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Ahmed Shihab-Eldin

Ahmed Shihab-Eldin

Posted: May 31, 2010 08:16 PM

Israeli Attack on Gaza Aid Ship Offers Obama Golden, but Risky Opportunity

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Torture and terror, two terms peppered across the pages of newspapers, spouted from the mouths of news-anchors and stamped across countless websites throughout the first decade of the 21st century, but rarely used to describe the Israeli government's policies towards Palestinians over the last six decades.

But today, after Israeli forces attacked a flotilla of aid-carrying ships that aimed to break the country's blockade on Gaza, and killed at least 9 people in the process, an opportunity had materialized.

The six ships were floating in international waters and each flying the European flag when Israeli marines and commandos attacked them; making the act, from an international political perspective, an "act of piracy" and arguably an attack on "Europe."

Piracy & Scourge

In April 2009 Somali pirates hijacked the Maersk Alabama, a US-flagged container ship with 20 American crew on board and 400 containers of food aid (including 232 containers belonging to the UN's World Food Program) destined for Somalia and Uganda.

In response, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called for world action to end the "scourge" of piracy.

But what about the "scourge" of Israel?

This is not an attempt to draw a parallel between the two incidents. Israel's attack was that of trained government officials willing to kill and injure innocent civilians in order to subject nearly two million others to vile persecution. Surely, that cannot be compared to pirates seizing a vessel for ransom.

While this latest display of Israel's use of disproportionate force to ensure the continued imprisonment and suffering of the 1.7 million Palestinians living inside Gaza has, as usual, sparked international condemnation, the scrutiny this time around is profound and palpable.

American Inaction

In any relationship, actions speak louder than words. In fact, action ensures consequence, which in turn ensures change. So it will be interesting to see who talks the talk, who walks the walk, and who is left on the sidelines for all to mock.

President Obama -- who ran his entire presidential campaign on the prospect of change -- has yet to evoke any change in Israel's repeated violations of international law, human rights and past promises, such as its pledge to its closest ally to halt settlement activity in the West Bank.

The metaphors are endless, but perhaps the simplest is best:

If your daughter hits your son and you simply scold her, chances are she will hit him again. Take away her allowance and cancel her slumber party on Saturday and its likely she will learn to control her rage.

For decades, the US has reprimanded without consequence, occasionally scolding Israel, but more often vetoing hundreds of UN Security Council resolutions condemning Israel for its human rights violations, violence and deportations.

Occasionally, the US abstains from voting or votes in favor of the resolutions, which happened most notably on six occasions during President George Bush Senior's term. But even still, the resolutions are seldom, if ever, enforced.

UN Resolutions are No Solutions

While the United Nations has passed hundreds of resolutions condemning the Jewish state since its establishment in 1948, passing more resolutions and decisions condemning Israel than all the other 191 UN member states combined, to put it blunly, it is all useless.

Last month The Guardian reported that the US had given private assurances to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that it would consider not using its veto power against UN Security Council condemnations of any significant new settlement activity on Israel's behalf.

But again, even these assurances, given verbally in a meeting between a senior US diplomat and the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, will accomplish nothing unless actions are taken. After all, they weren't put in writing for a reason.

The truth remains, Israel's blockade of Gaza continues to force the 1.7 million Palestinians living in Gaza to live in a perpetual state of "direct physical and mental suffering and anxiety" -- fulfilling the most basic definition of "torture," and "terror," which is broadly defined as "the use of fear to intimidate people especially for political reasons."

Foreign Failures & Israeli Ingenuity

That this has gone on for three years without any effective or substantial international intervention points to the failures of the world powers to hold Israel accountable to its deplorable and peculiar policies, especially the US.

But it also points to Israel's seemingly spellbinding PR tactics. Israel may be the only country in the world that can wage a war without fear of political isolation or economic consequence.

Israel's most prominent spokesman, Mark Regev, Prime Minister Netanyahu's spokesman, immediately, went on the defensive.

"Our young navy servicemen were given clear instructions to do the interception as quietly as possible, almost as a police action," he said. "But when the interception started, our service men were attacked. We've got unfortunately 10 wounded on our side."

But the decision to storm the Freedom Flotilla and open fire, regardless of the excuse of having been provoked demonstrates a complete disrespect for international law and human rights, placing them in a particularly problematic political pickle -- which the US will undoubtedly share the brunt of the predicament.

Still, the international community has voiced outrage at Israel's actions, with many world leaders condemning the attack.

