Sunday, September 4, 2011

Turkey's Snub & The Decline of Israel

Israeli blunder: Turkish ship Mavi Marmara as it's being attacked by Israeli
commandos during attempt by flotilla to deliver aid to the Gaza Strip.
It was just over 20 years ago that I first became politically active around the first war against Iraq by Bush Sr. It was all so new and I felt like my eyes were being opened to history and politics in so many profound ways that I have many indelible memories from this time. One of them is just how outside of the mainstream it was to criticize Israel. Of course, even by then, Israel had suffered some blows to its previously unassailable - and self-promoted - image as the plucky little democracy, the only one amongst a sea of Arab dictatorships. The war against Lebanon with its attendant brutalities, particularly the massacre at the Sabra & Shatila refugee camp by Israeli allied Christian fascists against unarmed Palestinians as Israeli troops watched on, had given the world a hint at just how brutal a regime it was. But it was still the case that even wearing a "Free Palestine" pin - as I did - was controversial. I remember being in the men's room on campus and was cornered by a Zionist who demanded to know why I wanted to drive the Jews into the sea. Later that year the York Arab Student's Federation attempted to hold a day in celebration of Palestine liberation and it almost led to a riot as Zionists showed up with massive Israeli flags that they used to try and prevent students from seeing the pro-Palestinian displays.

Those days are gone and Israel has only itself to thank for its growing isolation and the increase in awareness of Israel's viciousness. The 2006 war in Lebanon - and their effective defeat. The war against a semi-starved Gaza population in 2008. The refusal to stop the illegal settlements or end the blockade of the Gaza Strip has undermined Israel's attempts to portray itself as a bastion of moderation in a sea of extremism. None of that would have been possible, of course, without the struggles of Palestinians themselves, who have refused to lie down and die or vacate their ancestral lands no matter the punishment and humiliations meted out by Israel. And the international allies of the Palestinians have admirably carried the struggle abroad, in particular building and promoting the cause of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions [BDS] against Israel. At first BDS seemed like a hopeless cause - and I admit to having been skeptical about its potential, perhaps because of my memories of toilet harassments from university. But bit by bit the idea of BDS has taken hold as has the label of Apartheid, taken from the racist system of segregation maintained formerly in South Africa.

That isn't to say that Israel doesn't still have its supporters - particularly at the level of the US government. Israel is a key strategic partner and facilitator for American imperialism in the Middle East. It isn't for nothing that the US gives the largest share of its "foreign aid" budget to Israel, along with special access and deals on the most high tech military equipment. Israel is America's watchdog in the Middle East. But even in the face of bellicose pro-Israel propaganda and intimidation of pro-Palestinian activists, the arguments have gained ground to the point that Israel's supporters are increasingly forced to fight a rearguard action. It has become less about trying to prove that the Palestinians aren't terrorists by genetic or cultural disposition, as it once was, and more about proving that Israel is, in fact, a form of Apartheid regime. Witness the battle in Toronto about the participation of Queers Against Israeli Apartheid in the Pride Parade. Of course this campaign against Pride by Mammoliti, Ford and every other bigot on council was as much about attacking gay & lesbian rights as Palestine. But they tried - and failed - to target it on the basis of the Israeli Apartheid label, giving the argument publicity. The city's discrimination officer found that labeling a country as racist was not discriminatory towards an ethnic group.

In the Middle East itself, the solidarity campaigns to bring aid to the Gaza Strip - in part as a means to expose the brutality and illegality of the blockade have also helped to isolate Israel. Last year's flotilla to Gaza, which was attacked in international waters by Israel commandos who shot first and asked questions later, has turned out to have been a significant breaking point in terms of its isolation. The international optics of Israel killing nine unarmed human rights activists was bad enough but their repeated refusals to apologize to Turkey for killing Turkish citizens has become a foreign policy disaster.

