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The Israel Thing

June 2, 2010

What’s the elephant in the room around here?  Oh yeah, that whole Israel-killed-a-bunch-of-people-on-a-flotilla-trying-to-get-to-Gaza thing.  I know I’m late to the party—even though this only happened two days ago—but I really hate to prematurely comment on this types of things, especially sans all the information (which I’m not really sure we’re ever going to get), because I really hate to be easily refuted because it makes me look like an idiot.  So I’ve been reluctant.  Anyway, I guess now’s the time for me to give my two cents.

Firstly, it seems obvious that Israel’s blockade of the Gaza strip is justified on the basis that Hamas is essentially a terrorist organization and the blockade is supposed to keep weapons and materials for constructing weapons from reaching Gaza because Hamas would presumably use those materials to try and obliterate Israel from the map.  Unfortuantely, that’s not the only goal of the blockade.  Peter Beinart:

The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations greeted news of the flotilla disaster by repeating a common “pro-Israel” talking point: that Israel only blockades Gaza to prevent Hamas from building rockets that might kill Israeli citizens. If only that were true. In reality, the embargo has a broader and more sinister purpose: to impoverish the people of Gaza, and thus turn them against Hamas. As the Israeli newspaper Haaretz has reported, the Israeli officials in charge of the embargo adhere to what they call a policy of “no prosperity, no development, no humanitarian crisis.” In other words, the embargo must be tight enough to keep the people of Gaza miserable, but not so tight that they starve.

This explains why Israel prevents Gazans from importing, among other things, cilantro, sage, jam, chocolate, French fries, dried fruit, fabrics, notebooks, empty flowerpots and toys, none of which are particularly useful in building Kassam rockets. It’s why Israel bans virtually all exports from Gaza, a policy that has helped to destroy the Strip’s agriculture, contributed to the closing of some 95 percent of its factories, and left more 80 percent of its population dependent on food aid. It’s why Gaza’s fishermen are not allowed to travel more than three miles from the coast, which dramatically reduces their catch. And it’s why Israel prevents Gazan students from studying in the West Bank, a policy recently denounced by 10 winners of the prestigious Israel Prize. There’s a name for all this: collective punishment.

McCardle has the list here.  It makes sense that Israel would want to weaken Hamas by turning Gaza against its leaders, but, as Beinart says, the Israelis are basically just giving Hamas an excuse to suck as a government.  Moreover, this gives outsiders a reason to condemn the blockade as cruel and inhumane.  Hence the attempt at breaching the barricade, which were not “humanitarian”, as the worldwide press has described the flotilla, but efforts to essentially pick a fight with the Israelis:

Gaza’s markets are full of produce, thousands of tons of supplies are travelling into Gaza every week through the Israeli-controlled border crossings, and there is no starvation or humanitarian crisis. It was always obvious that the flotilla was not the humanitarian exercise it was said to be. Here is footage of the IDF offering to dock the Marmara — the main flotilla ship — at Ashdod and transfer its supplies and being told ‘Negative, negative, our destination is Gaza’.

And now we can see that the real purpose of this invasion — backed by the Turkish Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH), a radical Islamic organization outlawed by Israel in 2008 for allegedly serving as a major component in Hamas’s global fund-raising machine — was to incite a violent uprising in the Middle East and across the Islamic world. As I write, reports are coming in of Arab rioting in Jerusalem.

Indeed.  The whole point of the “Freedom Flotilla” was to try to incite a rebellion against Bibi Netanyahu’s government by outraging Arabs and giving Israel bad PR.  And, as Mona Charen details, the press ate it up like a lapdog (the appropriate line is “Don’t members of the press ever resent being so used?”).  There was nothing humanitarian about this operation.  As CNN reports, Hamas has refused to accept whatever humanitarian aid was on the flotilla.   The flotilla organizers were hoping that the bad juju Israel inherited from this fiasco would cause the blockade to come down, as most anti-Israel people have suggested (even though that’s an insane deal for Israel to accept—what, Hamas, is going to promise not to attack Israel again?), so that Hamas could import weapons that would eventually be used against Israel.

