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A little more than a year ago, Israeli forces intercepted a flotilla on an aid mission to the Palestinian territory of Gaza, causing an international uproar. With a United Nations vote on Palestinian membership looming in September, another flotilla will try to push through to Gaza. We examine the politics at work and what it says about the current state of the Arab-Israeli peace process.
- Blake Hounshell Managing Editor, Foreign Policy
- Daniel Levy Senior Research Fellow, New America Foundation
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, taking dance to shipyards and street corners, we talk with Liz Lerman about where she wants to bring her art next. But first, a sequel plays out in the Arab-Israeli dispute. A little more than a year ago, a flotilla challenged the Israeli naval blockade of the Gaza Strip and ignited an international uproar. The incident resulted in Israeli troops intercepting the ship, nine deaths and an even more complicated Arab-Israeli peace process.
MR. KOJO NNAMDINow, with a controversial vote on Palestinian membership to the United Nations looming in September, another flotilla is preparing to challenge Israel by sailing to Gaza. Joining us to pick apart the politics behind this mission and how it's likely to play out on the global stage is Daniel Levy. He is a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation and the co-director of its Middle East Task Force.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHe held several positions in Israeli government during the '90s and early parts of this decade under the administrations of Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak. Daniel Levy, thank you for joining us. He joins us by phone from New York.
MR. DANIEL LEVYIt's my pleasure, Kojo.
NNAMDIAlso joining us by phone is Blake Hounshell, managing editor at Foreign Policy magazine. Blake, thank you for joining us.
MR. BLAKE HOUNSHELLThanks so much.
NNAMDIBlake, the war of words over this new flotilla mission started long before it was even close to departing. The ship was expected to leave this morning, but there are now reports that it's been damaged and the organizers of the trip say their boat was sabotaged. What do you make of the disputes that have already erupted over the second flotilla?
HOUNSHELLWell, there actually are 10 boats that are supposed to set sail for Gaza soon. And what this really is about is an attempt by the activist community to, you know, raise awareness about the siege of Gaza as they see it and, you know, draw attention to the struggle of the Palestinian cause. And Israel is -- you know, they have security concerns, but there's also a kind of a wider narrative in Israel and especially coming from the Netanyahu administration about de-legitimization.
HOUNSHELLAnd they claim that there is a campaign to de-legitimize Israel in the eyes of the international community. And that, I think, more than any other reason, is why they've acted in kind of a paranoid fashion to what amounts to, you know, pretty small potatoes when you look at the facts of what's going on here.
NNAMDIDaniel Levy, the people who organized it say they're on a humanitarian mission, that the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip has humanitarian effects on it, that it's causing people to not be able to get those things that are essential for the quality of their lives. Who are the people behind the new flotilla? Is there anything notable about the people who are going to be on the boat? It's my understanding that American author Alice Walker is one of them. We tried to reach her, but without success. Daniel Levy?
LEVYYes, I think, unlike the flotilla last year, this time there is an American boat. There are, I think, about 30 Americans who intend to set sail on that boat. They are calling it the Audacity of Hope, is the name they've given to that boat. There are several boats with European citizens, including some parliamentarians and union activists, church activists, I believe, are going to be on most boats. And I think, as Blake said, the intention here -- yes, there is a humanitarian situation in Gaza.
LEVYThere is an ongoing naval air blockade of Gaza and the situation in Gaza -- although improving incrementally. More stuff is getting in and there's more opening now on the Egyptian border. But the bans on travel, the bans on export getting out of Gaza or the bans on construction materials getting in mean that the situation there still really is bad, forcing Gazans into a situation of needing humanitarian assistance when they shouldn't.
LEVYBut I think what the activists are trying to do -- and in many ways just the very fact that we're having this conversation, Kojo, suggests that they might have succeeded already without even setting sail. They're trying to do two things, shine a spotlight, as Blake said, on the Gaza reality, on the Palestinian situation at large. I think they're also are trying to do what civil disobedience organizers have tried to do throughout history, which is to try to get what they consider to be the violating party to score own goals, to embarrass itself in its response.
LEVYAnd I think, so far, Israel is probably playing into that. Israel has already made several missteps last year and this year as well, which I think mean -- this is largely a win for the nonviolent activists.
NNAMDIIndeed, the Israeli military on Tuesday claimed flotilla participants had threatened to kill Israeli military personnel should their boats be boarded. The alleged sacks of sulfuric acid were being stockpiled on boats to be used in attacks on Israeli commandos. But flotilla organizer, Medea Benjamin, dismissed the allegations as ludicrous. We know Medea Benjamin as a Code Pink organizer. What statement are the people behind the flotilla trying to make, Blake Hounshell? Is it significantly different from what the people behind last year's boat try to do as Daniel Levy seems to be indicating?
HOUNSHELLWell, you know, there is one major difference. Well, actually there are two related major differences. One is that this Turkish group, the IHH, which was the one behind the Mavi Marmara, the big ship that -- where there are casualties happen last year. The Turkish government, it seems, is not allowing the IHH to be involved in this year's flotilla, although one of the ships, the one that was just damaged, was going to set sail from Turkey.
HOUNSHELLSo that group, which is, you know, to be honest, a fairly radical group, is not going to be involved this time. And what -- as Daniel said, is the people involved are really leftist and European and American activists, which to be honest, you know, don't seem very frightening to me. And even some Israeli officials have anonymously rejected the claims of the army that there would be these kind of sulfur attacks. I think some Israeli officials think that's ludicrous and have said so accordingly.
