‘We’re the only ones who believe them,” a US official was quoted as complaining last week in response to Israel’s account of its attack on the Gaza aid flotilla.
The bloodshed on the high seas and the resulting diplomatic fallout is a reminder of just how far US influence has fallen in the region, and the grim prospects for the US president Barack Obama reversing that trend as long as the US continues to accord Israel special status.
Indeed, in a statement that would have evoked howls of protest had it been made on Capitol Hill, the Mossad chief Meir Dagan last week told a Knesset sub-committee that Israel is turning “from an asset to the United States to a burden”.
The drama of last week has forced the US and its European partners to concede that the Israeli blockade on Gaza is untenable, as is its underlying policy – shared by Washington and the Europeans – of refusing to engage with Hamas as an intractable fact of Palestinian political life.
The fact that a group of defiant civil society activists – backed by the Turkish government – has forced that acknowledgement is a sign of how far the balance of power in the Middle East has shifted.
It is a change that will also have implications for how the Iranian nuclear standoff is resolved.
Even before the flotilla debacle forced the US to postpone its attempt to bring a new sanctions resolution to the UN Security Council, the effort to isolate Tehran over its nuclear programme was in trouble.
Sure, the American administration claims to have Russia and China signed on to a new sanctions resolution. But both countries have demanded that any new measures be gutted of the ability to seriously hurt Iran. They insist that Tehran satisfy the transparency concerns reiterated last week by the IAEA, but also maintain that a solution can be achieved only through dialogue.
On the negotiation front, the only game in town right now is the fuel-swap agreement brokered with Iran by Turkey and Brazil. Those countries, both of which are currently on the Security Council, were outraged that the US simply ignored the proposal despite the fact that it largely resembled the deal offered to Iran by Washington last October and that Mr Obama himself had encouraged his Brazilian and Turkish counterparts to pursue the deal.
Sure, the agreement doesn’t halt Iran’s ongoing enrichment of uranium, but the same was true for the deal offered by the US last year.
The former IAEA chief and potential Egyptian presidential candidate Mohammed ElBaradei urged the US and its allies to reconsider. “I was surprised at the reaction that some countries would continue to say that they want to apply sanctions, because if you remove over half of the material that Iran has to Turkey, that is clearly a confidence-building measure. To say that we are going to apply sanctions nonetheless despite this deal, I think would be completely counterproductive.” He added that while “there is a fear about Iran’s future intentions, [it] can only be resolved through negotiations and trust”, for which there’s plenty of time because “nobody is suggesting that Iran is on the brink of developing nuclear weapons.”
There was more bad news for Iran at the conclusion of the month-long Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference, which Washington had naively hoped would build support for sanctions.
Instead, the conference called for action on achieving a nuclear-free Middle East, and for Israel to sign the NPT and subject its own nuclear capacity to international scrutiny. The Arab states led that initiative, making clear that while they supported efforts to prevent Iran from attaining nuclear weapons, they rejected the principle of Israel maintaining a regional monopoly on nuclear force. The Obama administration had little choice but to back the nuclear-free Middle East principle, but warned that it would not support a process that “singled out” Israel or put its security in question.
The Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu instantly vowed not to sign the NPT, and to boycott a regional summit on the issue two years from now. Far from being “singled out” by others, Israel in fact singles itself out by being the only nuclear-armed state in the Middle East – the trump card of its sense of security – and by refusing to sign the NPT. The American nod and wink to Israel’s nuclear status was also a diplomatic victory for Iran, which accuses Washington of applying a double standard.
Pax Americana, it seems, is slowly in decline. Mr Obama’s promising words in his Cairo speech a year ago have delivered no substantial change in US policy in the region, and Ankara seems no longer willing to tolerate the suffering being imposed on Gazans with Washington’s tacit consent. In taking this position, Turkey is channeling regional public opinion, and doing so in a way far more credible and effective than the hollow antics of the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
And the challenge to the blockade may have succeeded: the blockade’s stated purpose, after all, was to throttle the Gazan economy in the hope that collective punishment would turn the civilian population against Hamas. That’s a policy now being deemed untenable even by the United States – something that would not have happened without the flotilla.
Exposing the failed Gaza policy has also reignited calls for the US and its allies to recognize the futility of trying to conduct an Israeli-Palestinian peace process as if Hamas simply didn’t exist. Pressure is mounting for the West to find ways to try and integrate Hamas into more stable political arrangements.
None of this lets Iran off the hook in terms of its NPT obligations, of course. But the consensus among the key players is that the Iran standoff will be resolved through a negotiated compromise. What the events of last week have taught us is that the global and regional balance of power here is shifting in ways that make it unlikely for conflicts in the Middle East to be resolved on terms set by the US and Israel.