Israelis’ hearts went out to the young soldiers who were shown rappelling down to the deck of the Mavi Marmara only to be attacked by a mob armed with sticks and knifes (though the video clips released by the Israel Defense Forces don’t show what happened after the soldiers opened fire). But amid feelings of sorrow and anger, Israelis should be asking one simple question: What were the soldiers doing aboard an unarmed private vessel, carrying hundreds of civilians — hostile and violent as they may have been — dozens of miles from Israel’s territorial waters?
The Israeli tendency — demonstrated more and more frequently of late — is to break events such as the fight onboard the Mavi Marmara into their smallest pieces: Were there other methods to stop the flotilla? Wouldn’t it have been better to send a larger force to take control of the vessel? Should the commandos have boarded the ship armed with nothing more than paintball guns and pistols? Once attacked, did the soldiers have any choice but to open fire?
Important as these issues may be, they should not divert us from the big questions surrounding this policy failure of epic proportions. The events in the Mediterranean offer a painful but necessary lesson to Israelis about the dangerous direction in which the government’s policies — and specifically its handling of the Gaza problem — are taking the country.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman all deserve plenty of blame for their handling of this issue. But Israel’s current government is not the only guilty party.
It was, after all, the government of Ehud Olmert that came up with the failed policy of isolating Gaza, in the hope of toppling Hamas and gaining the release of captive soldier Gilad Shalit. From the start, the blockade of Gaza was a morally questionable idea, and had little chance of success, but it was also politically expedient, playing to the angry and aggrieved nationalism that has come to dominate public discourse within Israel. Meanwhile, both the Bush and Obama administrations, hoping to strike a deal with the more moderate Fatah in the West Bank, turned a blind eye to the siege, and even to Israel’s treatment of Gaza’s civilian population during Operation Cast Lead. The Egyptian government, which fears Hamas for its own reasons, did its part by closing Gaza’s southern border.
Not only did the siege predictably fail to weaken Hamas, it made the entire population of Gaza dependent on the Islamist movement and marginalized its opponents. The blockade also garnered Gaza’s radical Islamic regime a considerable measure of international sympathy, with Hamas manipulating the very real suffering inflicted by the siege on Gaza’s poor and crowded population for its own political purposes. Operation Cast Lead and Israel’s response to the Goldstone report further fueled this dynamic, strengthening Hamas’s position and undercutting Israel’s international standing.
To his credit, Olmert was at least smart enough to avoid the trap into which the current government has now stumbled. In August 2008, he let two small aid vessels sail into Gaza, knowing that doing so wouldn’t have much of an effect on the strategic and diplomatic balance, and that footage of the ships docking in Gaza might even help Israel’s image.
Such considerations, however, carry little weight with the current government, which has effectively decided to turn its back on the international community. Netanyahu surrounds himself with a hawkish Cabinet and right-wing advisors who are more interested in catering to the desires of West Bank and East Jerusalem settlers than they are in successfully playing the Middle East’s delicate strategic game. Lieberman and his deputy, Danny Ayalon, regularly pick fights with Israel’s friends and foes alike, while Barak lends a patina of legitimacy to the government’s actions.
Israel’s current leaders have demonstrated, again and again, their preference for short-term political gain at the expense of Israel’s long-term interests, even as the country sits on the edge of a cliff. They passed on an opportunity to change course in Gaza by refusing a prisoner-exchange deal with Hamas — which would have enabled Israel to end the siege honorably. And they have preferred to stall and buy time when pressed by the United States on the settlement issue, rather than preparing the Israeli public for concessions that would pave the way for a just settlement with the Palestinians.
Instead of making the necessary strategic decisions to help get Israel out of the crisis in which it finds itself, the country’s policy-makers have focused on micro-managing the situation, often ham-handedly and accompanied by inept or counterproductive public relations, or hasbara , efforts. Hence the decision to stop the Gaza flotilla at night in order to surprise the passengers and minimize PR damage — even though that meant boarding the ships outside of Israeli or Gazan waters.
No doubt, the Israeli military will learn tactical lessons from the disastrous encounter with the Mavi Marmara , and will be better prepared for such a scenario moving forward. But as long as the thrust of Israeli policy toward Gaza is both immoral and unreasonable, new disasters will be waiting around the corner. Unfortunately, Israelis and our leaders, trapped by fear and shortsightedness, seem unable to change the course of our own ship.
Noam Sheizaf, a Tel Aviv-based freelance journalist, blogs at promisedlandblog.com