Israel's attack on Mavi Marmara could become one of those emblematic incidents that mark a milestone in world politics. Susil Gupta looks at the implications for Turkey and the wider region.
By the usual standards of Israeli violence, the killing of ten flotilla activists is not front-page news. Larger atrocities regularly go unreported. The day after the attack, Israel killed five Palestinians without much comment from the world’s press.
Yet the diplomatic implications of the assault on the Mavi Marmara may make the event a turning-point. The public relations fiasco represented by a nation-state acting like a murderous piratical thug is bad enough.
But the attack on a Turkish ship in international waters with the loss of Turkish lives is one of those emblematic incidents that could become a milestone in world politics.
The incident obliges Turkey, a nation attempting to remake itself as a major regional power, to respond in a robust and unequivocal way that asserts confidence in its future role. It obliges Israel, a state whose international role is increasingly questioned, to re-assert is position by not giving an inch.
Turkey’s first and overriding priority, one which dominates its foreign relations, is to industrialise and modernise. The collapse of the Ottoman Empire due to its failure to adapt to the modern world is etched deep into the nation’s political culture and the consciousness of all social classes. If Ataturkism means anything, it means that.
Rapid modernisation means attaching oneself to one of the three blocks that dominate the world economy: the US, the EU, or China. Four decades of a pro-American strategy - which also meant a pro-Israeli line - did not deliver the modernization Turkey hoped for. American tutelage during the Cold War meant maintaining in power a narrow, corrupt, and parasitical oligarchy more interested in easy money and pillaging state resources than in pulling the country out of backwardness. Indeed, the oligarchy became an obstacle to modernisation.
The end of the Cold War undermined the ruling oligarchy. Under pressure from increasing contact with the world market, the Turkish bourgeoisie dropped dictatorship in favour of the wider class participation represented by a restrained democracy. There are more profits to be made from trade and development than from being NATO’s poddle. The desired developmental partner now became the EU.
Turkey was shocked and angered when the EU turned down its membership bid. The EU would not even commit itself to long-term entry negotiations. In reality, neither the EU nor Turkey is ready for Turkey’s entry, since it poses more problems than advantages.
The EU’s rejection taught Turkey a bitter but necessary lesson. It knows that entry - or even a privileged relationship with the EU - has to be earned. There will be no easy ride for Turkey. As a consequence, Turkey has reoriented its foreign policy towards gaining leverage by becoming the mayor regional power-broker at the crossroads between Europe, Russia, Central Asia, and the Middle East. Then it can negotiate from a position of strength. In the last three years, Turkey has been very successful in this, arranging deals between almost all the major players in the region.
There is no hiding that the assault on the Mavi Marmara represents a humiliating slap in the face before the world community. Turkey is obliged to respond forcefully and with determination if its claim to be the regional power broker is not to be seriously undermined.
A regional power-broker must show an ability to defend its interests as well as bringing friends together. Regional players are keen to see if Turkey can show itself to be an emerging power - or is it just an officious go-between and provider of conferencing facilities like Jordan? Such predicaments are the stuff of wars.
Turkey’s problems as an emerging power are matched by Israel’s as a declining power. For over five decades, the West has given Israel a blank cheque to engage in whatever violations of international or humanitarian law it deemed necessary to advance its expansionist interests. In return. it faithfully protected and policed Western interests in the Middle East. This ‘plucky little nation’ could do no wrong, and its daring exploits in punishing Arabs were celebrated by western leaders.
But the peoples of the Middle East are no longer easily cowed by threats and colonialist violence. On the contrary, such methods increasing undermine Western interests. Now Israel can do nothing right. Its strategic space is crumbling because its role as brutal regional cop is an anachronism. Successive military interventions - the 2006 war against Hizbollah in Lebanon, the 2009 invasion of Gaza, and now the assault on the Mavi Marmara - have turned into political disasters. The doctrine of overwhelming force now produces only defeat.
Yet, as an ailing power, Israel cannot afford to be seen to back down. In response to the assault on the Mavi Marmara, Yitzhak Aharonovitch, Israeli Internal Security Minister, ordered police to start gathering evidence to prosecute flotilla activists. ‘All those who lifted a hand against a soldier will be punished to the full extent of the law,’ he told Israel Radio.
Aharonovitch was obviously labouring under the customary colonialist mindset, oblivious not only to the fact that Israeli state law does not apply in international waters, but also to changing diplomatic circumstances. His is the traditional response: dare to offended Israel and we will make you pay such a price that you will curse your own mother.
But bashing defenceless Palestinians is one thing - picking a fight with a major regional power, and Western ally, is something very different. Within hours of Aharonovitch’s statement, Prime Minister Netanyahu dropped all plans for a prosecution and ordered the immediate deportation of all the activists.
He understood the diplomatic implications. Had Israel detained and prosecuted Turkish flotilla activists, it would have committed yet another ‘own goal’ by effectively putting itself on trial, before the eyes of the world, and making itself hostage to a diplomatic crisis it could not control or win.
The climb-down - unthinkable only a decade ago - is a measure of how Israel’s regional strategic situation has deteriorated. It also illustrates how easily wars can start when an ailing power cannot afford to be seen to retreat, and an emerging power cannot afford to let itself be humiliated. Had a single Israeli soldier been killed on the Mavi Marmara, Israel would have been forced to prosecute at least some Turkish nationals for domestic reasons. Turkey could not have tolerated that.
It is rumoured that the Mavi Marmara’s flag registration was switched from Turkey to the Comoros Islands , a ‘flag of convenience’ registration. This may be because the ship is a passenger ferry certified only to operate in inland and costal waters. The re-registration does not fundamentally alter Israel ’s violation of international law, which Turkey can still action before international courts.