Blundering into harm's way

Shortsighted policy, not PR, is the problem.

June 3, 2010 02:56
4 minute read.
Bibi in Canada

bibi in Canada. (photo credit: Associated Press)


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Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu wisely cancelled this week’s White House visit to rush home to deal with the international crisis created by his decision to interdict the Gaza-bound Hamas-Turkish flotilla and hand Hamas a major propaganda coup.

Just when he finally was to get his Oval Office meeting, photo op and press conference to talk about the peace process and the Iranian threat, the last thing he needed was a barrage of questions about the debacle on the high seas.

As he flew back to Jerusalem, members of his government were busy pointing fingers at each other for the PR disaster, while Hamas leaders in Gaza and their backers in Turkey and Iran were celebrating the propaganda triumph.

The blockade has given Hamas international attention, sympathy and support it doesn’t deserve – and has cost Israel the backing and understanding it needs. Further, it diverts attention from its critical concerns about Iran. Even friends are questioning the government’s judgment – if not outright condemning it – without bothering to wait for the facts (remember the Jenin non-massacre?). The Obama administration has cautiously called for a full and transparent investigation; Netanyahu must begin that process right away.

It will take time to sort out what really happened. The Israel Navy sailed into a trap with eyes wide open before dawn Monday. It was no secret that the flotilla organizers were looking for a confrontation between political activists and the mighty IDF. And the dysfunctional Netanyahu government played into their hands. Even before this weekend, Israelis were beginning to question what the Gaza blockade had accomplished. The answer: a lot more for Hamas than for Israel.

Weapons of all shapes and sizes continue to flow through a network of tunnels and other smuggling routes, terrorists come and go virtually unimpeded. Hamas is still in control and tightening its grip, and few agree with Israeli insistence that there is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza. For much of the world, the blockade looks like collective punishment.

But make no mistake – the Hamas-Turkish flotilla was not on a humanitarian mission. It was a PR mission, and it was a great success.

LIKE IT or not, for the Palestinians this was their version of the Exodus – ships laden with Jewish immigrants trying to break the British blockade of Mandate Palestine.

The Netanyahu government, instead of ignoring the ships (as has been done in the past) decided instead to escalate this into a major confrontation it could only lose when portrayed as the regional superpower facing a bunch of political activists delivering humanitarian supplies.

Security cannot be a blanket excuse for everything Israel does. Was there a real threat to Israeli security? Where’s the evidence?

Israeli columnist Nahum Barnea said this incident presents the “Israeli security establishment in a ridiculous light.” The international uproar cannot be dismissed by saying, “We don’t give a damn what the rest of the world thinks because they hate us anyway and it had to be done” – Israel’s favorite excuse for stupid policy making.

The damage to Israel’s international standing should be of greater concern to its leaders and friends. Analyst Yossi Melman has said, “Over and over, the policies of force fail. The problem is that with each failure, the part of the world in which we would like to belong is losing patience with us.”

Don’t be surprised if Western countries that had gone along with Israel’s refusal to deal with Hamas begin changing their minds, giving the rejectionist group the legitimacy it craves. That will come not only at Israel’s expense, but also at that of the more moderate Fatah-led Palestinian Authority – the other big loser in the flotilla disaster.

The latest debacle began long before the Hamas-Turkish convoy set sail – with a Jewish Holocaust survivor on board and a spokesman in New York named Shapiro – when Hamas figured out it could not beat Israel on the battlefield so it took to the stage of public opinion, turning the Israeli blockade into an asset. Did no one in Netanyahu’s security cabinet consider the potential ramifications if the protesters provoked – or resorted to – violence? Did they think this was just a bunch of harmless activists who would cringe and step aside when they saw Israeli commandos rappelling from helicopters? Did they forget that before sailing, some of the activists said they’d welcome martyrdom?

To Haaretz columnist Bradley Burston, “We are no longer defending Israel. We are now defending the siege [of Gaza], which is itself becoming Israel’s Vietnam.” Jeffrey Goldberg writes in his blog about the absence of Israeli leaders with the “seichel” to “foresee consequences” of their actions and seek clever solutions to problems rather than rely on blunt force.

In nearly 40 years of speaking to Jewish audiences, the question I hear most often is: “Why don’t the Israelis get good PR advice?”

The answer: shortsighted policy, not PR, is the problem.

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