The 350 activists left of the 1,500 activists originally planning to sail nine boats against Israel's naval blockade on Gaza – among them Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal's son-in-law Hamoud Tareq - never imagined their expedition would be stopped in Greece and Turkey even before they set sail.They certainly did not mean to have their Freedom Flotilla II served up as the founding step of the nascent pro-US Israel-Greek-Turkish alliance. Indeed, one of its organizers' objectives had been to sabotage the tight strategic ties between Israel and Greece.
The organizers discovered their mistake Friday, July 1, when fast Greek coastguard commando boats
escorted the American "Audacity of Hope" back to port and Athens said it will stop all other vessels departing for Gaza – even if they are Greek-owned.
So how come that Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou and his security agencies found time to deal with the flotilla at a time that his government is fighting for its life against hundreds of thousands of furious protesters lashing out against the harsh austerity measures he has imposed in his battle for an economic lifeline?
The Papandreou government did not act alone. The Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan quietly held back the Mavi Marmara, the Turkish vessel which led the first pro-Palestinian flotilla last year, from taking part in Flotilla II. His security agency, the MIT, also warned the Turkish Islamic IHH not to take part in the expedition -even aboard vessels sailing from ports outside the country. Flotilla vessels were mysteriously sabotaged in Greek and Turkish ports.
This well-coordinated plan of action arose out of two major regional developments reported here by DEBKAfile:
1. The bond of understanding gaining strength since May between two men, US President Barack Obama and the Turkish prime minister Erdogan. It has begun to be translated into joint strategic action here and there in the Arab world and Middle East, from Libya to Syria and up to the Persian Gulf oil kingdom of Bahrain. Obama has awarded Erdogan the prize he has long coveted as broker of the Israel-Palestinian dispute, by means of which the US president has tried to maneuver Ankara into patching up its quarrel with Jerusalem and restoring the decades-long military ties which broke down over the nine Mavi Marmara deaths last year.
This gambit is still nascent. Major outstanding issues still cloud the relationship, DEBKAfile's sources stress, such as Turkey's close economic and intelligence collaboration with Iran, Erdogan's ambition to lead the Arab and Muslim worlds and the degree to which Israel can join Turkish policies that are inimical to its own.
Urged by Obama, Erdogan has already taken a major step towards Israel by drawing the fire of the second pro-Hamas flotilla this year.
2. Ankara's anti-Israeli steps in the past year and the Erdogan government's entente with the Iranian government and President Ahmad Ahmadinejad – and consequent paring down of the US-Israel military presence in Turkey – led Israel to strengthen its political and military ties with Greece and former Soviet nations on the shores of the Black Sea. Today, the Israeli Air Force is permitted to operate out of bases in Greece, Bulgaria and Romania; Israel is quietly helping Athens ease its economic ills through connections in the world of international finance.
The Obama administration aims to co-opt Greece to the framework of strategic understandings evolving between Washington, Ankara and Jerusalem. The Papandreou government's clampdown on Freedom Flotilla II was the first overt action by Athens in support of the alliance taking shape in the eastern Mediterranean.
Unlike Hamas and its left-leaning Western organizers of the second flotilla, Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas quickly caught on to the new world bloc coming together and its potential for influencing his plans. He accordingly paid a visit to the Turkish prime minister on June 24 for a preliminary testing of the water to see where the Palestinians could fit in and for what profit.
The Palestinian leader came away with a tough dilemma: If he pushes ahead with his plan for UN recognition of a Palestinian state in September, he will have to contend with a powerful bloc led by the US, Turkey, Greece and Israel plus 40 other nations determined to drown his initiative like the "freedom flotilla."
His other option is to abandon his UN plan and see if he can't cadge a ride on the US-Turkish alliance along with Israel and Greece.
A decision by Abbas to give up his unilateral application to the UN would not only underline the effectiveness of the new alliance's pre-emptive freeze on the flotilla but also dash the hopes of the Netanyahu government's ill-wishers – at home and abroad – who counted on the UN ploy for raising a storm of instability to drown the Israeli prime minister for good.