The United Nations Security Council speaking with one voice against Israel exposed a significant strain, however shortlived, in Tel Aviv's ties with Washington.
Israel's imprudent commando raid on an aid flotilla headed for the besieged Gaza has generated an international wave of righteous anger which promises to shake up West Asia's oppressive political order.
Pre-dawn images of gun-toting commandos slithering from helicopters on the deck of the Turkish humanitarian aid ship, Mavi Marmara, and the bloodbath that followed on May 31 have left the world aghast. Within hours of the incident, the United Nations Security Council convened in New York and what happened thereafter was truly extraordinary. In a presidential statement, the UNSC condemned the Israeli raid. It also instructed Tel Aviv to free immediately 480 pro-Palestinian activists who were detained following the incident and release the ships. It called upon Israel to lift the three-year-old blockade imposed on Gaza — a narrow stamp-sized coastal strip on the Mediterranean, one of the most densely populated regions in the world.
The implications of the UNSC speaking with one voice against Israel are far reaching. Most important, it has exposed a significant strain, however short-lived, in Israel's ties with the United States. Despite a frantic call from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the White House for intervention, the U.S. did not concede too much. Its diplomats at the UNSC toned down the language of the draft framed by Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkish Foreign Minister, and some Arab delegates, but did not dilute its essence.
Unlike the comparatively mellow U.S. response, the Europeans were forceful in their condemnation. “It is clearer than ever that Israel's restrictions on access to Gaza must be lifted in line with Security Council Resolution 1860,” said Mark Lyall Grant, British ambassador to the United Nations. Passed in January 2009, resolution 1860 called for unimpeded humanitarian assistance to Gaza. Nick Clegg, Liberal Democrat leader and new British Deputy Prime Minister, is a well-known critic of Israeli policies in the Palestinian territories.
The European Union also slammed the Israeli raid, and demanded an “immediate, full and impartial inquiry into the events and the circumstances surrounding them.” It emphasised that it did not accept “the continued policy of closure,” which was “unacceptable and politically counterproductive.”
Unambiguous in its criticism, the Russian Foreign Ministry called the use of “weapons against citizens and the seizing of ships in open waters with no legal grounds a gross violation of commonly accepted international legal norms.” In line with the EU statement, the Russians asserted that the Israeli raid and its aftermath justified the “necessity to halt the Gaza blockade.”
Unlike in the past tragedies, including Israel's Gaza 2008-09 winter offensive, why has the European response against Israel been so ferocious? The answer, in large part, lies in the list of passengers on board the flotilla. Those on board the ships, including Mavi Marmara, were not weak and hapless — unable to match Israel and its mighty friends.
On the contrary, the Gaza sympathisers on the voyage included powerful European parliamentarians. There were also former diplomats as well as intellectual luminaries, including Henning Mankell, Swedish author of the celebrated novel, The Man from Beijing. The Israeli attack on some seriously influential people in the western world set alight a volcano of protests in large parts of the globe, including several European capitals.
The organisers belonging to the Free Gaza Movement (FGM), a coalition of pro-Palestinian human rights organisations, deserve substantive credit for raising the world consciousness against Israel's unjust Gaza siege. Committed to “overcoming this brutal siege through civil resistance and direct action,” the FGM has worked patiently and imaginatively with international sympathisers to draw global attention to the humanitarian crisis, mainly by organising well publicised boat trips to the coastal strip. Forty-four passengers from 17 countries were on board the first ship that sailed successfully to Gaza in August 2008. Nobel laureate Mairead Maguire and Palestinian lawmaker Mustapha Barghouti joined 25 others drawn from 12 countries in the next voyage that year. Eleven past and present European parliamentarians participated in yet another journey, while the envoys from a charity in Qatar became the first Arabs to break the Gaza siege.
The voyages to Gaza on at least two earlier occasions became highly risky. Dignity, hired by the organisation, nearly sank when the Israeli navy rammed the boat three times during its sail in December 2008 in the wake of Israel's war with Hamas in the coastal strip. On another occasion, the Israeli forces took over the aid ship Spirit of Humanity and deported the passengers.
Under the watch of the FGM, the Istanbul-based Turkish charity Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief (IHH), played the lead role in organising the Freedom Flotilla which came under the latest Israeli attack.
The unabated wave of global protests, involving several governments, has major political implications. For the first time, Israel's utility as a premier western ally in West Asia is being seriously questioned. On the contrary, the growing revulsion against the Israeli raid has brought into sharp focus Turkey's emergence as the region's heavyweight, its influence surging in sync with the aspirations of the Europeans and the Muslim world.
Turkey's rise at the expense of Israel has been the result of diplomatic nimbleness and careful preparation. Well aware of the deep influence the Palestinian issue exercises over the region's collective consciousness, Turkey began to raise its voice against the sufferings of the Gaza residents. The Turks went to extraordinary lengths to slam Israel and empathise with the Gazans, victims of heavy phosphorous bombing, during Israel's winter war with Hamas. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's famed walkout after his high-profile spat with Israeli President at Davos boosted Ankara's pro-Palestinian credentials.
The Gaza war also brought Turkey closer to three other influential countries — Iran, Syria and Qatar, which stood up for the people of Gaza as they were being terrorised by the Israeli air and ground campaign. The move paid off, for Turkey has now been welcomed by Iran as a partner to resolve its nuclear row with the West. Turkey's ties with its neighbour, Syria, have improved so rapidly that both countries have signed a visa free regime.
The acceptance of Turkey as a key leader of the Muslim world is only expected to rise after the Mavi Marmara incident. The Turkish leadership's pithy condemnation of Israel is bound to resonate well in West Asia. Mr. Erdogan's televised address to his party workers on June 4 grabbed international headlines, and he is now riding high in cyberspace. Speaking at the Turkish city of Konya, Mr. Erdogan said: “You [Israel] killed 19-year-old Furkan Dogan brutally. Which faith, which holy book can be an excuse for killing him?” He was referring to the youngest of the nine activists killed on board Mavi Marmara, which was flying the Turkish flag. “I am speaking to them in their own language. The sixth commandment says ‘thou shalt not kill.' Did you not understand? I'll say again. I say in English ‘you shall not kill.' Did you still not understand? So I'll say it to you in your own language. I say in Hebrew ‘Lo Tirtzakh'.”
Despite the Israeli lobby throwing about its weight, Europe at some point is likely to welcome Turkey's deliberated strategic assertion in West Asia. From a European perspective, Turkey's espousal of moderate Islam is a perfect antidote to the virulence of the al-Qaeda variety. With its following in the region galloping, Turkey is well positioned to emerge as a well-grounded pillar in the so-called war on terrorism. Its credentials as a well established democracy are also bound to appeal to the western world. Its membership of the NATO alliance reinforces its credentials as a trustworthy ally.
While highly influential pro-Israel organisations like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) are expected to work overtime to sway the Obama administration and Congress in Israel's favour, they may find it difficult to drive a wedge between Washington and Ankara. Turkey is central to U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The bulk of U.S. military supplies for Iraq is routed through Turkey's Incirlik Air Force Base. Turkish troops are deployed in significant numbers as part of the NATO force in Afghanistan.
Besides, President Obama eyes Turkey as a gateway to the Muslim world. As scorching winds of change sweep across West Asia after Israel's raid on the Gaza aid flotilla, India too is bound to feel the heat.
People in the region are waiting to hear an assertive and principled South Asian voice which is in sync with the region's turning tide. If India finds its voice and delivers, it will reassure the vast majority in West Asia that despite the perceived demands of realpolitik that have drawn India towards Israel, New Delhi's moral compass continues to remain intact.