That said, Israel had to know all this and act accordingly.  They should know that their opponents don’t need much of an excuse to rail against them for whatever purpose, as Turkey is doing now (and they were supposed to be their #1 regional ally).  And, with that in mind, it seems like they handled this very poorly.  Matt Steinglass:

It’s difficult to fathom some of the decisions taken by the Israel Defense Forces in planning the interdiction. Why board the ship rather than disabling and towing it? Why use helicopters to rappel onto the deck one by one, vulnerable to the mob? If the intent was to surprise and overwhelm the passengers, why not break off the attempt when it was clear they were not surprised or overwhelmed? If the intent was to provoke violence among the protestors and win a propaganda victory, why not board the ship in daylight hours and invite the international media along? The shooting that ensued once the soldiers were on board, however, is not hard to understand. The soldiers were armed with paint-ball guns and pistols, and clearly had come planning on a crowd-control exercise; a massacre could have been more easily accomplished by firing from the helicopters. They fired on protestors because they were outnumbered and under attack. Avital Leibovich, an IDF spokeswoman, has been widely ridiculed for saying the soldiers faced “a lynch”, but that is in fact what the video looks like: soldiers on the ground being beaten with pipes by an angry mob.

But here’s the thing: the violence employed by those 30 protestors is what achieved the Freedom Flotilla’s goals. No metal pipes, no Israeli shooting. No Israeli shooting, no dead protestors. No dead protestors, no recall of the Turkish ambassador or emergency UN Security Council meeting. The protestors who swung those pipes risked their own (and others’) lives; some of them are probably dead now. And, unlike the ones who joined arms below deck and sang “Kumbaya”, they succeeded in weakening the international negotiating position of Israel vis-a-vis the Palestinians, placed the Gaza blockade on the international agenda, and may ultimately topple the Israeli government. Lesson: if you’re willing to die for your cause, punch a soldier in the face and try to get him to shoot you. It’ll get you a lot further than stuffing flowers in gun barrels.

That’s how you get everybody who already doesn’t like you to turn against you.  As Drezner explains, Israel’s situation is becoming more like North Korea’s than any other country:

Indeed, the parallels between Israel and — gulp — North Korea are becoming pretty eerie.  True, Israel’s economy is thriving and North Korea’s is not.  That said, both countries are diplomatically isolated except for their ties to a great power benefactor.   Both countries are pursuing autarkic policies that immiserate millions of people.  The majority of the population in both countries seem blithely unaware of what the rest of the world thinks.  Both countries face hostile regional environments.  Both countries keep getting referred to the United Nations.  And, in the past month, the great power benefactor is finding it more and more difficult to defend their behavior to the rest of the world.

The good news is that the U.S. has taken action to defend Israel, even though it’s been relatively muted.  An unnamed senior Administration official has said that the U.S. will not condemn Israel for its actions and we have also blocked a UN investigation of the incident.  My feeling is that we have to support Israel here, for reasons that Michael Rubin details:

The idea that we need to be neutral in the Arab-Israeli situation is silly: We should support Israel because it is in U.S. national interest to do so. What’s the alternative? Basing our regional national security on Syria? On Libya? On Hamas and Hezbollah? On Egypt? Indeed, while the Walt and Mearsheimer camp often suggest that it is not in our interest to support Israel and that instead it is some communal bribe, the fact of the matter is that the United States gets just as much if not more from our relationship with Israel. A look at the U.N. voting record shows that. We need allies that support us unconditionally, and we need to reciprocate.
So why is it decision time for Obama? Israel feels itself increasingly in an existential crisis. Not only is Iran nearing a nuclear-weapons capability, but it has become increasingly vogue to delegitimize Israel. In the wake of the Gaza ship incident, Israel is going to see whether it has any allies left who will recognize its dilemma, recognize its security concerns, and support it as the crisis grows. Israel knows it can’t trust Europe. Indeed, Europe finances many of the groups which, if they don’t seek Israel’s destruction directly, nevertheless indirectly support terrorism.

If Obama decides it is in America’s interest to make an example of Israel after the Gaza flotilla incident in order to win goodwill in Cairo, Beirut, Tehran, and Ankara, then he must also recognize that the leadership in Jerusalem is going to conclude that it cannot trust the United States to safeguard its security, and that therefore it must take matters into its own hands on any number of issues, not the least of which is Iran’s nuclear program. In effect, if the White House decides to come down hard on Israel now, it is the same as giving a green light for Israel to strike Iran. That is not advocacy; it is just the realism about which President Obama is so fond.

If you need a reason, then that’s it.  If you don’t like the idea of bombing Iran, then you’d better support Israel now.

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