Three very negative strategic trends came together to produce a fiasco-at-sea when Israel intercepted the civilian flotilla that was seeking to breach the blockade of Gaza.
First, Turkey’s Islamist leadership saw an opportunity to champion the Palestinian cause and Hamas in particular through sponsorship of the six-ship flotilla by IHH, a humanitarian organization that functions effectively as the Turkish branch of the Muslim Brotherhood and is accused by Israel of aiding and abetting militant Islamist terrorists. Lest we forget, Hamas is the Palestinian branch of the Brotherhood. The flotilla represented a Turkish gambit to take over the supply of strategic construction and infrastructure material to Gaza and embarrass both Israel and Egypt, which together have enforced the blockade.
The use of violence by Islamist militants onboard the largest ship, the Mavi Marmara, was calculated to draw a forceful reaction by Israel’s naval commandos and amplify many-fold the international impact of the event. The commandos, armed only with paintball rifles and side arms to deal with passive resistance by presumed human rights activists, were helicoptered directly into a violent ambush for which they should have been better prepared.
Second, an amorphous international movement of peace and human rights activists — many of them people of pure intentions, others Israel-haters and even anti-Semites, plus a few Arab citizens of Israel from the most anti-Zionist sectors — saw an opportunity to amplify the “Goldstone effect” of isolating and delegitimizing Israel by joining IHH in mounting this flotilla and reaping the benefits of all the publicity around it.
Third, it was inevitable that the blockade of Gaza, now three years old, would culminate in a tragic event like this. But Israel is not, nor should it be, alone in its embarrassment. Egypt, which controls the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Sinai, is an active ally of Israel in the abortive endeavor to choke Hamas in Gaza. The entire Quartet (the U.S., U.N., E.U. and Russia) and even the Ramallah-based Palestine Liberation Organization endorsed the closing of the Gaza commercial crossings back in June 2007 when Hamas took over Gaza from Fatah in a bloody coup. Israel and the Quartet established three reasonable conditions for engaging Hamas (recognizing Israel’s right to exist, condemning violence and accepting Oslo), all of which Hamas ignored.
Now Hamas is stronger than ever, and the U.N. Security Council is calling for an end to the blockade. Two more blockade-buster ships may be on their way and, the Turks promise, more will come.
All of Israel’s strategies for dealing with Turkey, the Goldstone effect and Hamas in Gaza have failed. Israel’s political leaders do not appear to be thinking strategically on these issues.
Rather than adjust to Turkey’s dynamic (and dangerous) new regional status and look for ways to exploit it to Israel’s advantage (as Ehud Olmert did for a while by allowing Turkey to mediate between Jerusalem and Damascus), Israel’s response appears to focus on infantile stunts like humiliating the Turkish ambassador a few months ago by seating him on a low couch for a meeting and inviting Israeli TV to film him. Note that the man responsible for that diplomatic coup, Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, was chosen to convene a press conference in Jerusalem to explain Israel’s position just hours after the bloodshed.
Meanwhile, Israel’s response to the Goldstone effect has been to threaten the human rights NGOs whose reports — some accurate and some not — feed international criticism and delegitimization of Israel and to exhort Israelis traveling abroad to explain how such a successful high-tech nation with such beautiful scenery can’t be bad. Pathetic.
Then there is Gaza itself. The blockade has failed to moderate or replace Hamas and has not freed Gilad Shalit, even as it has inflicted collective punishment on 1.5 million Gazans. It is counterproductive. Parallel strategies have also failed: The use of armed force back in Operation Cast Lead generated some deterrence and brought the international community in to interdict Iranian arms supplies to Gaza, but the deterrent effect is temporary and the Goldstone effect now deters Israel. Egyptian mediation has also failed; at least Cairo admits this.
The Arab reaction to all of this — beginning with Israel’s Arab citizens and Hamas in Gaza — threatens to derail the nascent Israel-PLO proximity talks (though the PLO will now understandably milk them for every Israeli gesture and concession possible). Israel’s leaders would be best advised to preempt the Arab and international response by sitting down with Egypt and the Quartet, discussing the reasons for these failed strategies regarding Gaza and looking together for enlightened alternatives. They should do so carefully but urgently: Lest we forget, Israel, Egypt and the PLO have every right to cooperatively defend themselves against militant Islamist enemies and those who give them succor.
Sadly, however, Israel’s only real response to this fiasco is liable to be little more than planning better for its naval commandos to stop future flotillas without bloodshed. In Israel, this is called thinking with a “small head.”
Yossi Alpher is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University. He currently co-edits the bitterlemons family of Internet publications.