This has only added to the ideological crisis that was created by the vicious and hypocritical invasion of Gaza at the end of 2008. At the time I suggested that this war was a symbol of Israel's weakness, not its strength, particularly after the defeat in Lebanon in 2006. Israel was spoiling for a fight to prove that it could still be the neighbourhood bully - by picking on the weakest kid on the block. But the effect - aside from failing to destroy Hamas - was only to make it harder for regional allies like Egypt and Turkey to justify their continued ties when the whole world turned away from Israel in disgust. And, I argued in January 2009, this war's brutal and vicious character could lead to some major knock on effects throughout the region.

But even in the unlikely event that Israel is able to achieve a "total victory" there is still the growing danger that the Arab anger this present brutality has unleashed will destroy the American empire's already shaky hegemony in the Middle East...
If these regimes begin to collapse - and Egypt's is the one to watch - it will signal the collapse of four decades of work to create a compliant network of pro-American regimes, with Egypt as the jewel in the crown. America's rulers, already frustrated with Israel's failure in Lebanon to weaken Iran, may begin to raise graver doubts about the utility of Israel's Iron Wall strategy.
As it happens, Egypt's dictatorship did fall in rapid succession after revolution in Tunisia, leading to a season of upheaval throughout North Africa and the Middle East. Libya, while a mixed result because of the involvement of western imperialism, marks the fall of another dictator, which could inspire the movement in Syria. Upheaval seems to be returning to Bahrain after the Saudi monarchy tried to help the Bahraini monarchy crush the revolution. All of this upheaval, combined with the rapid economic growth of Turkey alongside a process of reform that has weakened the power of the Turkish military, has elevated that country's role in the Middle East. The immensely popular, moderate Islamism of the Justice & Development Party led by Tayyip Erdogan has sought increasingly to assert its own interests and authority as a leading Muslim power of significance.

Israel's political leadership is now paying the price for the inability of Israeli political institutions and political thinking to switch gears. With growing international isolation - and economic unrest at home - the Israeli leadership is a one note song: repress, expand the settlements, refuse responsibility, refuse negotiations, repress. It's clear that this strategy has reached the limits of its effectiveness. It was one thing for groups of activists to challenge Israel's policies but now a major regional power - Turkey - has all but broken diplomatic ties with Israel and has announced that it is taking Israel to the International Court of Justice to challenge the Gaza blockade. Besides being a major own goal for Israel, it marks a new stage in its decline.

Turkey no longer needs Israel as it once did and feels confident enough to suspend its military ties with the country. Erdogan will travel to Egypt later this month and, perhaps, even visit the Gaza Strip in a further slap in the face to Israel. Just as America and NATO have attempted to insert themselves into the Arab revolutionary process, in order to direct it towards neo-liberalism and western strategic advantage, primarily against China and Russia, so Turkey is also inserting itself into the process. But Turkey, as a Muslim democracy in the Middle East, has far more credibility amongst the regional population. After all, they weren't spending billions to prop up the recently overthrown dictators, unlike the NATO powers. This move by Turkey is a brilliant tactical move to raise its prestige yet further as a regional leader. One only wonders if Turkey will sideline Israel in importance for any empire that wants to have sway in the Middle East. If it does, if Israel's importance as a bagman for western imperialism becomes redundant, its decline will be accelerated. The voices in American ruling class circles who already have been raising doubts about the usefulness of Israel - like Walt & Mearsheimer - will become louder and more confident. Israel may soon discover that it is, in fact, the tail and not the dog, and a very expensive tail indeed.

Turkey to take Israel to ICJ - Middle East - Al Jazeera English


Withercanada said...

Turkey, though, hasn't had a great record of human rights:
Not on the Israel/U.S. level granted, but still. There's also their ties to the Muslim brotherhood which has disapproved of labor strikes.
And as for Israel, support  for Palestinians in  their own protest seems to  be taking baby steps:

Shawn Whitney said...

Hey there - I agree re: Turkey and have said so recently.  As for Israel, I have serious doubts about the emergence of any significant pro-Palestinian movement inside Israel - or movement with a pro-Palestinian position. There have certainly been pro-peace movements (Peace Now!) etc. But Israel depends upon settler colonialism and is paid handsomely for being an American Sparta. That imperial bribery creates a certain limit on consciousness to my mind. I'd be happy to be proven wrong though.

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