MESS Report / Mideast forecast: One long, tense summer
In the stormy aftermath of last week's marine debacle, the whole region seems to be losing what remains of its sanity.
The Gaza flotilla episode heralds the onset of a long, tense summer in the Middle East. The repercussions of the incident itself transcend the few hours it took the naval commandos to intercept the vessels and lead them to Ashdod port on the morning of May 31. With some countries in the region operating on the basis of a rationale that is very different from Israeli logic (assuming one can discern logic in the behavior of the Israeli leadership ), there is a rising danger of a series of threats and misunderstandings unfolding and culminating in a more serious flare-up.
As with Israel's previous entanglement - the assassination (attributed to the Mossad ) of Hamas senior official Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai last January - the main problem lies not in the maritime operation itself, which was tactical in nature, but in the long-term political and diplomatic damage it caused.
The fact that Turkey has distanced itself from Israel and drawn closer to Iran, and the choice by anti-Israel organizations to take the course of raucous provocations aimed at undermining the legitimacy of Israel's existence, would have probably have happened even if the naval commandos had not encountered violent resistance aboard the Mavi Marmara and been forced to open fire. However, the pace of events has been greatly accelerated because of the intensity of that clash and, of course, the accompanying images and broadcasts.
It is impossible to dissociate the flotilla from this week's important development: the decision by the United Nations Security Council on Wednesday to impose new sanctions on Iran. Tehran shrugged off the decision and declared it would pursue its nuclear project no matter what, but observers in the West are having trouble predicting Iran's next steps. On the assumption that the package of "soft" sanctions approved by the UN will not be sufficient, and that the United States will have to initiate a supplementary package together with its close allies, Iran is liable to be tempted to employ diversionary tactics. The most promising arena in such a case would be in the neighborhood of Israel.
This is also apparently part of the background against which we have to view Tehran's declaration last week that it will send a flotilla of its own to Gaza. It's unlikely that such a move will spur a direct clash with the Israeli armed forces, but the potential for incidents, local or regional, is almost unlimited. What if Turkey decides to dispatch its navy to escort the next flotilla organized by Islamic activists? What if Turkey's prime minister or foreign minister takes part?
In the rising heat of June, amid numberless references to national honor, the whole region seems gradually to be losing what remains of its sanity.
It took a week to happen, far longer than usual, but as of Tuesday this week, the sparks were flying. The unified front, fragile from the outset, between Israel's cabinet ministers and Israel Defense Forces officers, began to crumble. The vice prime minister, Moshe Ya'alon, again broke the rules of the game crassly and spoke the truth - indeed, the calls to decorate the soldiers who took part in the flotilla operation attest to the fact that the battle procedure was fundamentally flawed. Sources in the IDF noted in response that Ya'alon was the acting prime minister when the operation took place; if he discerned the flaws in advance, he should have intervened. Sources in the National Security Council complained that Defense Minister Ehud Barak had prohibited IDF officers from taking part in a prior meeting of the NSC about the possibility that the operation would fail and about alternatives to the suggested plan.
This is probably only the tip of the iceberg. Many more such revelations will find their way to the media by way of various circuitous routes, and will serve the interests of interrogatee A. at the expense of interrogatee B.
The postmortem of the Mavi Marmara incident is now underway in two parallel channels. The first will lead to a decision about the way in which the event will be investigated; in the second, accusations are being exchanged over responsibility for the failure.
The final determination by the ministerial forum of seven concerning the actual format of the inquiry - following deliberations that dragged on all week - will also have an effect on the intensity of the clashes between everyone involved. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Barak wanted as narrow an investigation as possible, focusing on the legal justification for intercepting the flotilla and for the force wielded by the IDF. On these two issues, Israel has relatively reasonable explanations, which might be accepted by the Americans, at least. But the Obama administration continues to pressure Netanyahu to establish a commission of inquiry with a broader mandate, including significant international involvement. In this regard, the political echelon has far more cause for concern.
The policy of blockading Gaza, which began in a limited format after the withdrawal from the Strip in the summer of 2005, grew to large dimensions beginning in 2007. The decision-making process for Operation Sky Winds itself was faulty. If the investigation is extended into that area, a commission with teeth might well sink them into the political echelon.
While the politicians tarried, Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi appointed a team of experts headed by Maj. Gen. (res. ) Giora Eiland to investigate the IDF's part in the affair. No one disputes Eiland's experience and fairness. Rather, critics of the decision focused on two other issues: the friendship between Eiland and Ashkenazi, and Eiland's forgiving nature.
The major example cited in connection with the latter is Eiland's recommendation not to take disciplinary measures against army officials in the case of Gilad Shalit's abduction, in 2006, which Eiland investigated as the head of a similar team. One of the "survivors" of that investigation, the then-commander of the Gaza Division, Brig.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi, is now a member of the new Eiland panel. But Kochavi, as even the critics agree, is the one outstanding officer of his generation still remaining in the IDF (after others, among them Moshe Tamir and Erez Zuckerman, were forced to resign ). If it were not for Eiland, Kochavi would probably now be an officer in the reserves.
The relations between Ashkenazi and Eiland are also not the central issue: Obviously, a commission appointed by the chief of staff is limited in its ability to investigate the person who appointed it.
If there's a problem here, it lies in the combination of two investigations, the civilian and the military. This suggested format seems to absolve the prime minister, the defense minister and the chief of staff of responsibility, while focusing excessively on the operational echelon alone, from the commander of the navy down. It would be better to concentrate the entire investigation in the hands of one committee with broad powers.
