Up Front

Web Chat: The Gaza Crisis

Shibley Telhami

Israel’s raid on an aid flotilla bound for the Gaza Strip has fueled international outcry and resulted in condemnation from the U.N. Security Council. The attack has had immediate consequences not only for Israel and the prospect of Arab-Israeli negotiations, but poses significant challenges to U.S. diplomacy and America’s standing in the Islamic world. 

On Wednesday, June 9, Shibley Telhami answered your questions about the Israeli raid of the Gaza-bound flotilla, its consequences and its implications for the Middle East peace process. David Mark, senior editor at POLITICO, moderated the discussion.

12:36 David Mark: Hello and welcome everyone. Thanks for joining us. Today we have Shibley Telhami with us to answer your questions on the Gaza Crisis. Let’s get started.

12:36 [Comment From Nate: ] Why did this tragedy attract so much global and regional attention?

12:37 Shibley Telhami: Obviously the immediate circumstances had a lot to do with it; the fact that this was a case of a well-trained army confronting international civilian activists in international waters in a matter that resulted in significant casualties. But this was only part of the story. I believe that the depth of the international interest and anger had to do with the context. Ever since the end of the Gaza war in January 2009, there has been international anger with the way that Israel conducted that war and with the blockade that followed that war.

12:37 Shibley Telhami: While the Gaza situation has not garnered as much attention in the United States since the Gaza War, it has been the big story in Muslim-majority countries and much of Europe, with focus on the humanitarian consequences for Gazans and with pervasive international demands, including by the US, for removing the blockade. In some ways, Israel was already isolated on the Gaza question in international public opinion, and the Gaza issue was a sore point between the US and many around the world, sometimes even superseding the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations themselves.

12:38 Shibley Telhami: American officials found themselves constantly on the defensive on this issue, not only in the Middle East, but elsewhere around the world. In fact, as Secretary of State Clinton remarked recently, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has become truly international with almost every leader around the world bringing it up in meetings with American officials.

12:39 Shibley Telhami: This context set up pervasive sympathy with attempts to break the blockade by various international groups, and in that sense, much of international public opinion was already on the side of those who were trying to break the blockade. When the news broke out of the significant casualties, it made things worse. The fact that most of the civilian casualties were Turkish and that the flotilla was flying Turkish flags was itself particularly consequential for two reasons.

12:39 Shibley Telhami: First, it significantly strained relations between two former allies – Israel and Turkey – whose relations had been already somewhat strained in recent months. Second, the fact that most of the activists and the casualties were non-Arab, over an issue that Arabs consider a primary one for them, ie the Palestinian question, had the consequence of “shaming” Arab governments for the pervasive perception in the region that they don’t do enough to address this issue. One final point, which is that because of the above, and because the administration values the relations with both Israel and Turkey, who are allies, this put the US in a particularly difficult position.

12:39 [Comment From Eric: ] What are the implications for U.S. policy in the region and on its relationship with Israel?

12:42 Shibley Telhami: The United States in a somewhat different position than almost anyone else in the international community, not only because of its special relationship with Israel, and this case, its alliance with Turkey, but in addition to that, it is the principal mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. One must not forget that the issue here is not so much the flotilla as such or even Israeli-Turkish relations but the Israeli-Palestinian conflict itself that is in an untenable situation that requires attention and that will in its current circumstances continue to attract crises drawing multiple players. This particular crisis is unlikely to be the last or even the most important. For that reason, the US has to be, first and foremost, mindful of the consequences of what it does and says on the effectiveness of its diplomacy to resolve the conflict.

12:44 Shibley Telhami: Perhaps mindful of that, the American reaction was far more muted than others around the world. But there is much at stake for the US here. First, the Obama administration has just marked the first year after the important Cairo speech that President Obama gave that was intended to start a new relationship with Arab and Muslim communities around the world. Certainly, even before this crisis, there has been much disappointment in the region, largely related to the perceived failure to address the Arab-Israeli conflict. This crisis puts further pressure on the Obama administration in Arab and Muslim communities globally and sets back its agenda further.

12:47 Shibley Telhami: Second, the US has to be particularly mindful of the worsening relations between Turkey and Israel. While both sides have an interest in maintaining some good relations (the Israelis had a long-term alliance with Turkey that dates back to the earliest days of Israel’s existence, and the Turks have used the relations with Israel for better relations with the west and also in setting themselves up as mediators between Israel and Syria), they are now on course certainly rhetorically to a point of no return and the US would face many challenges ahead if that were to be the case. Turkey is an important ally who is important in what happens in Iraq, in the policy toward Iran, and in the policy toward Muslim communities broadly, and if the US faces constant choices between Israel and Turkey, it will pose a strategic challenge to American foreign policy.

