Tel Aviv, Israel — There once was a very successful campaign in Israel for road safety. Its slogan was, “On the road, don’t be right, be smart." The day after the flotilla raid last week, more than one pundit in the Israeli press brought up the slogan. We’re right, they said, but why can’t we also be smart?
The raid was by no means smart. Israel blindly stepped into a p.r. campaign orchestrated by Turkey and Hamas, doing enormous damage to its own international image and credibility. But the raid was not an isolated incident. Rather, it is only the latest example of how Benjamin Netanyahu’s prime ministership is steadily eroding Israel’s legitimacy.
Why do Israelis believe they’re right on the flotilla specifically and Gaza more generally? Because Israel evacuated Gaza to the last inch, and Hamas, which controls Gaza, kept shooting rockets at Israel’s civilians. Because Hamas is not only calling for the murder of every single Jew—its covenant is by no means ambiguous on that—but also arming as best it can for this holy cause. Under these conditions, and despite Hamas’s refusal to recognize Israel’s right to exist, Israel still actively sustains Gaza. Israel’s hospitals accept tens of thousands of Gazans for medical treatment; it lets food and medicine daily through its checkpoints on Gaza’s boarders; and it supplies Gaza with electricity and gas. No other country in the world sustains a government bent on its destruction in such a way. (Egypt, with which Gaza shares a border, takes no such responsibility.) Given all this, as Israel sees it, stopping a Turkish attempt to open an arms importation route to Gaza was right.
But this does not make the raid smart. The “humanitarian mission” carried on the flotilla was not a move in a military game, nor was it a court case in which complicated judicial arguments count. It was a gambit in the game of p.r., played in front of a worldwide, hardly informed TV audience, and mediated, more often than not, by hostile media. It is easy to see how Israel could have handled the situation: It should've just let the flotilla pass. The whole hot-air balloon would have been deflated. The world audience, if it had noticed the affair at all, would have been left with a few snippets of the “peace activists” chanting anti-Semitic slogans to the wind, then hugging Hamas officials. That’s it. (There was a similar attempt to pull off a p.r. stunt under Ehud Olmert's administration. Olmert let the “peace mission” through. No one remembers it now.)
This is not hindsight wisdom. In the days before the incident, many commentators (myself included) kept saying Israel should just let the flotilla sail to Gaza. But Netanyahu and Minister of Defense Ehud Barak thought they knew better. After all, both served in elite army units, and commando raids are their expertise. But, apparently, statesmanship is not.
In large part, this is why the flotilla's shockwaves in Israel are so enormous. Israelis have been plagued of late by a creeping fear that their leadership is incompetent—that Netanyahu and Barak just don’t understand the basic parameters of the political map. For a country that’s so small, in the midst of a huge and hostile region, this is no niggling fear. Now, the flotilla incident has confirmed that, under its current leadership, Israel indeed faces a deep crisis of power and perception. The problem isn't just that Netanyahu and Barak failed to see the meaning of a Turkey and Hamas p.r. stunt; it is that they have failed to see the larger picture.
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