From scramble to pre-emptive diplomacy

Israel must pre-empt negative PR by informing foreign governments on the exact circumstances it faces and the course of action it will take.

June 1, 2010 23:21
4 minute read.
Palestinian flags wave in Gaza port, foreground, a

gaza prepares for flotilla 311. (photo credit: AP)


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After the 2006 Second Lebanon War and the 2008 operation in Gaza, the Israeli government was left having to explain its actions to leaders around the world. The Foreign Ministry had to move quickly to do damage control and while then-foreign minister Tzipi Livni did make efforts to launch a public relations campaign by sending ambassadors and diplomats to explain Israel’s actions, it was already too late. Israel’s lack of public relations foresight resulted in “scramble” diplomacy.

The recent events concerning the so-called Gaza aid flotilla turned unfortunate when some of the activists were killed during a confrontation with IDF Navy commandos. Yet, having dealt with similar aid convoys in the past, the Foreign Ministry should have been well aware of the negative PR Israel would receive regardless.

The State of Israel does not reveal the inner workings of its secret diplomacy and obviously there is a lot of diplomatic activity that takes place behind the scenes. However, the public must be able to see at least a portion of what can be called “pre-emptive” diplomacy, by which foreign governments are informed of Israel’s intentions and subsequent reasoning prior to taking action. This way, Israel has already explained the legal reasoning and logic behind its decision to use force without having to sprint to the phones during each crisis.

Israel must be able to pre-empt negative PR by preparing and educating foreign governments and populations on the exact circumstances faced by Israel and the course of action that will be taken based on unfolding events. Pre-emptive diplomacy would at least minimize the harsh reaction Israel often witnesses when events take a wrong turn.

This time, Prime Minister Netanyahu, his spokesman Nir Hefetz and Minister of Public Diplomacy Yuli Edelstein were all in Canada and Israel was left with Tzipi Livni as a spokesperson. Again, there was lack of coordination between the Foreign Ministry, the IDF Spokespersons Unit and the Prime Minister’s Office. While the foreign press announced “worldwide condemnation” for a “botched raid” creating a “diplomatic crisis” and “international outrage,” Israel yawned. As events unfolded and it was becoming clear that Israel needed to clarify the facts and present legal reasoning for its actions, Israel’s leaders rolled over and went back to sleep instead.

HAD ISRAEL used pre-emptive diplomacy at the same time the Navy was planning its raid on the ships, the government would have been preparing legal arguments for any potential scenario. For instance, Israel could have pointed to the San Remo Manual on International Law dealing with armed conflicts at Sea, which specifies in Article 47 that “vessels engaged in humanitarian missions are exempt from attack” only if they are recognized by Article 48 which demands that they are “innocently employed in their normal role.”

According to Article 67 of the manual, the Gaza aid flotilla is guilty of “carrying contraband,” “breaching a blockade,” “engaging in belligerent acts on behalf of the enemy,” “acting as an auxiliary to an enemy’s armed forces,” “refusing an order to stop,” and actively resisting visit and search.

Israel could have also highlighted Article 98 which states, “Merchant vessels believed on reasonable grounds to be breaching a blockade may be captured. Merchant vessels which, after prior warning, clearly resist capture may be attacked.” Article 100 declares, “A blockade must be applied impartially to the vessels of all States.” Legally, Israel has the right to stop any vessel approaching Gaza’s shores to prevent the passage of materials that would aid Hamas in attacking Israel.

In light of the activists’s planned attack on Israel Navy commandos, they are also in violation of Article 110 which specifies that vessels such as theirs are prohibited from actively simulating the status of vessels on humanitarian missions when their intentions do not correspond.

There is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza as its residents do have access to food and medical supplies. Israel withholds only certain materials such as metal and cement which can be used to manufacture rockets and build tunnels. Hamas is directly responsible for Palestinian suffering in Gaza and while Israel must fight the occasional aid convoy with better PR, it must also look at the broader picture and prepare the world for a long struggle against radical extremists.

On May 31, J Street’s Jeremy Ben-Ami sent out a newsletter stating that “J Street has been and continues to be opposed to the blockade – believing that there are better ways to ensure Israel’s security and to prevent weapons smuggling than a complete closure of the Gaza Strip.”

If people like Ben-Ami don’t seem to understand the reality Israel faces then it is clear that Israel needs a long-term public relations campaign which would educate foreign governments and populations on the war against Hamas, the blockade on Gaza and radical Islam in general.

The writer is a freelance political adviser who has worked with, amongst others, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.

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