12:48 Shibley Telhami: There is also another important dynamic that cannot be missed. The Obama administration has embarked on a transformation on American foreign policy from unilateralism to one that relies more on international consensus, international law, and international organizations. The recent crisis with the US reaction being somewhat different from everyone else puts strains on that policy.

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12:49 David Mark: Could you comment on the role Egypt has played in enforcing the Gaza blockade for the past three years?

12:50 Shibley Telhami: Egypt has a unique relationship with both Israel and Gaza, and it has been a very difficult period for Egypt, particularly since Hamas took over control of Gaza.

12:51 Shibley Telhami: On the one hand, Egyptian public opinion is highly sympathetic with the Palestinians, and they want Egypt to do more, not only providing more aid to Gazans, but also in terms of putting more pressure on Israel, with some even calling for them to suspend relations with Israel.

12:52 Shibley Telhami: The Egyptian government sees its relations with Israel and its peace treaty with it to be strategically important, and both Israel and Egypt have been faithful to that agreement ever since it was signed in 1979. That entails that the Egyptians are particularly mindful toward what happens on the border between them and Israel and them and Gaza in a matter that does not infringe on the agreement with Israel.

12:54 Shibley Telhami: The problem of Gaza is bigger than we think in terms of its international status. On the one hand, Gaza is not an independent Palestinian state, and is in effect under Israeli occupation legally; on the other hand Israel in effect withdrew from Gaza but still controls international access to the territory and controls the air space. That relative ambiguity has been a source of trouble for international lawyers trying to interpret what Israel can and cannot do, and also for Egypt in terms of what entails abiding by the Israeli peace agreement terms.

12:56 Shibley Telhami: But there is more to it than that for Egypt. First, it is no secret that Egypt is no fan of Hamas or for that matter the Muslim brotherhood from which Hamas hails, which is a major source of opposition toward the Egyptian government. There is a worry about consequence for Egyptian domestic politics of an opening with Gaza. Second, some in Egypt worry that Israel’s aim is to push Gaza back on Egypt’s laps (Egypt used to control Gaza between 1948 and 1967), something that the Egyptians absolutely do not want. So there is unstated Egyptian concern that a complete opening of the borders of Gaza on the Egyptian side with the closures on the Israeli side will in effect turn them into guardians of Gaza and postpone the creation of a Palestinian state.

12:58 Shibley Telhami: Nonetheless, public opinion in Arab and Muslim countries faults Egypt for not opening the border, which is one reason why, in response to the flotilla crisis, Egypt announced that it was opening the Gaza border. The popularity of Turkey that has emerged in recent months, and in particular out of this crisis, poses a challenge to Egypt that sees itself as leader of the Arab world. It is hard for Arab leaders to hear the name of a Turkish prime minister chanted in demonstrations across the Arab world. So this has been particularly challenging for Egypt.

12:58 [Comment From Eko: ] Why is Turkey so hard on Israel? In the past they were good allies.

1:01 Shibley Telhami: Turkey has maintained a military cooperation with Israel, and political relations with Israel, even during the tense months since the Gaza war. Arguably, the Gaza war has been a turning point with much of the Turkish public sympathetic with the Palestinians, and with the Turkish prime minister being critical of Israel in a manner that generated angry reactions and sometimes questionable behavior by the Israeli foreign ministry that the Turks perceived to be humiliating. but as always, there is a bigger story beyond the immediate crisis.

1:02 Shibley Telhami: Turkey has been looking to play a bigger role in the Middle East. Particularly after the Cold War during which Turkey played an essential role in the Western Alliance after Soviet Threats. Particularly after Turkey failed to be admitted to the EU. The Iraq war, which saw the weakening of an Arab state, created a further vacuum in the Middle East, with many ARabs uncomfortable about the rise of a Shia Iranian state and warming up to the possibility of a Turkish role in the region.

1:04 Shibley Telhami: Turkey has exploited its new opening and nurtured circumstances to orient its policy closer to Arab and Muslim-majority countries, and certainly towards its immediate neighbors. That, by itself, was bound to come at least somewhat at the expense of Israel. In addition to that, Turkey has moved away from a military dominance to an electoral democracy, and has been far more responsive in its foreign policy to a public onion that is more critical of Israel.

1:06 Shibley Telhami: In the end, however, one reason why Turkey is taken seriously and is influential, beyond just its size, military and economic power, is the fact that it has been able to leverage its relationship with Israel and its relationship with the west; it is not Iran, and that is one of the reasons it is important and influential. Therefore, I do not believe it is in Turkey’s interest to push to a point of no return, and it is incumbent, particularly on American foreign policy, to find a way to harvest the popularity of Turkey in the region, which is at some level an asset to bring Turkey into a helpful role for addressing the Arab-Israeli conflict.

1:07 David Mark: The Turkish military has traditionally prevented the civilian government from becoming more Islamist in its leanings. Has the internal balance of power in the Turkish government/military shifted away from the secular Muslim vision of Ataturk in the early 20th century?

