For a while there it was looking like Rocky II. Same story, much less reason to watch. A year after Israel shot itself in the foot by killing nine Turkish activists on the high sea off Gaza, everyone had taken their places and appeared intent on reprising familiar roles. The Israel Defense Forces was talking tough: “We’ve got some surprises in store for them this time,” was the standard quotation, always blind, in the Hebrew press over the last few months, rote stuff that played to an Israeli public still feeling profoundly wronged by a world that identified not with its commandos but with the dead Turks it saw first as villains. Last week it appeared the office of the IDF spokesman was intent on a note-perfect repetition of its tone-deaf 2010 performance, suggesting to Israeli reporters that activists in the new flotilla were laying plans to attack commandos with sulfur. After senior government ministers complained the allegation appeared to be entirely “spin,” it got walked back, much like last year’s dubious claims from the same guardians of military credibility.
But other forces have been at work, too. Last month, Turkey prevailed on the Islamist sponsors of the ferry Mavi Marmara (who were doing plenty of their own chest-thumping) to stand down this time. And on Saturday, Greece sent its coast guard to turn back the most prominent of the remaining vessels, the wonderfully named Audacity of Hope, sailing under a U.S. flag. The American captain was taken into custody for disobeying a police order to remain docked in Piraeus.
The activists are of course fit to be tied. Media savvy and nimble – inviting inspections of their vessel after the IDF allegation under the heading, “We’re sulfur-free and ready to sail” — they are hard pressed to find a way around a Greek government that is simply determined to do what Israel asked. Relations between the countries blossomed after last year’s flotilla fiasco reduced the once-strong alliance between Turkey and Israel to mere threads. The warmth continues even amid real signs that Ankara and Jerusalem are patching things up — not only the Marama withdrawal, which is extremely significant, but a letter from prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu congratulating his Turkish counterpart, Tayyip Erdogan, on his thumping win at the polls last month. Bibi expressed hope of “renewing the spirit of friendship which has characterized the relations between our peoples for many generations.” There are also reports, sure to rehabilitate the Turk’s image in the eyes of workaday Israelis, that Erdogan is involved in negotiations for the release of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier held by Hamas since 2006.
The 1.5 million people in the Gaza Strip still live very hard lives. And as the access watchdog Gisha points out, a major drag on the economy is lack of access to the sea, especially to export. But with the politics of the region so extraordinarily in flux already, it’s no wonder that governments are working together to avert a replay of that most novel of spectacles, a train wreck at sea.