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Much ado about flytilla
By JEFF BARAK
04/15/2012
The protest’s real victory will be an unflattering picture of Israel flashed across the world's media headlines.
 
Making predictions in a newspaper column is a risky business, but anyway, here goes.

At the time of writing over the weekend, Israel Police and the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) are putting together the final pieces of their plan to block the planned “fly-in” of leftwing activists to Ben-Gurion Airport, from where the activists intend to travel to the West Bank to demonstrate their solidarity with the Palestinians.

My prediction: the police will succeed in arresting and deporting the majority of the activists with little trouble and hardly any disturbance to the airport’s normal operations. The scare-mongering reports of the past few days concerning this massive security operation will be seen to have been a gross exaggeration, encouraged both by the lack of real news over the Pessah holidays and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s determination to fan fears of “the whole world is against us,” which is so central to his political outlook.

By the time you read this, it will be clear whether or not this part of my prediction is correct. I’m also pretty confident that the next part of my prediction will also turn out to be true: the activists will have succeeded in painting a picture to the world’s media of Israel as a police state, where peaceful protest is muzzled the minute a person steps off the plane. “Israel blocks Air Travelers to Palestinian Conference” ran the headline in the New York Times last year, and we can expect to read similar headlines this time around, too.

THIS WILL be the protest’s real victory, an unflattering picture of Israel flashed across the world, accompanied by statements from Palestinian spokespeople saying that the whole episode “exposes Israel’s draconian anti-Palestinian policies,” as Fadi Kattan was quoted as saying at a Bethlehem news conference following last year’s operation.

Of course, Israel, like any other country, has the right to refuse entry to people it determines endanger its security or pose a risk to law and order. The Interior Ministry acted correctly in giving foreign airlines a list of known activists who are denied entry into the country because of such suspicions, and who the airlines would have to fly back, at their own expense, should these passengers be allowed to depart for Ben-Gurion.

But not all the protestors are hardcore, anti-Israel demons and it is hard to understand the problem in allowing these travelers to land at Ben- Gurion and then make their way to Bethlehem, as the organizers had planned, “to lay the foundations of an elementary school, plant trees, renovate wells in villages and inaugurate a museum.”

If they break the law when carrying out any of these activities, or create a public order offense immediately on landing, then they deserve to be arrested, but to summarily deport them before they have stepped foot in the country is hardly the expected behavior of a country that prides itself on being the only democracy in the Middle East.

ISRAEL’S SELF-HARMING lack of tolerance for external criticism also came to the fore in the recent Gunther Grass affair where, yet again, the government’s handling of the issue only caused the country more damage than Grass’ poem merited. Instead of having the Israeli Embassy’s cultural attaché in Berlin pithily respond to Grass’ attack on Israel as a threat to world peace, thus dignifying by what all accounts is a pretty poor poem with the disdainful response it deserved; Israel went into overdrive, with the prime minister himself issuing a lengthy statement.

Following Grass’ belated admission in 2006 that he had served in the Waffen SS, the 84-year-old Nobel Prizewinning author has lost much of his moral authority in Germany. A one-line comment from a low-level diplomat slamming the ramblings of a former Nazi would have been sufficient to put to bed any further discussion of Grass’ poem and let the issue die in rightful ignominy. But first Netanyahu had to enter the fray, igniting further debate over whether Israel is more of a danger to the world than Iran, and then Interior Minister Eli Yishai felt compelled to issue a ban preventing Grass from entering the country.

According to all reports, Grass had no immediate travel plans to visit Israel (not even to take part in the fly-in demonstration), so Yishai’s ban was purely symbolic and a cheap way for the interior minister to gain an easy headline. But his ban has succeeded in allowing Grass to claim the moral high ground, and compare Yishai’s actions with a similar restriction once imposed on him by the leader of East Germany’s Stasi secret police and the authorities in Myanmar. At a stroke, Yishai has turned a former Nazi into a victim, with Israel in the role of the bad guy.

And my last prediction for today: Israel’s leaders, sadly, won’t learn from either of these two unnecessary episodes and will continue to rise to the bait of unimportant provocations in a wildly misguided sense of what is needed to guard the national interest.

The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.
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