1:09 Shibley Telhami: It is clear that in recent months the role of the Turkish military has diminished in the conduct of Turkish foreign policy. The Turkish government has been moving to appoint some of its own people in some of the security establishment positions. In that sense, the elected government wields far more power on foreign policy than previous governments. The issue of the role of Islam in Turkey is far more complex.

1:10 Shibley Telhami: The current government, which has considerable Islamic support, has not challenged the secular nature of the Turkish state, but it is clear that the role of the military in intervening in Turkish politics has diminished, though probably not ended. How much change has taken place within the Turkish military itself is obviously an open question. One of the anchors of the relationship of between Israel and Turkey has been military relations, and to this day, there are a lot of large cooperative projects between the two military establishments. Some of those projects are near expiration and it will be interesting to see what ramification this crisis will have on future military to military relations between Israel and Turkey.

1:12 [Comment From Lenda: ] Does this event have implications on the Iran sanction discussions taking place within the UN?

1:13 Shibley Telhami: The Iran question is obviously timely and perhaps in the long-term consequential.

1:14 Shibley Telhami: What’s transpiring at the UN, in terms of deliberations on the imposition of sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program, is unlikely to be significantly affected by the flotilla crisis, in part because the US had already lined up the support of the permanent members of the Security Council, and that is unlikely to change.

1:14 Shibley Telhami: However, the alienation of Turkey may be a problem on the Iran issue. In part because Turkey and Brazil had just mediated an arrangement for Iran to transfer its low-grade uranium to Turkish territory in the context of an international exchange.

1:15 Shibley Telhami: This arrangement has been in effect rejected. The Turks, as well as the Brazilians, feel frustrated, and a UN Security Council resolution could obviously add to their frustration.

1:17 Shibley Telhami: I doubt, however, that this will translate in to a profound change in the nature of Iranian-Turkish relations. It might superficially lead to warming of relations, but they are unlikely to become allies. One attraction of Turkey in the Arab world is that it is seen to be a westernized, democratic, mostly Sunni state that could in the interim provide a balance to Iranian influence, so I see the impact to be limited.

1:19 [Comment From Amy: ] Please speak a little bit about the new wild card Iran has thrown – that it is planning its own mission to break the blockade, and it will be supported by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. Will today’s vote at the United Nations heighten or weaken that threat? How can Israel respond such that it won’t fall into another trap, and how can the U.S. and its other regional allies reasonably respond?

1:21 Shibley Telhami: Obviously the Iranians love it when Israel is isolated and when there is pressure on American diplomacy because it takes some of the spotlight away from them. In addition, they have been, since the Iraq war, trying to win Arab public opinion, knowing that there is considerable anger, not only with Israel and American foreign policy, but also with the perceived inaction of Arab governments. Public opinion polls indicated that they have had some success in that arena. So this crisis is a golden opportunity particularly because the public opinion winner in the short term is Turkey, without whom they had just forged closer ties, particularly over the nuclear mediation issue.

1:22 Shibley Telhami: They will do everything they can to exploit the crisis to their advantage. Nonetheless, I am somewhat doubtful of the idea that they would send any military forces such as the revolutionary guard to accompany civilian ships in an attempt to break the Gaza blockade.

1:24 Shibley Telhami: I suspect that most people around the world will see that as a provocation, and if it were to lead to a military confrontation, they would stand to lose. But beyond international public opinion, this would be highly risky for them, for the consequences are unpredictable and escalation would almost become inevitable. So I’m doubtful that they would send any militarized ships or forces to Gaza’s shores.

1:24 [Comment From Guest: ] Can another crisis be avoided with U;S diplomacy?

1:25 Shibley Telhami: Obviously the United States has a role to play, perhaps a bigger role than anyone else, when it comes to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, which is why the Obama administration has been attempting to embark on intensive diplomacy.

1:27 Shibley Telhami: Knowing the consequences, the administration has defined the absence of Arab-Israeli peace as a threat to the US national interest and the president has designated Arab-Israeli peacemaking as a vital American interest. This crisis clearly showed why the absence of Palestinian peace threatens America’s interests. It is clear that the status quo in Gaza and the West Bank is not sustainable and that the two-state solution, which is the aim of American foreign policy and much of the international community, is running out of time.

1:28 Shibley Telhami: Unless we make significant progress on this issue in the months ahead, I believe that crises will be unavoidable. One can envision violence leading to renewed war between Hamas and Israel, an accidental event that triggers even internal confrontations between Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel, and certainly events that could lead to renewed war between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon, all of which would have unanticipated consequences and would pose further challenges to further policy in the Middle east.

1:29 Shibley Telhami: So the best policy for the US in the Middle East is not one crisis management, but one of conflict resolution. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict remains the prism of pain through which most Arabs, and many around the world, see American foreign policy and it must be addressed aggressively.

1:30 David Mark Thanks for joining us today.