Waking up on Monday morning to the startling headlines depicting Israel’s disastrous sea raid off the Gaza coast, the first thing I instinctively did was think back over the years. It has been quite a while since Israel attempted such a brazen military operation. And while I initially experienced flashbacks of the IDF’s much-celebrated commando raids in Beirut, Tunisia, or Entebbe, I eventually realized just how much things change: This time, Israel’s daring military prowess blew up in its face.
In today’s technologically permeated battlefield, what mattered was not whether the Israeli military action was right—it was—but whether it appeared to be right. In this respect, the moment the first images were transmitted of Israeli helicopters descending onto the Gaza-bound flotilla’s flag ship, the Mavi Marmara, the disproportionate portrait of force had already decided the battle’s outcome, against Israel. All of which was obvious, even before the raid began: Despite knowing that many of the flotilla’s participants were desperately seeking a confrontation with the IDF in order to create a televised imbroglio that would help catapult the plight of the Gaza Strip onto the international agenda, the Israeli government gave the activists, in a tragic sense, exactly what they wanted.
In the immediate aftermath of the events, commentators began lambasting the Israeli government’s public-relations efforts—without taking into account the fact that there really is no other side to this story. Under international law, Israel’s attempt to prevent an internationally recognized terrorist organization like Hamas from smuggling in arms that would endanger Israel’s security would certainly qualify as justifiable. But there was never any way to translate through military action such moral and legal justification into political results. In other words, while the ends of the operation were defendable, its legitimacy was instantly undercut by the deadly means.
And so the question now hovering in many minds is: What was Israel thinking? Well, it’s possible that it wasn’t thinking but daydreaming. The Israeli poet Yitzhak Laor recently argued that “Israel does not understand the new world.” The problem, however, appears to be far worse: Israel has apparently chosen to stay behind and live in the old one. Stuck in a self-imposed Groundhog Day reality, Israeli policymakers perpetually seek to resolve the political problems of the present with the anachronistic military solutions of the past. What they fail to understand in doing so—as the recent deadly encounter at sea has illustrated all too well—is that the solutions that proved themselves so beneficial only several decades ago are increasingly becoming destructive to Israel’s national security interests today.
Let’s begin with a clarification: Anyone who actually cares to examine the videos from Monday’s deadly encounter at sea and navigate the jungle of misinformation in search of truth will eventually discover that many of the self-proclaimed “peaceful” protesters who awaited the Israeli soldiers’ arrival with clubs, rocks, and steel bars in their hands were anything but peaceful. Those who furthermore wish to distinguish between fact and fiction might also notice that the rifles with which the Israeli commandos are armed were actually paintball guns—not M-16s.
And yet all of these facts have essentially become irrelevant. In today’s constantly evolving battlefield of public opinion, Israel can no longer act now and explain later, as it used to do during the Cold War, when its commandos would storm into upscale Beirut neighborhoods at night, assassinate PLO terrorists, and be safely back in their beds by morning. Armed with camera phones connected instantly by satellite to YouTube and Facebook, and staffed by activists ready to inundate the blogosphere with biased accounts, the media-savvy participants in the pro-Palestinian flotilla made sure the Israelis would have to defend their military operation before it had ever begun.
Technology has provided the protesters on the flotilla the opportunity to counterbalance the Israeli superiority of force with their own advantage in the dissemination of raw information. While it may be true that an increasing amount of television viewers and Internet surfers are less susceptible to crude misinformation, timing is everything in this conflict; by the time Israel’s deputy foreign minister, Danny Ayalon, presented the Israeli side of things to foreign journalists in his morning-after press briefing, the initial images selectively shot, edited, and distributed by the protesters had already been circulating the web for three hours. Most viewers are prone to a limited consumption of news, and the first few images mark the storyline. This essentially meant that all the Israelis could do was try to play catch-up.
This technological disadvantage in its PR duel with the Palestinian supporters is not the only factor that should have discouraged the Netanyahu government from thinking it could resolve a political challenge through military action. The tenuous nature of Israel’s international standing should have been as pivotal in dissuading it from attacking the flotilla.
David Ben-Gurion famously declared that it does not matter what the goyim think; it matters only what the Jews do. While such reasoning may have been credible decades ago, when the imperious likes of FDR, Winston Churchill, and Charles De Gaulle were at the helm of the free world, the increasingly participatory nature of western democratic politics means that what the “goyim” think these days directly dictates what their governments eventually do. In this regards, we are already sensing just how disastrous the diplomatic repercussions may turn out to be for Israel. In the initial 48 hours after the incident, Israel suffered a U.N. Security Council condemnation, received repeated international calls to completely lift the blockade of Gaza (the very act that this entire fiasco was meant to prevent), and further compromised its already shaky relationships with the Obama Administration and the European Union.
