Israel had every right under international law to stop and board ships bound for the Gaza war zone late Sunday. Only knee-jerk left-wingers and the usual legion of poseurs around the world would dispute this. ~Leslie Gelb
The “usual legion of poseurs” at this point includes many of the governments currently on the Security Council, most especially Turkey, whose flag the attacked ship was flying. The Erdogan and Netanyahu governments have gone out of their way in the last year and a half to provoke and insult one another to their mutual detriment, but this is all together more serious and dangerous. If the activists on the flotilla should have expected violence, as Gelb argues, what were the Israelis expecting the activists to do when they boarded their ships? Give them a hug?
The alliance between Israel and Turkey has been weakening for years, but something like this could be enough to damage it more than anything we have seen so far. That would have negative repercussions mostly for Israel, as it already has few significant allies and no other Muslim allies, and it cannot afford to keep provoking and alienating the relatively few governments that have had good relations with it in the past. Having flouted international institutions and international law for a long time, it will not be easy for Israel to take cover behind the protections of the latter. It’s not at all clear to me that Israel had any legal right to board civilian ships in international waters, but then I don’t have much sympathy for blockading an impoverished enclave that the blockading government spent several weeks devastating with an excessive military response.
The people who should be most furious about this are Israel’s reflexive defenders. They are reduced to making excuses for the inexcusable consequences of a bungled raid carried out in support of a misguided blockade policy that has been damaging Israel’s reputation every day since it began. It ought to make them more critical of the recklessness and stupidity of the Netanyahu government, but on the whole this has not been their response.
Gelb resorts to the oldest, most tired argument in the “pro-Israel” arsenal: the double standard used against Israel. Of course, it would be ideal if Turkey were as outraged by the sinking of the Cheonan as it is about this, but we all know things don’t work that way. The Mavi Marmara was a Turkish-flagged ship, everyone knows the AKP government has taken a strong interest in Gaza and that it has some sympathy for Hamas, and Israel is supposedly Turkey’s ally. That makes this raid more politically significant for obvious reasons. It is simply present-day reality that most governments have or pretend to have more interest in the conflict in Israel and Palestine than they have in other conflicts. For that matter, North Korea’s provocative and outrageous actions are what we have come to expect from the dictatorship there. Does Gelb really want to start having Israel judged by the same standard applied to North Korea?
The North Korean sinking of the Cheonan was also outrageous and inexcusable, but there are few things that can be done in response that would not disastrously escalate the conflict. When confronted with such an aggressive outrage, it is understandable to wish to respond in kind, but one has to consider the consequences of retaliation. The attack on the Indian Parliament in 2001 and the Mumbai attacks provided India with more than enough justification to take military action against those responsible inside Pakistan, but it wisely and admirably chose restraint instead of the path of escalation that Israel seems intent on choosing repeatedly.
Indulging in outrage when there is nothing one can do and the state responsible will not respond to any penalty imposed is fairly useless. The outraged reaction to Israel’s raid suggests that most governments still regard Israel as a more or less responsible power that will attempt to correct its mistakes, or else many of them probably wouldn’t waste their energy complaining. Regardless, Gelb should regard the outrage as a good sign. It means that most governments around the world have not resigned themselves to thinking of Israel as nothing more than a dangerous pariah. It will be a far worse day for Israel when the reaction to the next blunder is the sigh of resignation, “Well, really, what can you expect?”
Perhaps most galling about the overall defense of the raid is the constant invocation of self-defense. Everything Israel does is always done in self-defense, no matter how excessive, disproportionate, unnecessary, wrong or aggressive it is. When everything becomes a matter of self-defense and the proper distinctions between actual legtimate self-defense and reckless excesses are erased, pretty soon most of the rest of the world won’t pay any attention to Israeli claims of self-defense even when they are legitimate. There was not much of a reservoir of goodwill for Israel in the world after the war in Lebanon, but successive Israeli governments have done everything they can to exhaust what little remains in that reservoir. We are not watching Israel defend itself. We are watching Israel slowly destroy itself.