Even more so, this tragedy should be seen in a broad light as adding urgency for a breakthrough in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. For the Obama administration, that means putting forward the outlines of a two-state solution – a risky leap politically, but the time for cautious baby steps is over.
Without a settlement, these incidents may only continue, pushing Israel further into a wilderness of international isolation. As French President Nicolas Sarkozy said, “All light must be shed on the circumstances of this tragedy, which underlines the urgency of resuming peace talks.”
The various versions of what happened aboard the Mavi Marmara differ starkly. Aid workers say the Turkish ship was on a purely humanitarian mission to deliver building materials, food, medical supplies, and clothing to the Gaza Strip, which has been under a blockade since 2007 when the militant Hamas took over the government there. They say Israeli naval commandos fired first.
Israeli officials see it differently. They say their commandos were forced to defend themselves from a mob that used knives, clubs, and gunfire against them. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak called the flotilla a “political and media provocation,” and added, “They have absolutely nothing to do with humanitarian aid.”
Whatever probe is set up will have to win credibility in Israel and abroad. The Israeli inquiry into the 2006 war in Lebanon was conducted by appointees of the Israeli prime minister and defense minister. Many thought it was an inappropriate selection process for investigating something as broad as a war.
On the other hand, Israel rejected a United Nations investigation into the 2008-09 Gaza war. The so-called Goldstone report accused Israel (and also Hamas, but mostly Israel) of war crimes in the three-week war.
One way forward might be an independent judicial commission appointed by the president of the Israeli Supreme Court. It’s also worth remembering how Russia and Poland handled the investigation of the April plane crash that killed so many of Poland’s leaders. They put together a joint probe that helped dispel deep suspicions. A team of Turkish and Israeli investigators could perhaps set this much deteriorated relationship back on track – and answer questions.
A credible investigation must go forward, but so must the peace process. In a Nixon-goes-to-China scenario, perhaps only the conservative leader of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, can take Israel over the finish line to a peace deal. But he needs a huge push, and only the United States has the muscle for that.
After more than a year of tentative steps, it’s time for the US to lay out a settlement plan – the outlines of which have been known by both sides for years. Encouragingly, West Bank Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas indicated that the flotilla “massacre” will not interrupt indirect negotiations because his Fatah movement is talking to the US as the go-between, not directly to Israel.
The flotilla deaths and injuries were needless – as has been so much of the violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to date. But a crisis can also serve as a catalyst for a turnaround. Let’s make this one, the one.