However, the most important diplomatic casualty from this affair may be Jerusalem’s relationship with Ankara. Relations between Israel and Turkey, whose government had sanctioned and supported this contentious sea voyage from its inception, are understandably at their lowest point since the two countries enacted diplomatic relations more than 61 years ago. The incident seriously threatens to sever longstanding, multibillion-dollar trade and tourism ties, but it also poses an existential threat to an immensely critical strategic relationship that with the exception of the Jerusalem-Washington alliance may be Israel’s most important.
With so few allies in such a hostile region, Israel’s strategic cooperation with Turkey has always served as a tacit bulwark against any hegemonic aspirations that the Syrian-Iranian-Hezbollah axis may have presented. But this latest incident, which has already inflamed the Turkish public and sent scores of people into the streets in violent protest against Israel, may prove to be the tipping point in an already strained relationship and could help push Ankara firmly into the camp of Israel’s nemeses.
It remains a plausible assumption that Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan orchestrated this affair. After all, his enthusiastic endorsement of the flotilla’s voyage can be interpreted as yet another of his many recent ploys to consolidate his standing as a prominent figure within the global Islamic community. Erdogan may not be a fan of Israel, but countless members of his country’s political, military, economic, and intellectual elite still cherish the historic relationship with Israel and find it much easier to identify with its liberal-democratic ideals than with the religious radicalism and political authoritarianism of their own Arab neighbors. In the wake of this latest event however, those moderates may now be forced to rethink their sympathies.
Could Israel have handled this military raid turned diplomatic fiasco any differently? Yes, by simply letting the flotilla pass through.
In any rational cost-benefit analysis that should have been made before the military option was selected, the potential cost of a violent confrontation with the flotilla’s multinational passenger body far outweighs any modest deterrence benefits reaped by not letting it reach Gaza. Such a tactical victory in other words should have been considered as Pyrrhic at best, since it would thoroughly be dwarfed by the strategic ramifications that could arise from the worst-case scenario in which the high-seas confrontation actually turns deadly—a scenario that ultimately played out.
As the initial investigation of the ships’ cargo has already proven, the flotilla was indeed carrying humanitarian aid and not contraband or arms (which was unlikely, given the highly publicized voyage). Considering then the relatively harmless implications of a symbolic act of solidarity between a bunch of politically irrelevant radical yahoos and the pariah Hamas government, one can’t help but feel that if only Israel had allowed the ships to get through, the combustible showdown would have deflated within hours.
But if Israel was indeed so adamant about preventing the flotilla’s arrival in Gaza, one cannot help but wonder why some other less-confrontational options were not implemented instead. For instance, the Israeli naval commandos Shayetet 13 are renowned for their underwater sabotage skills. Could Israel not have attempted to neutralize the convoy’s propeller engines? Or alternatively, why did the navy not enact some kind of aggressive maneuvering that would have forced the flotilla to halt or pushed it drastically off course? The Israeli government was either too gung-ho to confront the convoy or too unimaginative to locate alternative solutions to brute force for stopping it.
The Israeli press, with its ingrained sensationalism, has already dubbed the affair “a tragedy at sea.” Unfortunately, with the exception of the soldiers irresponsibly sent in on a mission they were ill equipped to accomplish, there is not a trace of genuine tragedy on Israel’s part. Tragedy, after all, requires the intervention of fate, chance, and design to prevent us mortals from envisioning the results of our actions. In its fateful decision to raid the Gaza-bound convoy, however, Israel preferred to abide by the same anachronistic military actions that had served it so well in the past, instead of seeking innovative solutions more commensurate with the delicate nature of its international standing. In doing so, it brought upon itself the disastrous political consequences with which it may very well now have to grapple for months if not years to come.
Many of the pro-Palestinian activists on board the ships were radicals who came looking for a fight. The Israeli government, in one of its most self-destructive decisions in recent memory, gave them exactly what they wanted. And while it could be argued that Israeli soldiers arrived with too little force as opposed to too much, in its decision to engage the flotilla, Israel essentially sat down to a game of poker with two of its cards showing. Knowing that the IDF would never randomly open fire on them or dare sink their ships, the protesters were able to call the Israeli bluff and lure the poorly equipped and outnumbered commandos onto their ships. By storming the convoy without the necessary firepower to properly subdue it, Israel foolishly forced itself into a situation from which there was no real way to emerge with a winning hand.
Yoav Fromer is a New York-based journalist and a former columnist for Maariv.