Wed, June 09, 2010
World > Middle East > Gaza flotilla clash

Mideast diplomacy in fast lane after Gaza flotilla episode

2010-06-09 03:19:43 GMT2010-06-09 11:19:43 (Beijing Time)  Xinhua English

JERUSALEM, June 8 (Xinhua) -- The global village has put much of its effort of the last week into condemning Israel and trying to persuade the Jewish state to ease its grip on the Gaza Strip.

In the Middle East, that effort moved into top gear on Monday and Tuesday, just a week after at least nine people lost their lives when Israeli commandoes boarded a Turkish ship heading a flotilla that was trying to breach Israel's marine blockade of the Palestinian coastal enclave.

Heads of state and senior representatives of 20 states held a summit in Istanbul on Tuesday as Turkey took over from Kazakhstan the presidency of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence- building Measures in Asia (CICA).

The body was expected to issue a presidential statement condemning Israel. However, as Israel is a member of the CICA and all decisions must be unanimous, the final wording was understood to be a watered down version of the original proposals.

Meanwhile, Egypt is also a focus of attention as it has opened its crossing into the Gaza Strip and Iran is entering the fray by sending two ships to Gaza, also in a bid to confront Israel's maritime blockade of the strip.

TURKEY AT THE CENTER

The CICA summit was planned well before the May 31 flotilla incident but nonetheless it is overshadowing the event. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan held a series of meetings with Asian leaders on Monday, perhaps the most photographed being that with Syria's President Bashar Assad.

"Both sides asserted the necessity for the taking of practical measures as to compel Israel to break the siege imposed on Gaza Strip, putting an end to its persistence violations of the international laws and human norms, and its persistent threats to ignite wars in the region," the Syria's official SANA news agency reported after Assad held another meeting with his Turkish counterpart Abdullah Gul.

At the same time as Ankara has been moving closer to its Muslim neighbors it has been distancing itself from Israel. That divide became a chasm with the flotilla episode, according to Robert Lowe, the manager of the Middle East Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs known as Chatham House in Britain. This he said was the key result of the flotilla's mission.

"The most striking change and the most easily identifiable is in the Israeli-Turkish relationship, at least in the short term. The impact has been quite astonishing," he told Xinhua on Tuesday.

The relationship began to go into decline when Erdogan's Islamic-leaning Justice and Development Party came to power. The first signs of real problems emerged with Turkey's reaction to Israel's three-week military operation in Gaza some 18 months ago. However, it was only last week that Ankara spoke seriously of completely cutting its ties with Israel.

IRANIAN MISSION

Israeli media said Turkey is not only moving ever closer to the Arab world but also towards the Jewish state's main foe Iran.

This weekend Tehran will dispatch what it says are two Iranian Red Crescent aid ships bound for Gaza. One contains cargo and the other passengers. The pair is expected to sail through the Suez Canal and head along the Mediterranean's southeastern shoreline until it reaches Gaza.

Israel has made it abundantly clear on numerous occasions over the last month that it will not allow any ship to enter Gaza. It is safe to assume that applies doubly so to vessels originating in Iran.

Yet analysts who spoke with Xinhua on Tuesday were optimistic that the latest flotilla and the Israeli reaction would not be the opening salvoes in a war between the countries.

"I think both sides know that a confrontation between an official vessel from Iran and Israel would not be to either side's advantage. I think on both sides there'll be moves to prevent a confrontation," said Glen Rangwala, an expert on Middle-Eastern affairs from the Department of Politics at Cambridge University.

It is a view shared by Lowe.

"My guess is that this will peter out. Iran is often quite noisy about such kind of action. There's talk of revolutionary guards and others mobilizing and gathering but these things tend to dissipate," he said.

EFFECTS ON GAZA

The experts who have spoken with Xinhua agree that the activists on board last week's flotilla have achieved something that governments around the world have failed to do. They have put Gaza back on the map.

Over the last few days there have been strong public messages from Washington urging Israel to revise its policies on Gaza and in general it is only the U.S. that can exert sufficient pressure on Israel.

Local media reported on Monday that the Israeli government is setting up an internal panel of jurists that will look at the legality of the state's actions regarding the flotilla, but, perhaps more significantly, the legality of Israel's security measures against Gaza.

There are indications from Israel that it is about to announce the easing of some restrictions, but Rangwala points out that Israel may have let off the hook somewhat by Cairo's decision to open its crossing with Gaza, temporarily at least.

By allowing most goods in and out of Gaza, Cairo was answering critics of its own closure on the strip and also attempting pressure Israel into following suit.

However, this may backfire to some extent, according to Rangwala, because now aid, foodstuffs and other essentials can be taken into Gaza, without Israel having to alter arrangements on its side of the frontier.

"It doesn't require in some ways a revision of Israel's military and psychological pressure on the Gaza population," Rangwala said, explaining that Israel still sees Hamas, which controls Gaza, as being a hostile threat.

The next week will bring an important visitor to Gaza. Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa will meet Hamas leaders when he is slated to enter the strip via Egypt. From there he is expected to call on Israel once again to ease its grip on the Palestinian territory and also agree to an international inquiry into last week's events, the latter of which Israel seems unlikely to do at this stage.

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