Israel's announcement that it will end its prohibition on a wide variety of civilian goods entering Gaza marks the collapse of the Israeli strategy to topple the territory's Hamas rulers through "economic warfare." The Islamists who rule the tiny coastal strip will count the announcement as a victory simply because they survived the siege. So will Turkey, which backed the activist flotilla whose challenge to the siege ended in bloodshed and set off the diplomatic firestorm that precipitated Israel's about-face. The move marks Israel conceding that its Gaza strategy has failed to achieve its goal, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu disowned the blockade on Monday, stressing in his remarks to parliament that it was a policy he'd inherited from his predecessors.
That the blockade collapsed under pressure is also an embarrassment for the Obama Administration because Turkey's more muscular challenge will be seen throughout the region to have forced a change in Israeli behavior something that Obama's polite entreaties have failed to achieve. (The President had urged the Israelis more than a year ago to ease the siege, to little effect.) Others with egg on their faces include Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak, both of whom had tacitly but firmly backed the blockade in the hope of toppling Hamas and whose diminished relevance to events in the region has been highlighted by the blockade debacle.
The U.S. as well as the Europeans welcomed the Israeli announcement as a first step toward normalizing economic life in Gaza, but they also noted that the shift would be judged by Israel's deeds rather than words. If in fact Israel changes its current blockade policy from prohibiting everything from entering Gaza, except for a limited range of items on a secret list, to allowing all traffic except for proscribed military items it would also mean giving up on the political strategy of systemically depriving Gaza's civilian population so that they would turn against Hamas. The fact that the Israelis negotiated their policy shift with the U.S. and with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who is a representative of the Middle East Quartet (the U.S., the E.U., the U.N. and Russia), is a reminder that the blockade was, in fact, part of an anti-Hamas strategy shared by the Western powers. While the Obama Administration had expressed misgivings about the strategy of collective punishment in Gaza, it never demanded a change in the Gaza blockade in the same way that it insisted, for example, that Israel halt settlement construction.
The move to isolate and pressure Hamas in Gaza began in 2006 when the movement won the Palestinian legislative elections. It intensified the following year after Hamas violently ejected Fatah security forces in a struggle for power on the streets. That was in line with the Bush Administration's strategy of seeing the region through the prism of a zero-sum conflict between radicals and moderates. The verdict of the Palestinian electorate was irrelevant to a White House that deemed Hamas as nothing more than a proxy for Iran, against which the Bush Administration was hoping to unite Arab moderates. After Hamas was voted into office, the U.S. demanded that the movement formally renounce armed struggle, recognize Israel and abide by agreements negotiated by the PLO's Fatah leadership and demanded that it be isolated and pressured until it was ready to issue what Hamas would deem a symbolic surrender.
The same moderates-vs.-radicals outlook led the Bush Administration to back and even encourage Israel's attack on Lebanon in the summer of 2006 and its pummeling of Gaza in January 2008. And though the White House pressed the Arab regimes to denounce Hizballah and Hamas in those conflicts, Arab public opinion was outraged by Israel's actions. The Arab regimes, including the Palestinian Authority, that did fall in line with the U.S. simply became more isolated from their own people. In a particularly humiliating episode, Abbas was forced to reverse himself under a storm of criticism, even from within his own party, after initially opposing U.N. discussion of the Goldstone report into war crimes committed by both sides during the Gaza battle.
Despite its intention to do things differently in the Middle East, the Obama Administration immediately embraced its predecessor's Hamas boycott and conditions, for which Washington had also won the Quartet's backing. Obama's peace quest, like his predecessor's, has been based on sidestepping the uncomfortable reality of Gaza, and the fact that his designated peace partner, President Abbas, could hardly be said to be representative of all, or even most, Palestinians. Indeed, just like the Bush Administration, Obama officials began presenting the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian talks as vital to the effort to isolate Iran. The Administration has resisted moves it deems inimical to the effort to prop up the politically enfeebled Abbas. On Arab moves to promote Fatah-Hamas rapprochement, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned that the U.S. would not deal with a Palestinian government that included Hamas unless the movement accepted the conditions set by the Bush Administration. Even Israeli negotiations with Hamas over a prisoner swap that would release captive Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit were viewed coolly by the Administration, largely because Israel concluding a prisoner exchange would highlight Abbas' weakness.
The glaring flaw in the moderates-vs.-radicals strategy, of course, is that the U.S. has been unwilling or unable to press Israel to offer a peace agreement with the Palestinians that is even minimally acceptable to any of the moderate Arab regimes, much less to their citizenry. And that dooms the strategy to failure because it removes any platform on which those aligned with the U.S. could stand against those it deems as radicals. It is hardly surprising that the polls find approval ratings for Obama's Middle East policies sharply declining in Arab public opinion. And into the vacuum of that deadlock has stepped Turkey, whose government has rejected the U.S. "with us or against us" approach, and has instead sought to build bridges between the West and its allies, including Israel, and the likes of Iran, Syria and Hamas.
Turkey has also shown a willingness to confront Israel on the issues that cause outrage across the Muslim world and to conduct diplomacy independent of the terms set by Washington both in respect of Hamas and Gaza, as well as on Iran's nuclear program. This has prompted some to suggest that Turkey is moving over into the camp of the radicals, but Ankara's point seems to be that dividing the region on those lines has gotten the U.S. nowhere, and that progress requires integrating the likes of Iran and Hamas into systems of security and stability that recognize the intractable reality that they are stakeholders in the region's future. The Obama Administration may not like that idea, but so far, the alternatives it has promoted have gained little traction. Indeed, more than anything else, Israel's lifting the blockade in the wake of the flotilla debacle is a reminder that the U.S. and its allies are no longer setting the region's strategic agenda.