Israel’s commando attack on 31 May on the flotilla bound for Gaza has had three immediate consequences: Turkey has become Israel’s bitter adversary; international pressure is mounting on Israel to lift the siege of Gaza; and Western governments are being forced to review their decision to boycott Hamas -- a decision they took under American and Israeli pressure after Hamas’ electoral victory of 2006.
In a clear challenge to Israel -- as well as to Europe and America -- Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan this week described Israel’s attack on the aid flotilla as “state terrorism.” In a striking contrast, he declared that Hamas was not a terrorist organization but a resistance movement struggling to recover its land. This is not news in the Arab world, but in the West it represents the breaking of a taboo.
Erdogan’s cry has been taken up in Europe. To quote a single example, Dominique de Villepin, a former prime minister of France ,wrote in Le Monde on 5 June that the siege of Gaza must be lifted as a first step, and that -- “as everyone knows very well” -- Hamas must be brought into the peace process leading to the creation of a Palestinian state.
Turkey’s switch from Israeli ally to Israeli opponent will have profound consequences for the balance of power in the Middle East. It deals a severe blow to Israel’s military supremacy in the region, which has been the central plank of is security doctrine since the founding of the Jewish State in 1948.
Israel now faces a formidable combination of adversaries, consisting of Turkey and Iran, the two regional heavyweights, as well as Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas. Rarely has Israel’s strategic environment been so unfavorable -- largely as a result of its own aggressive policies.
The regional landscape is changing. Following its overwhelming victory in the 1967 war, Israel enjoyed unchallenged supremacy for the next forty years. This supremacy was seriously threatened only once -- that is to say by the October war of 1973, which was an attempt by Egypt and Syria to reverse the verdict of 1967.
The war started well from the Arabs’ point of view, but its outcome restored Israel’s advantage. In particular, Israel’s peace with Egypt in 1979 removed the most powerful Arab state from the Arab line-up. This allowed Israel to concentrate its forces in the north. The consequence was Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982, which was aimed at bringing that country into Israel’s strategic orbit. Had this aim been realized -- had Israel been able to install a friendly government in Beirut under its protection -- Syria would have been neutralized. Syria and is allies fought back, and the danger was averted.
Over the past three decades, Israel has acted repeatedly to maintain its regional military supremacy. In 2003, it was instrumental in pushing the United States into war against Iraq, a country Israel saw as posing a potential threat to the east. But the destruction of Iraq had the unintended consequence of promoting Iran as a regional power. Since then, Israel has campaigned tirelessly for Iran, in turn, to be brought low. It has pressed for harsh international sanctions against it and has repeatedly threatened to attack its nuclear facilities, if the United States did not do the job itself.
At the same time, Israel has reacted violently to attempts by two non-state actors, Hizbullah and Hamas, to challenge Israel’s supremacy by acquiring a minimal deterrent capability. It tried to destroy Hizbullah by its 2006 assault on Lebanon, and Hamas by its assault on Gaza in 2008-9.
Although, Israel did very considerable damage to both Lebanon and Gaza, one might argue that both Hezbollah and Hamas have emerged stronger from these conflicts.
Turkey has since consolidated its position as a regional power by developing a vast network of relations in the Balkans, the Middle East, the Caucasus and Central Asia. Among Arab states, its relations with Syria have become particularly close. In contrast, Turkey has decided to review all its military and economic agreements with Israel, and to reduce its relations to a minimum, according to its deputy prime minister, Bulent Arinc.
The present situation is fraught with danger but also with hope. An attempt by Israel to restore its battered supremacy by some great military strike cannot be excluded. On the other hand, the world has become increasingly impatient with Israel’s contempt for international law and its readiness to resort to force.
Condemnation of Israel has opened a rare window of opportunity for the Palestinians. Will they have the wisdom to seize it? It is today more vital than ever for the Palestinians to end their internal quarrels and close ranks. Their aim should be to form a government of national unity, and seek recognition of it from the United States and the European Union.
Without Palestinian unity there can be no real progress on the peace front. And without peace, the region will be condemned to more violence.