Washington DC woke up this Memorial Day morning to the shocking news that an Israeli commando team had stormed the "Freedom Flotilla", a Turkish aid ship headed towards Gaza, killing (at last count) ten and wounding dozens. Israeli claims that their actions were a necessary move against an extremist-linked threat fall flat in the face of what looks to the world like an outrageously disproportionate military response to a publicity-seeking aid mission in international waters. The details are still murky, and I expect that as all sides throw out their propaganda fast and furious they will become murkier yet.
I'm not going to try to keep up with the breaking events, as world governments and publics scramble to figure out how to react. Instead, I'll just say that the bottom line for Washington is that the U.S. can not ignore this or try to hope that it will pass quickly so that it can resume business as usual. It is rapidly spiraling into one of the most intensely galvanizing issues in the Arab media -- and around the world -- since the Israeli war on Gaza itself. If Obama goes ahead and meets with Netanyahu as if nothing happened, then his administration's outreach to the Muslim communities of the world is effectively over.
This crisis -- and it is a crisis -- is the fairly predictable outcome of the years of neglect of the Gaza situation by the Bush and Obama administrations. Bush turned a blind eye during the Israeli attack on Gaza in December 2008, and then the Obama team chose to focus on renewing peace talks between the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority while continuing to boycott Hamas. The U.S. only sporadically and weakly paid attention to the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, the strategic absurdity and moral obtuseness of the Israeli blockade, or the political implications of the ongoing Hamas-Fatah divide. Now, on the eve of Obama's scheduled meetings with Netanyahu and Abbas -- the fruits of the "honey offensive" towards Israel -- can they be surprised that Gaza is blowing up in their face?
The Israeli assault on the flotilla has galvanized Arab and international media attention (to say nothing of my Twitter feed). Arab and Turkish publics appear to be truly outraged, as do the Turkish, Arab and many European governments. The issue is evidently headed to the Security Council. It is difficult to fathom how the Israeli government could have thought that this was a good way to respond to a long-developing public relations challenge, but its actions will certainly fuel its evolving international legitimacy crisis. We'll be keeping track of the story as it develops.