Turkey, which sponsored the vessel and had many of its nationals aboard the ships said "This regrettable incident, which took place in the international waters and in serious violation of international law could have irreparable consequences for our relations," ruining a key regional relationship that was on the mend following the diplomatic backlash that came with Israel's assault on Gaza in December 2008.

A Failed Approach

But it is in fact, the US that should be most concerned as Obama -- and potentially Obama alone -- has the opportunity to capitalize on an opportunity to give Israel a reality check, or continue down the path of convenience, oversight and a superficial pursuit of peace.

Netanyahu is now finding himself in the worst diplomatic crisis since taking office earlier this year, and it is likely that Obama will have to tread similar rough waters in the coming weeks.

The US can no longer bank on Turkey, as it had been doing, to potentially serve as a mediator between Iran following Israel's habitual indiscriminate aggressive attack.

The irony is, Israel - like Christina Aguilera once confessed in a slow ballad (Save Me From Myself) that never quite garnered the fame it should have - needs to be saved from itself.

Its policies have succeeded only in instilling more anger, desperation and rage in the Palestinians living in Gaza and millions of Muslims across the world, which to put it simply, is counterproductive to securing its borders and "Jewish identity".

The blockade has failed to oust Hamas from power, but instead eliminated over 100,000 jobs (as a result of banning raw goods and freezing trade), creating swaths of unemployed, destitute, and desperate people.

Despite being challenged by Human Rights groups, Israel has refused to list publicly what it bans from entering Gaza claiming it would harm their security.

Accordingly, 80 percent of Gaza's residents are dependent on international assistance, primarily UN-donated food aid.

Even under the assumption that the convoy's attempts to bring aid to Gaza, (the largest effort to try to reach Gaza since Israel and Egypt began restricting the flow of goods into the strip since 2007) was a provocation, in the words of French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner who said he was "deeply shocked by the tragic consequences of Israel's military operation" against "a humanitarian initiative", "nothing could justify the use of such violence, which we condemn."

Israel claims that food, medicine and medical equipment are allowed inside Gaza regularly. But today's events point to the contrary. So long as the UN and Western powers only rely on their voices to urge Israel to ease its restrictions, it is only a matter of time (and not much) until this news story recycles itself in yet another tragic manifestation.

Obama Holds the Key

There is only one world power with the ability to really bring about a change on the ground in Israel and Gaza -- the US.

The first step for Obama is to slowly begin to admit, to itself, if not the American public, the reality that its domestic policies (due to the sheer power of the Jewish Lobby and other interest groups) are currently dependent on its foreign relations with Israel.

Until then, the US government will remain bound to its role of blindly guaranteeing any act of Israel's government, even when it is not in its immediate interest.

What is particularly encouraging is that Obama managed to win even more support from American Muslims, despite his political pandering to AIPAC during his campaign when he infamously announced that Jerusalem should remain Israel's undivided capital.

No one with any grasp on reality would suggest that Obama withdraw aid from Israel, or to turn his back on its key ally in the region.

In fact Obama should remain Israel's closest ally and friend. But sometimes the true test of friendship is being able to not only call out a friend for a lapse in judgment but to do something proactive to send a message to your friend indicating that they have crossed the line...again.

Obama actually has the power to meddle with Israel's domestic politics, just as Israel meddles with that of the US, through a sustained approach of influencing the Israeli electorate to take matter into their own hands.

He must begin to give them signs that the US will not longer offer "unwavering support" to Israel. It won't cost him the next election if it is done right.

He can take small steps, such as no longer isolating Palestinian leaders simply because they are labeled and made out by Israel to be terrorists, and nothing else.

Obama has always promoted and positioned himself as taking a nuanced approach to complex issues. This is yet another one.

In fact, he can start with one of those forgotten UN Security Council Resolutions that the US abstained from voting on, 1860, which calls for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, a sustained delivery of humanitarian aid and an Israeli troop withdrawal.

If Obama leads, it is conceivable that the American public will follow.

In February 67 percent of Americans expressed a favorable opinion of Israel according to a Gallup poll.

The same survey found that 63 percent of the public stands with Israel when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, versus 15 percent that support the Palestinians.

But if you split the results down party lines, you find that 85 percent of Republicans support Israel but only 48 percent of Democrats (and 60 percent for independents).

These are numbers he can work with.

The time has come for Obama to truly lead and bring about the change he campaigned on.

Is it a risk? Sure. Is it possible that he might lose the upcoming election if he embarks on this course? Sure. But running for President as a first term senator with chocolate-colored skin was a risk to begin with, so he has no real excuse to play it safe.


 

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