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A huge win for Hamas and a blow to Israel

THE consequences of the Gaza flotilla tragedy will take years to sort out. They operate at two levels - the fairly immediate, and the longer-term.  The fairly immediate consequences are clear enough.

This was a tremendous victory for Hamas, the terrorist group that controls the Gaza Strip. As such it reverses the dynamic of the past few years, at least since the Israeli Operation Cast Lead in 2008, which destroyed so many rockets formerly fired by Hamas at Israeli towns. Since that operation, Hamas's prestige among Palestinians has been low and declining.

Hamas once won an election among the Palestinians, but like most totalitarian groups it only ever planned to participate in one election. There will never be new free elections under Hamas.

The Israelis, and the US and Europe have worked hard since Operation Cast Lead to improve life for Palestinians in the West Bank, under the leadership of the Palestinian Authority. The West Bank has shown impressive economic growth in the past few years.

Meanwhile, Israel, the US, the EU and many other international interlocutors will not deal with Hamas until it recognises Israel's right to exist, disowns terrorism and agrees to be bound by previous Palestinian agreements.

The refusal of Hamas to countenance any of this, and its long history of firing rockets at Israeli civilians, produced a degree of international understanding for Israel's blockade of Gaza, a blockade jointly enacted with Egypt.

Hamas was on the nose with its own people because it had delivered them nothing but misery.

But now Hamas looks like a hero. It has manipulated global politics, won a symbolic victory against Israel and will probably get some reform to the way the blockade is undertaken. This is a big, big win for Hamas.

The second main strategic result of the Gaza flotilla is the estrangement of Turkey from Israel. Most Israeli strategic analysts believe this was always a deliberate strategy by the pro-Islamist Turkish government, which sponsored the flotilla: that Ankara, having neutered its own military, has now decided to become a Sunni Islamist nation.

The situation in Turkey is fluid, and this move is not exactly uncontested, but the Turkish government, once Israel's closest ally, has furiously polarised its society against Israel. This may well presage a more general Turkish drift away from NATO, away from the EU, which has effectively rejected its membership application, and away from the US. These changes are, correctly, not seen strictly as a result of the Gaza flotilla incident. Rather the flotilla is a part of these dynamics, but certainly they are intimately connected.

The flotilla also managed to change the subject globally. The world has just concluded that Iran may have enough nuclear fuel for two crude nuclear explosive devices. This should be, and until last week was, the No 1 issue on the international agenda. But now everyone is focused on Gaza. From Tehran's point of view, this is gold, delivered free from heaven.

The flotilla incident also puts operational pressure on Israel in several other ways. It will be harder to enforce the blockade, yet Israel cannot possibly allow the free flow of weapons and munitions into Gaza. There is a danger of a third intifada, although the PA very much wants to remain in charge of the West Bank and doesn't want to march to the beat of a Hamas drum.

The dynamics of international politics are also changed. Even in distant, sleepy, democratic, pro-Israel, US-aligned, non-Muslim Australia, the Rudd government, which admittedly has been pretty shaky on the Middle East lately, felt compelled to respond with, initially at least, vigorous denunciation of Israel.

In its first statements, the government deplored the deaths but seemingly not the violence against the Israeli soldiers, said it wanted an end to the blockade and demanded a credible investigation into the incident. If Israel didn't do that, Kevin Rudd said on Tuesday, then someone else would have to.

This could only be a reference to the UN and mobilising a UN investigation into the flotilla incident. The UN is comprehensively and in every pore of its being and in all of its agencies completely biased against Israel, and no UN investigation would do anything other than bash Israel over the head.

By Wednesday, Rudd had calmed down and his position was much more sober, much more nuanced and quite different from on Tuesday. Now he deplored all the violence. He wasn't necessarily against the Gaza blockade altogether; he just wanted more humanitarian assistance to get through. And most important of all, he and Stephen Smith were calling on the Israelis to conduct a credible investigation. The threat of supporting an inevitably biased UN investigation was dropped.

