The Memorial Day bloodshed in the Mediterranean has readily visible consequences in the loss of innocent lives, the pervasive international anger with Israel, and the significant crisis in Israeli-Turkish relations. However, the tragedy also poses significant challenges to American diplomacy and raises questions that cannot be ignored.
First, although the Israeli assault was not aimed at an Arab party directly—the “Free Gaza Flotilla,” flying Turkish flags, included passengers from several dozen countries, including the United States and European nations—its ramification for both Arab public opinion and Arab governments is enormous. In effect, Arabs and their governments are being shamed by the episode, dubbed the “freedom massacre” in their media. It pains Arab leaders to hear Arab demonstrators from Lebanon to Yemen chant the praises of Turkey and its prime minister, to watch regional media speak of the non-Arab civilians risking their lives for the Palestinian cause, and to hear reports of a remote country, Nicaragua, suspending its ties with Israel—just as Venezuela did it in the aftermath of the 2008 Gaza war. This produces a difficult environment, which is already dismissive of peace efforts as a diversion from addressing the pressing needs of Gazans, and makes it harder for Arab cooperation with American peace diplomacy. The Kuwaiti parliament’s decision to recommend withdrawal from the Arab Peace Initiative toward Israel, and the Egyptian decision to open the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt are just two of the early indications of government sensitivity to the public rage. This comes at a time when the Palestinian leadership has become particularly reliant on Arab support for legitimizing its diplomatic moves, seeking and receiving an Arab League vote before it agreed to commence the U.S.-mediated “proximity” talks with Israel.
Second, if anyone needed more evidence that the absence of Palestinian-Israeli peace poses a threat to American interests, the crisis provided more proof. The American reaction was more muted than any other in the international community, in a manner that was noted not only in the Arab world and Europe, but especially in Turkey. The U.S. feels compelled to defend Israel against international isolation and worries about the consequences for its diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict. But the net result is that the global strategy of building consensus and showing deference to international norms is challenged, and the effort to seek international support for other American policies, such as imposing sanctions on Iran, are jeopardized.
Third, the strong international reaction was in the first place connected to the circumstances of the episode itself: the use of force by a well-trained army against a flotilla of civilian international activists in international waters. However, the depth of the reaction cannot be divorced from the context: The blockade of Gaza has been almost universally opposed in the international community as being inhumane, and the Israelis who have argued that removing the blockade would reward Hamas have rejected the requests of everyone else, including the United States. While Gaza has not been front-page news in the United States since the end of the Gaza war in January 2009, the issue remained center stage, certainly in Arab and Muslim countries, but also elsewhere. It is hard to see that how the issue of the attack on the flotilla can be addressed without addressing the blockade itself.
Fourth, the status quo remains untenable, which means that in the absence of diplomatic success, unanticipated crises will inevitably intrude, sometimes reshuffling the political deck of cards and undermining diplomatic efforts that take months of hard work. This will not be the last or the most challenging crisis, highlighting the urgent need to produce diplomatic results. There is widening disbelief in the possibility of peace through diplomacy in the Middle East, and every crisis will only exacerbate this disbelief. That is why, when an issue is important to the national interest, it is not a good diplomatic strategy to wait for a more opportune time, as the odds are such time will not come.