Turkey has shifted into the Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Gaza axis; and, Islamic forces in the region have been emboldened. Turkey is now a popular supporter of Iran’s terrorist proxy, Hamas; and, Turkey’s stature within the Islamic world has greatly improved.
The greatest challenge to Israel since the flotilla crisis is that it recognizes it doesn’t yet have a clear deterrence policy in place to stop more flotillas from attempting to break the Gaza blockade. Israel’s long-term security interests may have been weakened by its recent concessions to the international community to ease the flow of goods to Gaza. At the same time, Hamas reached its goal of isolating Israel, diplomatically, while solidifying its control over the Gaza Strip. And, Israel’s POW Gilad Shalit is still being held captive by Hamas, going on four years since the Second Lebanon War.
While the Middle East is experiencing change, some things never change…. Israel’s challenges now and in the future are as daunting as ever.
“The Lord brings the counsel of the nations to nothing. He makes the plans of the peoples of no effect. The counsel of the Lord stands forever; The plans of His heart to all generations. Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord; The people He has chosen as His own inheritance.”
Ms. Haves is a news analyst, reporting from Israel on political, diplomatic, military and spiritual issues affecting the nation.
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Unless otherwise indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. Copyright ©1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.