“In every crisis lies an opportunity,” the Obama White House says. But the hidden opportunities in the Israeli attack on the Gaza-bound aid boats are not obvious. Only the problems for Obama are: staving off a break in relations between two U.S. allies; channeling demands for an international investigation into a mechanism acceptable to Israel; easing the flow of goods into Gaza. Nevertheless, there is an opportunity now to transform the latest crisis into something that can reinforce Barack Obama’s aspirations for Middle East peace.
With Egyptian and U.S. cooperation, Israel has maintained a four-year-long siege on Gaza to prevent the smuggling of weapons that would convert Gaza once again into a launching pad for attacks on Israeli citizens. Before this crisis, the strategy appeared to be working. Close Israeli-Egyptian coordination had made it more difficult for Hamas to smuggle in weapons. Fearful of another Israeli military operation that would topple its regime, Hamas had begun policing the territory to prevent other militant organizations from launching attacks on Israel.
But the effort had its costs too. First, maintaining the siege eroded Israel’s international legitimacy. Even though Israel has managed to stave off a humanitarian crisis by allowing the entry of food, fuel and medical requirements, to the world it was engaging in a policy of collective punishment. And Israel’s oldest and most important regional alliance — with Turkey — also began to crack as Turkey’s populist Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, excoriated Israel’s siege in order to curry favor at home and in the Arab and Muslim world.
For Obama, there were dangers as well. With Erdogan’s encouragement, the siege of Gaza — rather than the failure to resolve the larger Palestinian problem — had become the hot-button issue in the Muslim world. The perception of U.S. complicity was harming Obama’s outreach efforts in the region. Moreover, Hamas would not remain deterred forever: sooner or later it would gather the wherewithal and attack Israel again.
The fleet crisis has brought all these costs to the fore, but in the process, it might just have given all sides the motivation to change their approaches.
To test this proposition, Obama should adopt a three-pronged strategy. He should encourage the negotiation, by an Arab or European mediator, of a package deal between Hamas and Israel. The key ingredients are commitments by Hamas to prevent all violent attacks on Israel and stop smuggling weapons into Gaza. In return, Israel should lift its siege, allowing goods to flow in and out of Gaza with appropriate inspections. If Hamas breaks its commitments, which Israel has the ability to monitor, then the borders can be closed again — with Hamas rather than Israel bearing the blame. And in this context, a prisoner swap should be concluded so that Gilad Shalit, the kidnapped Israeli soldier, can be freed.
At the same time, Obama should try to shift attention to the West Bank, making sure that the “proximity talks” proceed. There is a quick fix available that would do much to improve Israel’s image while strengthening the Palestinian leadership there. It involves the withdrawal of the Israel Defense Forces from the West Bank territories they reoccupied during the intifadeh. The Palestinian security forces have demonstrated that they can prevent terrorism and maintain order in these areas, including during this crisis. Extending that control to all the areas ceded to Palestinian rule in the Oslo agreements would enable the Palestinian Authority to claim it had “liberated” Palestinian territory, not through violence but through peace negotiations with Israel.
Finally, Obama should try to patch things up between Turkey and Israel by refocusing them on the effort to promote an Israeli-Syrian peace. With the previous Israeli government, Turkey had played a key role as mediator with Syria. This gave Erdogan, with his intense interest in promoting Turkey’s regional role, a stake in maintaining a relationship of trust with Israel. Although hurt feelings on both sides are bound to complicate this effort, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu needs to find a way to rebuild Israel’s strategically important relationship with Turkey, and Obama needs to bring Syria into his peacemaking effort.
Given the mess we’re in today, success seems unlikely. But a severe crisis forces leaders to recalculate the costs of the status quo and perhaps recognize the need for a fundamental change of direction. If Obama doesn’t test this opportunity, there’s a good chance that the battle over the Gaza fleet will sink his own Israeli-Palestinian peace boat.