It seems an especially hopeless task to declare that conditions in the Mideast have reached a new low of hopelessness, but that is where we are, and the first step toward any future hope must be to acknowledge its present absence. The deadly Mavi Marmara confrontation is a particular blow to President Barack Obama, the would-be grand strategist of the Mideast. Eighteen months ago, Obama had wanted to get all the cylinders of change working in his favor. He had sought a regional strategy that would alter the underlying dynamic by winning back the favor of the Arab and Muslim nations, bringing everyone on board against Iran and its nuclear program, and forging ahead on peace between the Israelis and Palestinians as a way of making it all come together. In other words, turning a negative spiral into a positive one.
In recent weeks Obama had seemed to be making some progress, however meager. Months of painstaking diplomacy had achieved a measure of consensus over new U.N. sanctions against Iran, with Russia’s and China’s grudging compliance. “Proximity talks,” employing former senator George Mitchell as middleman, were about to begin. But once again, an unforeseen incident—unforeseen, that is, except by those who planned it—has overturned all those calculations. The Mavi Marmara debacle has done more than further aggravate the mistrust between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (recall their blowup half a year ago over the abrupt announcement of new settlements during Vice President Biden’s visit) and distracted everyone once again from Iran. It has reminded all these would-be strategists that the issue they most wanted to go away—Gaza, and all that it means politically and morally—is back again, and it may be here to stay for a long while.
Even as international inspectors are declaring that Iran now has enough fuel for two nuclear weapons, nations and NGOs that are attempting to dilute or derail those sanctions have a grand new diversion. With the U.N. Security Council calling for a “sustained and regular flow of goods and people to Gaza,” the headlines are almost certain to be dominated by American and international pressure on Israel to end its blockade of the territory. Turkey, which has led the effort to compromise with Tehran over the handling of its uranium stock as an alternative to sanctions, suddenly has a new bully pulpit, given that most of the dead aboard the Mavi Marmara seem to have been Turks (though a dispatch from the Middle East Media Research Institute, the monitoring group, indicated that some on board may have been militants). Beyond that, the reemergence of Gaza as issue No. 1 serves as a bitter reminder that running a peace process with a Palestinian who controls only the West Bank (and barely that)—President Mahmoud Abbas—is almost certainly folly.
Together, all this points to the pitfalls of developing a grand strategy for a region whose key players have little desire to take part in that strategy. This latest incident was clearly orchestrated by anti-Israel organizations. But let’s face it: Netanyahu and his cabinet allowed themselves to be baited. They have shown again and again, despite U.S. efforts to keep them focused on the Iran peril, that they are hopelessly unable to compromise on their political hobbyhorses regarding the Palestinian issue, even for the sake of what they call “the existential threat” of Iran. The Israeli Defense Forces seems incapable of comprehending the concept of counterinsurgency or even good publicity in an era when their nation’s very legitimacy depends on good PR. An editorial in Tuesday’s Haaretz newspaper may have said it best: “It seemed no one could resist the temptation to show the Israel Defense Forces’ strength in a place the IDF should not have been in the first place. Because the question was not who would win the confrontation, but who would win more public opinion points. In this test, Benjamin Netanyahu’s government failed completely. Israel let its policy of maintaining the siege on Gaza become an existential matter. This policy boomeranged and cost Israel its international legitimacy.”
Perhaps not just yet. The irony is that, Iran aside, Israel is as secure militarily as it has ever been. No rival nation’s military can come close to challenging it; and the security fence, as well as improved intelligence-gathering in the West Bank, have reduced suicide attacks to a new low. But diplomatically there is no clear way forward, and the demographic and nuclear clocks are both ticking louder. As the dream of peace dies, the old question at the heart of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank is growing more pressing: how can Israel retain its Jewish identity if it intends to rule territorially over millions of Palestinians into the indefinite future? How can Israel ensure its future existence if Iran moves, stealthy step by stealthy step, toward a nuclear-weapons capability? How can Obama prevent a regional nuclear-arms race that would ensure the entire Middle East remains in permanent proximity to Armageddon?
None of these questions can be answered unless the key players agree on a strategy going forward, beginning with the American president and the Israeli prime minister. And that is what, at present, seems most hopeless of all.