Rudd also held a dinner at the Lodge with leaders of the Jewish community in an attempt to repair relations with them and to explain his anti-Israel moves of recent weeks.

That Rudd has rowed back to the centre on Israel is a good development, but it has not been reflected in many other nations. The Australian government is more sympathetic to Israel than a number of western European governments.

Here, too, the Gaza flotilla must be seen as a tremendous success in pushing forward the international campaign to de-legitimise Israel, to make it look like a pariah state. The role of the US President is crucial here and the Obama administration has been careful and restrained in what it has said.

It also has called on the Israelis to conduct an investigation and stopped short of condemning them over the incident.

One of the tactical successes of the flotilla organisers was to derail a planned summit between Israel's Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama.

The role of the US President is critical to Israel. There is absolutely no sensible or objective justification for Israel being treated as a pariah. It is a parliamentary democracy that takes necessary national security measures to provide for the security of its population. It is infinitely more considerate of human rights than Russia is in dealing with Chechen separatists, or Turkey is in dealing with Kurdish separatists.

And it is just on another planet from China dealing with Tibetans, or Zimbabwe dealing with political dissidents. And it is the only country in the Middle East apart from Lebanon in which any Arabs get to vote in meaningful, national, democratic elections.

Yet the overwhelming hostility of almost all parts of the Muslim world to Israel, combined with the anti-Israel commitments of the Western Left, especially in the media, mean that the support of the US President is essential to the maintenance of Israel's international legitimacy.

Most people in the Western world don't follow politics closely. The office of the US presidency retains enormous credibility and popularity. This is in some ways enhanced at the moment because Obama is personally popular.

The sight of the President talking to, joking with, embracing and in some manner supporting Netanyahu is the single most important global, visual counter to all the oceans of anti-Israel propaganda around the world. Most ordinary people will think in the end if the US President is on Israel's side, Israel can't be all bad.

This is why it was such a boon to the de-de-legitimisers of Israel in late March when Obama met Netanyahu in the White House but would let neither video nor still photographers into the meeting, so there was no vision of it. It looked as though Obama didn't want to be seen with him.

The Obama administration subsequently realised that it had gone too far. There was a lot of reaction within congress against the way the administration was conducting its relations with Jerusalem. Since then the administration has been at pains to move back closer to Israel.

As part of that, Obama had invited Netanyahu to the White House this week for what would have been a public love-in. Washington still would have had its disagreements with Jerusalem but the pictures would have told the story, Obama sitting with, talking to, shaking hands with, holding a press conference with Netanyahu.

It is the height of absurdity that matters such as this are needed to confirm Israel's international legitimacy, but the combined hostility of the Muslim world and the Western Left has put Israel on the defensive.

It is all, of course, based on a tremendous fraud, which is that Israel is at the heart of the West's difficulties with Islam.

This is profoundly and at every level untrue. Israel has certainly become a key motivating tool in jihadist recruitment and Islamist and more general Muslim hostility to the West. But this is because of the brilliant exploitation of television images, not because of the reality.

Here are a few reality checks. It is telling how very little general human rights debate there is in most Muslim societies. There is almost no political concern for the human rights of non-Muslims. You never hear of a Muslim campaign to defend the Bahais, who are so cruelly persecuted in Iran, or to defend Christians in Sudan.

But even if you accept, bizarrely, that Muslims should be concerned only about the human rights of other Muslims, the torture, beating and killing of pro-democracy demonstrators in Iran aroused astonishingly little response throughout the Muslim world. Certainly there was nothing like the seething anti-Israel demonstrations we have seen in the past few days.

It is not the human rights of Palestinians that motivates the demonstrators, but rather a narrative of deep paranoia and conspiracy, in which Israel is painted as the cutting edge of a Crusader sword wielded by the West against Islam everywhere. It is an insane view of the world and therefore it cannot be remedied by any ameliorative action that Israel, or indeed the US, could possibly take.

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