Friday, June 4, 2010

On the Interception of the Gaza Flotilla by the Israeli Navy

I love Israel. I have felt this way ever since my first visit at age 12, and that love has never dimmed. It is a visceral attachment, a continuing fascination, an unwavering concern, as a lover will have for his or her beloved. And currently, I am deeply concerned. I am concerned that Israel is losing its way. I am concerned that the current Israeli leadership is stuck in a gear of defensiveness and denial, and an ideology of permanent victimhood. I am concerned that that posture is leading the Israeli administration to repeatedly make small-minded and bullheaded decisions that undermine that administration’s own goals to increase Israel’s security in the world.

I fear that Israel is becoming something of a lumbering juggernaut, when it truly needs to be more nimble and sharp-witted than ever as it navigates the incredibly treacherous waters of international diplomacy.

The recent debacle of the Israeli Navy’s interception of the flotilla trying to break the blockade of the Gaza Strip is for me a case in point. From my admittedly cushy vantage point, far from danger, it appears that Israel walked straight into a trap. “Peace activists” or not, the organizers of that flotilla understood that the Gaza blockade could not be breached by force, but only in the court of public opinion. Their dearest hope must have been that Israel would be goaded into its worst public relations nightmare: armed Israeli special forces killing “peace activists defending themselves with sticks and clubs”. What were the Israeli strategists thinking? What has happened to the Israel that knew it had to survive on wits as well as brawn?

We can defend the Israeli commandos, and should. It appears from the videos that they were attacked when they boarded the ship. One of my Israeli nephew’s friends who was on that mission is now in the hospital with a severe gunshot wound to his abdomen. But that still begs the question: what were these crack Israeli soldiers doing boarding this vessel unprepared for the danger that awaited them? Why hadn’t Israeli intelligence anticipated this scenario and taken steps to avoid it?

Instead, because of this clumsy and disastrous operation, Israel’s relations with its staunchest Moslem ally Turkey have been crippled, and in response to international pressure Israel has been forced to make noises that it will loosen the very blockade that it was working to enforce.

There had to be another, savvier way for Israel to respond to this provocation. But I am losing faith in Israel’s ability to do that. When the Israeli agents murdered the Hamas official in Dubai earlier this year, they left a trail of video evidence and falsified passports that further damaged Israel’s credibility and international relations. Israel’s foreign ministry during the current tenure of Avigdor Lieberman has managed to offend many of Israel’s erstwhile allies. I’m afraid I am seeing a pattern here.

I suspect that there may be a reason for this trend, beyond simple truculence. Benjamin Netanyahu and his circle – and much of the Israeli public that voted for him - have a firmly held world view: the world is against us, there is nothing we can do to stop or mitigate that, and therefore we simply must defend ourselves at all costs and with little concern for global opinion, since they hate us anyway.

Now, as a Jew I can relate to this perspective: we Jews have come by our paranoia honestly! But that does not make it true or effective as a foundation for strategy. In my view, anytime that you divide the world into black and white, or us and them, your ability to maintain focus and attain your goals is hindered. Diplomacy takes place not in the realm of black and white, but among all the shades of gray from which the real world is composed. Even Israel, though it is the most unfairly vilified and scapegoated nation in the world, has strategic allies with interests that coincide with Israel. By saying, in effect, “screw the rest of the world, we’re doing it our way”, Israel weakens its own standing.

There are many other critical issues to discuss that make up the backdrop of the flotilla incident, such as: What is the place of Iran in all these machinations, and how can Israel best deter Iran? Why has Egypt also participated in the Gaza blockade? Is it necessary for Israel to maintain its “siege mentality” (it might be) and what is the moral price Israeli society pays for this posture? The list of concerns is long, and the answers exceedingly complex. I have chosen to address only one concern today, not the moral but rather the strategic failing I perceive in Israel’s execution and subsequent response to its interception of the Turkish flotilla.

I hope there are leaders in Israel who are willing to perceive these failings and take steps to restore Israel’s reputation as a nation that does more than stumble into traps.