The Israeli government indeed owed someone the apology it made recently for the incident of the Mavi Marmara, the Turkish ship intercepted in May 2010 on its way to blockaded Gaza, but it wasn’t the ship’s passengers or the government of Turkey. It was, first and foremost, the naval commandoes who boarded the Mavi Marmara in a foolishly conceived way and at a grave risk to themselves. And it was also the people of Israel, whose country was unfairly pilloried by the world for what happened. To the Turks themselves, there was nothing to apologize for.
The Mavi Marmara incident was a deliberate provocation that a coalition of European “peace activists” and Muslim organizations staged with the full knowledge and connivance of the Turkish government. Its aim was not to bring humanitarian supplies, of which there were none aboard the ship, to Gaza; it was to embarrass Israel by making it either back down and let the ship through, or use ugly force to stop it — and in this it succeeded brilliantly. Nine of the Mavi Marmara’s passengers were killed, and although they pretty much deserved what they got, Israel certainly didn’t.
Anyone who has looked at the few seconds of film footage showing the lead Israeli commando descending a rope from a helicopter all by himself onto the Mavi Marmara’s deck, where he was immediately set upon by a waiting horde and clubbed with iron rods, knows two things. One is that the ship’s supposedly nonviolent passengers, or at least those of them wielding the rods, were out for blood — and far more vicious than anything recorded on film was the brutality with which they treated two of the commandoes captured and dragged by them beneath the deck.
The second thing is that the Israeli plan for taking command of the ship by landing a small number of elite soldiers armed with paintball guns and sensitivity training was hopelessly naive. It was the product of an erroneous assessment by Israeli intelligence, based on an acceptance of the blockade runners’ assertions that they were nothing more than a group of peaceful, well-intentioned human rights workers. The better-armed reinforcements that quickly arrived had no choice but to open fire to keep their comrades from being lynched. As put to me by someone knowledgeable: “The surprising thing in all that chaos was that there were only nine deaths. Less disciplined or cool-headed troops would have killed many times that number. How long do you think you have to squeeze the trigger of an automatic weapon pointed at a frenzied mob in order to do that?”
Had the Israeli navy possessed the wisdom to allow reporters on the scene, its version of events would have been authenticated. As it was, the blockade runners and the Turkish government, by lying loudly and shamelessly, did a better job of influencing the media (including, I’m sorry to say, one article on the subject that appeared in the Forward). Israel emerged from the incident with mud all over its face, some of it self-splattered.
Perhaps a totally different plan for intercepting the Mavi Marmara at sea might have worked better, although naval maneuvering at close quarters is never without its dangers. But the lesson — and it’s an old one — taught by the whole episode is not just that brute force is generally less preferable than its alternatives; it’s also that if reasonable alternatives can’t be found, force must be brute enough to do the job. Concerned about world public opinion, Israel tried to seize the Mavi Marmara as “nicely” as possible. Fewer scruples at the outset might have saved some or all of the nine blockade runners’ lives and spared two Israelis frightful injury.
Now that the wrong apology has been made, apparently at President Obama’s behest, there’s nothing to be done about it. Israel will forever have to bear official responsibility for the Mavi Marmara incident and pay millions of dollars in reparations to families that should not be getting them. Nor is it likely to receive much in return. Don’t hold your breath waiting for an Israeli-Turkish rapprochement. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who made no secret of despising Israel long before the Mavi Marmara sailed from Istanbul, used the incident as a pretext for flaunting his feelings more dramatically, and presumably he hasn’t had a change of heart. Even if he were to have one, Israel will never again trust a politically Islamic Turkey to be a dependable friend, much less a military ally.
The irony of it all is that if an apology could have patched up things, there would have been no need for one in the first place.
Hillel Halkin is an author and translator who has written widely on Israeli politics and culture and was the Forward’s Israel correspondent from 1993 to 1996.