This week, the Kadima party tried, via the State Control Committee (headed by Kadima MK Yoel Hasson ), to promote an alternative that would bypass the government, by recruiting the state comptroller to oversee an investigation. But even if a state commission of inquiry or the state comptroller is appointed, there is no point harboring illusions about the likely outcome. That is clear from the political echelon's complete disregard of the Winograd committee's conclusions (some of which are problematic in themselves ) in authorizing the flotilla interception itself, and in keeping with its reaction to many reports by the state comptroller whose place of burial is not known.
Sensitive seam line
The most sensitive seam line at the top is between Barak and Ashkenazi. The failure of the flotilla operation has implications vis-a-vis the public status of both of them, and also comes against the background of the ongoing tension between them, which peaked with Barak's announcement in April that he would not extend Ashkenazi's term for a fifth year. The defense minister is concerned that Ashkenazi's anger is liable to induce him to get back at Barak via the media. Meanwhile, Ashkenazi is angry at the way Barak is distancing himself from every area that is not defined as strategic, and is convinced that Barak has already decided to appoint the GOC Southern Command, Yoav Gallant, as the next chief of staff - an appointment Ashkenazi vehemently opposes.
The struggle between the two now revolves around the timing of the announcement of the next chief of staff. Barak wants to launch consultations this month and announced his decision already next month. Ashkenazi has asked for the decision to be delayed until October, and in the meantime to make do with appointing a few more senior officers, though Barak would prefer to do that in consultation with the next chief of staff. A meeting about appointments of brigadier generals was planned for last Monday but was canceled at the last minute because of the flotilla incident.
The big loser from the dispute at the moment is Kochavi, who had already expected to be appointed director of Military Intelligence and was unemployed for a few months, until he got the call from Eiland.
On Monday, naval commandos killed four armed Palestinian divers off the coast of Gaza. The IDF portrayed the incident as a terror attack that was prevented while the perpetrators were on their way to Israel. But the navy officer who briefed the press was unable to explain why terrorists had gone for a swim some 10 kilometers south of the Israeli border, instead of commencing their operation closer to the border. It all looked more like a training exercise ahead of an attack, in which the terrorists had the misfortune to encounter naval commandos hungry for an operation.
In any event, if public interest in the flotilla episode fades, or if substantial security-related tension stemming from it arises, the pressure on the decision makers might subside. At the moment, under the trilateral steamroller of Barack Obama, the Israel media and the opposition in the Knesset, it looks as though the affair will be with us for some time to come.
New regional star
A new baby came into the world at the end of last week in the Gaza Strip city of Khan Yunis. His name is Tayyip Erdogan. His father related that he decided to name his son after the prime minister of Turkey as a token of esteem for Erdogan's struggle on behalf of the Palestinians. Manifestations of support for Erdogan are not confined to Gazans. Turkish flags are now being hoisted all across the Muslim world.
With a little help from Israel, Erdogan has become the man of the hour in the Middle East. He is charismatic, articulate, flagrantly anti-Israel and not afraid to hurl criticism freely at the United States. He is against sanctions on Iran, views Hamas as a legitimate organization and hopes to lead the Islamist AKP (Justice and Development Party ) to victory in Turkish elections in another 13 months.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Wednesday drew a connection between Turkey's inclination to seek the friendship of Iran and its allies, and the European Union decision not to accept Turkey as a member. But that is a somewhat patronizing approach. Is it only the West that dictates Turkey's intentions?
One of the leading experts on Turkey in the United States, Soner Cagaptay, from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, wrote this week that Erdogan and his government are drawing close to the region's radical axis for other reasons. The Turks believe in Samuel Huntington's theory of a clash of civilizations, "only they are on the side of the Islamists, not the West," Cagaptay wrote in the Wall Street Journal.
Turkey's movement away from the West can be seen on all fronts: its backing for Hamas, its support for the Iranian nuclear project and its alienation from secular Arab regimes, such as the Palestinian Authority. The platform of Erdogan's party doesn't even hide the aspiration to put an end to Western hegemony and heighten Muslim power. In the case of Turkey, these are not mere declarations. It appears that the strengthening of the secular opposition in the country provided a further inducement for Erdogan's radicalization. Recently, the secular CHP (Republican People's Party ) has shown impressive signs of recovery, particularly since the election of Kemal Kilicdaroglu as its leader. One survey conducted at the end of May showed that the CHP would win in a general election - but then came the Israeli raid on the Mavi Marmara.
This week Erdogan continued the flotilla festivities. Leaders of Asian countries attended a conference in Istanbul at which he received a major show of support. Syrian President Bashir Assad accused Israel of committing crimes, and Erdogan himself called for sanctions to be imposed on Israel. In their joint press conference, the Turkish leader stated that it was inconceivable that the flotilla participants belong to terrorist organizations. If they did, he said, Israel would not have released them. Erdogan forgot to mention that his foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, warned immediately after the incident that if Israel did not release all the Turkish detainees by that evening, there would be far-reaching consequences for Ankara's relations with Jerusalem.
In the meantime, Egypt, the PA and other allies in the moderate axis of the Middle East are huddling at the sidelines. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was impelled to go to Istanbul and watch Erdogan praise Hamas. Egypt, which understands that the blockade of Gaza will have to be recast if not completely eliminated, opened the Rafah crossing. So far, more than 5,000 people have passed through it.
The Israeli blockade policy, in whose name Israel intercepted the ships, with all the consequences that followed, has already been voided of content by the Egyptian move. This impression is strengthened by President Obama's declaration on Wednesday about the need for a change in the status quo regarding Gaza. The details of the new arrangements have not yet been finalized, but it's already clear that by stopping the flotilla, Israel achieved the exact opposite of what it sought.