For Israel, security may be worth price of international rebuke

Jordan Harrah, 21, of Tampa, center, joins about a dozen protesters at the Sam M. Gibbons Federal Courthouse in Tampa on Tuesday to denounce Israel’s deadly raid on a flotilla trying to take aid to the Gaza Strip.

STEPHEN J. CODDINGTON | Times

Jordan Harrah, 21, of Tampa, center, joins about a dozen protesters at the Sam M. Gibbons Federal Courthouse in Tampa on Tuesday to denounce Israel’s deadly raid on a flotilla trying to take aid to the Gaza Strip.

The international fury over Israel's attack on a Turkish-led flotilla carrying aid to the Palestinians points up the paradoxical — and dangerous — situation in which the Jewish state currently finds itself.

Thanks to Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip and its walling off of much of the West Bank, Israelis are safer than they have been in years. There's little incentive to negotiate with the Palestinians because there's no longer much danger from rocket strikes and suicide bombers.

Yet without an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement and improved relations with the Muslim world in general, Israel's prospects for lasting security become shakier and shakier.

"Israel seems to be enjoying at least a relative stability or relative peace within its borders,'' said Fadi Hakura, an expert on Turkey at London's Royal Institute of International Affairs. "But from the Turkish point of view, the real guarantor of peace in the longer term is for a reconciliation to take place between Israelis and Palestinians.''

Israel's relations with Turkey, one of its few close allies, have taken a drubbing since Israeli commandos killed at least four Turkish citizens as their flotilla neared Gaza on Monday. Although Israel claimed some of the passengers support terrorism, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called the raid an attack on "international law, the conscience of humanity and world peace.''

He also demanded that Israel immediately end its "inhumane'' three-year blockade of Gaza.

A cutoff of diplomatic relations could hurt Turkey, which hosts thousands of Israeli tourists each year and gets military supplies from Israel, including $183 million worth of Israeli drones it still plans to receive this summer. A diplomatic break might also sour Turkish relations with the United States, Israel's staunchest ally.

But severing ties could hit Israel harder and isolate it even further.

"It means Israel would lose a key and strategically important ally that has the second-largest military in NATO and a growing economy with one of the few functioning democracies among Muslim countries,'' Hakura said. "And Turkey is a country of over 70 million people that borders eight countries in some of the most unstable regions of the world.''

Some Israelis have never fully trusted Turkey, which is 99 percent Muslim, or Erdogan, a devout Muslim whose wife wears a headscarf and who recently made a high-profile visit to Israel's No. 1 nemesis, Iran.

But Israeli-Turkish relations had flourished even under Erdogan's tenure, with each country investing in the other and conducting joint military exercises over the Mediterranean Sea. Turkey was even trying to broker a peace deal between Israel and Syria in late 2008 when Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, on a visit to Turkey, failed to mention that Israel was about to invade Gaza.

That infuriated the Turks. And it helped push them closer to Iran, their big, powerful neighbor to the southeast.

One reason is purely economic. While Turkey does $2.5 billion in trade with Israel each year, it does almost 15 times that amount with Iran and Arab countries. Turkey also gets a fifth of its natural gas from Iran.

Another reason is pragmatic. While Israel continues to hint that it might bomb Iran's nuclear facilities, Turkey opposes the use of military force for fear of starting a regional war that could send thousands of Iranian refuges across the border onto Turkish soil.

And given its location in the heart of the Mideast, Turkey traditionally tends to go with the flow.

"When the 1967 Mideast War took place, Turkey's relations with Israel deteriorated somewhat,'' Hakura said. "They really began to (improve) in the early 1990s as the Oslo peace process was launched between Israelis and Palestinians. Now that regional dynamics have turned negative with the Gaza invasion and the flotilla, relations have started to deteriorate again. Turkey cannot divorce itself from the dynamics of the Mideast.''

Israel, meanwhile, is at a rare point where Israeli Jews worry less about their security as individuals than their security as a nation. They don't doubt they face an existential threat: If there's another war, the entire country could be under attack by missiles, not just from Lebanon and Gaza, but also from Iran and Syria, as a recent four-day drill dramatically suggested.

"So it's not going to be like some of the military conflicts we've had in the past in which the front was the front and back home people didn't feel much of what was going on,'' said Abraham Diskin, a Hebrew University political scientist.

Yet the fact that no Israeli civilian has been killed by a Palestinian inside Israel in more than a year means there is less internal pressure on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to reach peace with the Palestinians — a move widely seen as a key to lasting Mideast peace.

Since Israel began building a massive security barrier in the West Bank in 2006, suicide bombings have dropped to zero. And Israel's 2008 invasion of Gaza, while internationally condemned, largely succeeded in ending rocket attacks by Hamas and other militant groups.

"We had these waves of terrorism starting in 2000 and before that in the first intifada and all that stopped — there is no immediate threat,'' Diskin said. "Somebody told me today, 'I'm not fearing anymore when I go on the bus.' ''

Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at susan@sptimes.com.

Daily developments

• Israel and Egypt signaled a temporary easing of the Gaza Strip blockade Tuesday after harsh international condemnation of the deadly Israeli raid on an aid flotilla en route to the sealed-off Palestinian territory.

• Israel pledged to halt a new attempt by pro-Palestinian groups to sail more ships into Gaza. The Free Gaza Movement, which organized the flotilla, said another cargo vessel was off Italy en route to Gaza.

For Israel, security may be worth price of international rebuke 06/01/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 2, 2010 12:02am]

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