Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Crispian Balmer : Greece's role in Gaza blockade is result of Israel's UN gambit

Crispian Balmer

PRO-Palestinian activists hoping to sail to Gaza this week expected their flotilla to be blocked by Israeli marines. Instead the mission was holed even before they put to sea - by Greece.

The diplomatic manoeuvring that snarled the Gaza initiative pales in comparison with the behind-the-scenes tussles surrounding a unilateral drive by the Palestinians to secure United Nations' recognition of statehood this September.

While Israel has won this first round, the stakes will be much higher in the months ahead, with the possibility of chaos in the Palestinian Territories if politicians mess it up.

"Gaza is just a prologue to a series of events that we will see heading into September," said Yoram Meital, professor at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. "If we cannot find a way for a resumption of serious peace negotiations then we will face a completely different environment and a very risky context."

Israel earned widespread criticism last year when its commandos boarded the first flotilla heading to Gaza, which is run by Islamist group Hamas, killing nine Turkish activists in clashes on deck.

In an effort to shore up waning support, Israel subsequently went on a charm offensive, reaching out to Turkey's historic foe Greece and proposing a series of military and business tie-ups.

Athens welcomed the overture and the friendship has paid dividends for Israel, with Greek authorities pouncing on flotilla ships preparing to leave its ports this week and keeping them in harbour.

"I'd never have believed that to pursue my convictions and freedom I would have had to clash with a European democracy like Greece," said Alain Connan, captain of a French ship stuck in Greek waters.

On the face of it, the flotilla debacle does not bode well for the Palestinians, demonstrating Israel's ability to galvanise foreign governments despite its tough attitude towards peace talks. However, Israel might find it easier to build consensus for its sea blockade of Gaza, meant to stop weapons reaching Hamas, than it will to prevent the Palestinians' UN initiative.

"As far as the flotilla was concerned, almost everyone was very uneasy because it was not clear if it complied with international law," said Oded Eran, head of Tel Aviv University's Institute for National Security Studies.

"If the Palestinians do go to the UN then they will probably get around 150 votes (of 192 members] so the resolution will pass. The real issue is who abstains or votes against."

Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu is touring European countries - Romania and Bulgaria are next - to convince them to pressure the Palestinians to shun the UN and return to talks. "Our aim is to get the western democracies, to vote against the Palestinians and draw the teeth out of this thing," said one Israeli official.

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