The government of Turkey seems increasingly bent on a collision course with vital U.S. interests, and the time has come to stop ignoring that fact. Our wayward NATO ally’s recent involvement in the incident of the Gaza flotilla is particularly hurtful to the United States, and demands a particularly sharp response. The U.S. has a vital interest in maintaining the regional stability that is indispensable for the preservation of peace and for any prospect of a two-state solution. Sanctioning an attempt to forcibly breach the Israeli siege of Gaza is among the most destabilizing and dangerous things that Turkey could have done.
The Turkish government knew in advance that a Turkish organization with ties to Hamas was launching a flotilla of activists bearing humanitarian aid for Gaza, and chose not to stop it. Turkey knew that the flotilla would put Israel in an impossible dilemma, and that it would be a direct challenge to the Israeli siege of Gaza. Israel reacted precisely as the Turkish government knew it would, with a military response that resulted in bloodshed and in a public-relations disaster for Israel. Because Israel generally defends its internationally understood legal rights, the Turkish government was able to predict what it would do.
The Turkish flotilla may well have had a humanitarian purpose. But that does not alter its military significance. The attempt to breach the Israeli siege by a flotilla of eight ships carrying some 800 activists — and totally unknown cargo — had obvious military implications for Israel. Israel is on solid legal ground in claiming the right to search cargo approaching Gaza, and that right has been widely confirmed through customary practice. When the flotilla proceeded in disregard of Israel’s offer of docking rights in an Israeli port, and help in transporting all nonmilitary aid overland to Gaza, it turned into a hostile action. And because of the Turkish government’s complicity in the flotilla’s mission, the action can and should be attributed directly to the Turkish government.
As an attempt to forcibly breach a military siege, the Turkish flotilla constituted a “use of force” under the United Nations Charter — of that there is no doubt. The only question is whether that use of force was legitimate. That in turn depends on whether the Israeli siege of Gaza is itself a legitimate use of force. If the siege is illegitimate, then the flotilla was a laudable attempt to bring humanitarian assistance to a beleaguered people. But if the siege is legitimate, then the flotilla was arguably an act of war by Turkey against Israel.
The carefully worded presidential statement from the U.N. Security Council took no position on this issue. It condemned “the acts” that resulted in loss of life, which obviously include actions of both Turkey and Israel, and studiously avoided apportioning blame. It called the siege of Gaza “unsustainable,” but stopped short of styling it illegal or illegitimate. The document represents a commendable parry by the State Department, and sustains a longstanding principle of U.S. foreign policy, namely the inviolability of a legitimate naval quarantine.
When NATO launched its air campaign against Serbia during the Kosovo crisis of 1999, the U.S. threatened to sink Russian vessels if they entered the Adriatic Sea, the naval theater of NATO operations. Nobody doubted the threat’s legitimacy. When Kennedy threatened to sink Soviet vessels headed for Cuba while still on the high seas, he never had to worry about legitimacy. Military actions that are necessary for enforcing a legitimate military blockade, and are kept clearly within that need, have always stood on firm grounds of international law.
The siege of Gaza is a terrible human tragedy. It is sapping Israel’s international standing to a dangerous degree. As an act of self-defense, it may well prove suicidal, just as holding on to the occupied territories for decades after the 1967 war has proven of dubious benefit to Israel’s long-term security.