NNAMDIDaniel, you pointed out that merely by having this conversation on the public airwaves, the activists may have achieved one of their objectives in drawing attention to the blockade, period. But a lot's happened during the year that passed between the previous flotilla mission and this one. Israel's been surrounded on all sides by different forms of unrest. Hosni Mubarak, a critical Israeli ally, was toppled in Egypt.
NNAMDIThings have gotten messy on the Syrian border with Bashar al-Assad cracking down on dissent in his country. In what position have these global events left Israel to deal with a situation like this one?
LEVYWell, I think you raise a very important point, Kojo. The Egyptians were, under Mubarak, were, of course, not only complicit in maintaining that blockade of Gaza -- because one can reach Gaza through Israel by air, by sea or through Egypt. That blockade is beginning to be used, given the new realities in Egypt. But the bigger picture is that as our public opinion matters more if we are on this transition towards greater democracy, as Arab regimes will have to seek more legitimacy in the eyes of their citizenry, I think what's going to do for Israel is make it very difficult for Israel to cut deals with one or two autocrats.
LEVYAnd although the Palestinian issue isn't the only thing on people's minds by a long way, it is part of the dignity deficit in the region, the fact that the Palestinians are denied freedom, the fact that the Arab regimes have largely been complicit in that. I think for Israel to live as a democracy in a democratic region, insecurity and to be accepted is going to be really difficult if Israel continues to deny basic freedom and basic rights to the Palestinians, especially if the international community and activists and young people are willing to take risks to shine a light on that.
NNAMDIBlake Hounshell, Egypt has reopened its border for limited passes to Gaza. How's that development affecting, in your view, Israel's approach to managing this flotilla situation?
HOUNSHELLWell, to be honest, I think there's less than meets the eye to the changes in Egypt's policy, you know, post-Mubarak. The foreign minister, now the head of the Arab League, made a big statement about how they would open the border between Egypt and Gaza. But the military was skeptical and they foresaw some sort of problems that they weren't really prepared to deal with. And one of them is the fear that if Egypt really does completely open the border to Gaza, Israel will wash its hands of the situation and say, you know what, you guys can have Gaza, you know, and dump it on Egypt's lap.
HOUNSHELLSo I think that's what's going on here, where there hasn't really been a fundamental change in the policy, there are still a lot of restrictions in place and Gazans complain that they aren't allowed to move freely the way they expected they'd be able to.
NNAMDIDaniel, take us inside Israel politics for a second. You spent a long time working in Israeli government. What can you tell us about how all of these events are affecting politics internally in Israel?
LEVYWell, Israel has perhaps its most right-wing government in history, which one has to be fair, reflects a certain journey that the Israeli public has gone on. And very social fabric of Israel is changing as a much larger ultra-orthodox population, settler population, is growing all the time. So while the government's policies look increasingly undemocratic and unpleasant quite often to even Israel's friends around the world, including ever more the vociferous debates inside Jewish communities about Israel's policies to the Israeli public, these are still largely policies that can gather support.
LEVYThere is obviously an opposition, a strong opposition. That opposition is accusing the government of pursuing policies which are isolating Israel and which are beginning to create the conditions of almost a pariah status in the international community. There's always coalition politics in Israel. And as Blake said earlier, the missteps that I think the government are making in responding to this and other challenges, leave -- for instance, the one day the Israeli Cabinet being told that these are largely peaceful activists.
LEVYThere's not much of a threat. The next day, the media are getting briefed that they're terrorists with chemicals wanting to kill Israeli soldiers onboard. And then the ministers coming out and saying, you know, stop spinning this, stop creating hysteria. This is nonsense. You have the press office warning journalists that if they accompany the flotilla, they'll be deported and banned from Israel for 10 years.
LEVYYou have a wave of criticism of that and then the prime minister rescinds that order. So although the politics moves to the right, the difficulty in managing Israel's international standing while pursuing those policies means that you quite often have this kind of back and forth skittishness within the Israeli policymaking circles.
NNAMDIBlake Hounshell, all of this is happening with the U.N. vote on Palestinian membership looming in September. What are the bigger picture issues that you see at work here?
HOUNSHELLWell, you know, the U.N., let's remember, is kind of symbolic, which, again, you know, makes it kind of inexplicable why Israel is so concerned about it. You know, it's not -- even if it happens, which is now, you know, in serious doubt, it's not going to bring changes on the ground. It's not going to create a real Palestinian state and certainly not along the '67 borders with swaps as President Obama has called for.
HOUNSHELLBut it is part of a larger story of the international community losing patience with this conflict, wanting it to be brought to an end, but not really having, you know, realistic or implementable ideas for doing so. And I think, you know, the U.N. initiative has gotten some momentum because so many people, not just Palestinians, they just want to see this conflict go away.
NNAMDIBlake Hounshell is managing editor at Foreign Policy magazine. I guess we'll have to just watch what happens with the flotilla on a day to day basis. Blake, thank you for joining us.
HOUNSHELLThank you for having me.
NNAMDIDaniel Levy is a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation and co-director of its Middle East Task Force. Daniel Levy held several positions in Israeli government during the '90s and early parts of this decade under the administrations of Yatzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak. Daniel Levy, thank you for joining us.
LEVYKojo, my pleasure. Thank you.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, taking dance to shipyards and street corners. We talk to Liz Lerman about where she wants to bring her art next. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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