Israel's reputation in tatters as EU, world powers review relations

By Nick Amies

Israel's relations with the EU and other world powers have taken a battering in the wake of the Israeli attack on the Gaza aid flotilla. In spite of this, experts believe Israel will not buckle under growing pressure.

Israel's relations with the European Union were already fragile before Israeli commandoes killed at least nine people in a pre-dawn raid on an aid ship bound for the Gaza Strip on Monday.

The relationship between the EU and Israel, which was severely damaged by Israel's execution of the 2008 Gaza war, had been recovering slowly despite on-going concerns over Israel's plans to build some 1600 settlements on occupied Palestinian land. Now the naval operation against the Gaza aid flotilla, which has drawn international condemnation, may have irrevocably damaged ties between the two sides.

The EU was joined by Russia in calling for an impartial probe into the Israeli operation and the end of the embargo on Gaza on Tuesday after both had earlier condemned Israel's use of violence and criticized the blockade.

While this joint statement echoed those made by many nations and international bodies around the world, it was left to additional statements from EU representatives to clarify Europe's individual position.
EU officials lead Europe's condemnation
EU officials have been united in their condemnation President of the European Council Herman Van Rompuy called the loss of life during the raid "inexplicable" while Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency, said that such acts "cannot be repeated."

"It is time for the international community and the parties (to the conflict) to realise that it is not possible to continue with these kinds of situation, which end in drama, violence, death, desolation and frustration," Moratinos said.

While the attack has brought immediate condemnation from the European Union, Dr. Orit Gal, an Israel expert with the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House, believes that while the current crisis will damage ties between the EU and Israel, it will expand the current rifts between them over settlements and the stalled peace process rather than create a wholly new fracture.

"Obviously real damage has been done to relations between the EU and Israel but I believe the effect of this damage is accumulative rather than a game changer," she told Deutsche Welle. "I don't expect any punishment as such but diplomatic efforts will now focus on getting Israel to cooperate with an impartial investigation of the incident."
Diplomatic repercussions were immediate, with Israeli ambassadors being summoned in most European capitals. There were also violent demonstrations and much strong rhetoric from EU leaders. Emanuele Ottolenghi, a senior fellow at Washington-based think-tank the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, agrees that immediate effect of Israeli action has been very negative in the EU, but feels the damage is not irreparable. 
"In the long-term, just as we saw after the Gaza war, the EU and Israel will reopen high level communications once the Israelis have shown their evidence as to what happened and explained the details," he told Deutsche Welle. "Some negative effects will remain and Israel will have trouble defending its Gaza strategy but there won't be a long-term freeze in relations."
Crisis executed as part of hidden agenda?
However, while the condemnation focuses entirely on the Israeli response, Ottolenghi says that a deeper analysis of the situation raises further unsettling questions.


Some experts say that Israel was put in a no-win situation but reacted too aggressively all the same 

"The bigger question is why this should happen now," he said. "The people behind the aid convoy were always in a win-win situation. If they got through, they were heroes. If Israel reacted, as they did, they would be martyrs. Israel had to choose, knowing that whatever it did would be bad."
"The people behind this – and there is evidence that there was involvement from Islamists in Turkey, support from Hamas and Iranian involvement – planned this extremely well," he added. "Two very damning reports on Iran and Syria's nuclear programs are due from the UN's IAEA nuclear watchdog in the coming days and only the other week the news was all about Iran’s proliferation. Now the news is all about the violence of Israel."
Isolated Israel unlikely to bow to pressure
With its reputation in tatters and its diplomatic standing severely undermined, some experts are predicting that the incident will lead to further international isolation for Israel.

Dr. Gal believes that Israel will eventually present a credible case in support of the attack but by then the damage to its already shaky reputation will already have be done.

Israel reputation as an aggressor is not a new thing "It seems world opinion of Israel is already quite critical, and from an Israeli perspective even more so," she said. "I think that Israel will easily establish the claim that the flotilla aims and actions were designed to create a provocation, but that will not change the overall picture that highlights Israeli lack of judgement and automated response."

Ottolenghi believes that Israel was always going to lose out in the cat-and-mouse game off Gaza's coast and that the crisis was always going to add to the perception of Israel as an aggressor.

"What we see is a clever move in a larger chess game," he said. "Of course there was a high level of incompetence and rashness in the Israeli mission but they had to do something from their perspective. The image the world has now is of the peaceful activists and humanitarians attacked by evil, macho Israeli soldiers."

"Whatever Israel does, it will always have this reputation and image. They could have handled it better by trying to get friendly governments to stop this before it happened but the fact is, whatever happens the same narrative of the ruthless Israel will be told."
Experts divided on the consequences for peace
Dr. Gal believes that in spite of mounting pressure, Israel is unlikely to end the blockade of Gaza or bow to calls to resume peace talks over the stand-off with the Palestinians.

"Within the current context, I do not see the process through which this international pressure on Israel to end the blockade could actually force action, hence it will stay at a declarative level only," she said. "As for prompting any movement on the Israel-Palestinian crisis, the short-term winner here is Hamas but I don't expect any immediate change in terms of actual conditions on the ground."

Emanuele Ottolanghi doesn't agree. He sees the crisis escalating in the Palestinian territories as the opposing sides seize the initiative, with one possibility being a withdrawal from the proximity talks by the Palestinians.

"There has already been violent protest across the West Bank and Gaza and some insiders fear a third Intifada," he said. "What the Palestinians may be hoping is that the peace talks will fail; the US will blame Israel for this and will introduce a bridging proposal which will be more beneficial for the Palestinians."

"Israel will become more isolated and under pressure from the US and the EU, and the government will be under pressure domestically with the right-wing calling on Netanyahu to make good on his promise to restart the settlements while the US threatens action if he does."