INSS Insight No. 189, June 23, 2010
Although too little time has elapsed since the flotilla episode to allow full perspective, it is already clear that the operational failure involving the takeover of the Mavi Marmara and the international criticism of Israel's action have damaged Israel's international standing, its image as a law abiding state, and its strategic relations with Turkey and other countries. This is the newest expression of a reality that has accompanied Israel over the years: in the given circumstances, an operational mishap, even if confined to a narrow tactical level, can sometimes have far reaching strategic implications. While presumably this is understood by the decision making echelon in Israel, it is less clear to what extent this has been internalized within the operational echelon.
Still, while recognizing the serious negative aspects of the flotilla incident, a balanced review also reveals some dimensions that from Israel's point of view are quite positive. First, the international community, led by the American administration, has granted almost full recognition to Israel's fundamental right to prevent the supply of weapons to Hamas in the Gaza Strip. The implication might be that Israel is entitled to impose a naval blockade on Gaza in order to prevent the smuggling of arms – although this understanding was accompanied by calls to significantly ease the land blockade and allow entry of more goods and commodities, barring specific materials that could strengthen Hamas's military strength and its ability to attack Israel. Furthermore, Israel was asked to agree to a move whereby the authority to inspect goods entering the Gaza Strip would be given to a third party, almost certainly a European country.
From Israel's viewpoint, this is a political achievement that should not be underestimated. True, inspection by a foreign entity, even a credible, respectable country would not be as tight and secure as Israeli inspection, and there would likely be quite a few instances of smuggling of arms into Gaza. This is a reality Israel will have to learn to live with. Yet even tight Israeli inspection cannot guarantee entirely against dangerous weapons infiltrating into Gaza, and thus the arrangement that is taking shape appears to be one that Israel can be satisfied with.
A second positive result of the flotilla incident was scored in the relationship between Israel and the US. During the course of UN discussions on the flotilla, the American administration made it clear it would not lend a hand to a sweeping assault on Israel's standing or its legitimate right to defend itself and investigate its own actions. The decision to establish an Israeli commission of inquiry that includes foreign observers of recognized international status is convenient for Israel, despite the element that bespeaks a small undermining of Israel's sovereignty. The fact that the American administration gave its full backing to the decision opened the way for a quiet and matter of fact Israeli-American strategic dialogue. This dialogue will likely end with the hammering out of an arrangement concerning the Gaza blockade, in cooperation with European countries.
This strategic dialogue between Israel and the Obama administration may symbolize the turning over of a new leaf in US-Israel bilateral relations. Following a difficult period of tension, muscle flexing, and mudslinging, it seems that both sides, but mainly the Obama administration, have concluded that such a reality serves neither the vital interests of Israel nor the US. The two sides have learned gradually, and to a great extent the hard way, to recognize the limitations of their strength. They have understood the need to debate the strategic issues that are important to them in a way that is fair, businesslike, and discreet – and far from the eyes of the media.
Beyond this, the Gaza flotilla and the events in its wake have emphasized the "common destiny" shared by Israel and the Palestinian Authority, headed by Abu Mazen. The Palestinian Authority, and not only Israel, is greatly interested in preventing the strengthening of Hamas in Gaza on both a military and political level. Sweeping criticism of Israel following its apparent operational failure in taking over the Turkish ship plus the huge sympathy exhibited in the international arena towards Hamas, the "victim of Israeli occupation," almost certainly worried heads of the Palestinian Authority, and not only Israel. The primary concern is over the possibility of an avalanche of international criticism that forces Israel to totally rescind the Gaza blockade. This could lead to the dramatic strengthening of Hamas in the Gaza Strip as well as on the Palestinian "street" in the West Bank. As such, it would generate a threat not only to Israel but also to the PA.
This accentuation of the "strategic partnership" between Israel and the Palestinian Authority may lead to the PA adopting more pragmatic and moderate stances towards Israel in the context of the peace process. The PA's policy towards Israel in the past year has been noteworthy for its blunt and extreme approach, based in part on the assumption that the Obama administration would embrace the PA's extreme positions and impose conditions convenient to the PA on Israel. The Obama administration's demand that Israel freeze settlement activity in all of Judea and Samaria, and later in East Jerusalem as well, symbolized from a PA viewpoint the great success of this posture. The fact is that both individually and together, Israel and the PA face a serious threat from Hamas and its regional and international allies. It is highly possible that the spotlight on this reality will lead the PA to adopt more realistic positions that will advance the peace process between both sides.
The flotilla episode stressed the fact that Israel is joined at the hip to the Gaza Strip; in fact it seems that in the foreseeable future Israel has no option whatsoever to sever itself from the Strip. In the five years since the disengagement, this reality has gradually seeped into Israeli society and its leadership. However, different circles continue to entertain the existence of an option for a total detachment of the two sides. It appears that the events of the flotilla have put an end to this severance idea. From now on, the Israeli leadership will have to act based on the assumption that Israel cannot in the near future remove from its shoulders its responsibility for the Gaza Strip and its population. If this indeed is the situation, Israel would do well to come to terms with this reality and act accordingly.
Finally, the events of the flotilla underscored the difficulties in realizing a state of demilitarization as part of an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord based on the two-state solution. Numerous proponents of the accord have for years argued that Israel should not fear for its security following the establishment of a Palestinian state, as it would be a demilitarized state. Israel would provide for the creation of mechanisms that bar the infiltration of heavy weapons into the Palestinian state. It is also argued that the international community too, mainly the European countries, would be ready to lend a hand and contribute to enforcing demilitarization. If PA security forces are armed only with light personal weapons, it is clearly in their best interest to enforce law within the PA rather than wage war against Israel. Practically speaking, the events of the flotilla prove that maintaining demilitarization over time necessitates the goodwill of Palestinian governing authorities in the new state and their cooperating to preserve demilitarization. Israel will also have to take into account the possibility of the absence of goodwill.
It is possible that Israel will face situations similar to the flotilla incident in which heavy international pressure is exerted on it to avoid taking steps to enforce demilitarization. At the end of the day, enforcing demilitarization is not impossible. However, in order to guarantee it, explicit and firm arrangements are required, including under circumstances where there is no cooperation from the Palestinian side.