Analysis: Winning a media battle, but (potentially) losing the war

It's clear that the Free Gaza Movement was after one thing: A huge media event.

gaza boats 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
gaza boats 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
Ever since the Free Gaza Movement made known its intent a few weeks ago to set sail for the Gaza Strip to "break" the Israeli blockade, it was clear that the two boatfuls of professional left-wing demonstrators and tag-along journalists were after one thing: a huge media event. Nothing, therefore, would have given them a greater media buzz than if a couple of Israel Navy boats stopped them on the high seas, arrested the protesters (hopefully, from the point of view of the organizers of the protest, with some gratuitous brutality), and dragged the Greek-registered vessels into the Ashdod port. Imagine the footage, imagine the images, and imagine the public relations bonanza for those few "brave souls" on the sea-weary vessels. Israel would, undoubtedly, have faced a public relations drubbing. So by deciding to let the boats through, the government deprived the protesters of the huge media event they so obviously wanted. Indeed, instead of footage of heavyhanded Israelis stopping boats carrying an 81-year-old American nun and the sister-in-law of former British prime minister Tony Blair leading the nightly news broadcasts in the West on Saturday night, the story of the boats' arrival in Gaza barely made a blip on the CNN, Fox, or Sky news broadcasts. With the world's eyes still glued to the Olympics in Beijing, and the media focusing on US presidential candidate Barack Obama's choice of Joe Biden as his vice presidential nominee, the Gaza blockade-running story didn't register in the electronic media. And in the written press, the protesters didn't fare that much better. The New York Times ran a small piece on page 16 on Sunday; The Washington Post on page 12; and The St. Louis Post-Dispatch relegated it to a three-paragraph brief. As media events go, this one was not particularly successful. But the story is not over. The protesters still may get their desired confrontation if they depart the same way they came - by sea - and try to take with them some Palestinians whom Israel regards as security risks. For what is at stake in this whole story is not only the force with which the protesters manage to break into the daily news cycle, but rather whether Israel does or does not control the territorial waters around Gaza. In the extensive governmental discussions that preceded the sailing, two schools of thought emerged. The first - the one that won the day - was that the protesters should be deprived of their sought-after confrontation. But there was a minority opinion as well, a second school of thought that maintained Israel should interdict the boats when they entered Israel's territorial waters, and interrogate and arrest the passengers as gently, but as firmly, as possible. The logic behind this argument was that Israel had the right, like any country in the world, to protect its borders, and prevent - through its coast guard - the violation of its territorial waters. The adherents to this position maintained that since the world's eyes were on the Olympics, since it was August and not many people were paying attention anyhow, since the Democratic party convention in Denver would soon take over the news, an interdiction of the boats now would not make that big a media splash, and even if it did, Israel had good, valid arguments to explain its actions. Furthermore, this argument ran, Israel would in any event likely have to stop the boats when they sailed out of Gaza, because unlike the situation when they set sail, when Israel knew exactly who and what was on the vessels, that would not be the case for the return trip. But there is another point as well: it was not only the western media watching the fate of the boats and their passengers, but also the Arab media and the Arab world. As such, Israel - according to this argument - needed to send a message to the Arab world that it took sovereignty over its territorial waters seriously, and would defend that sovereignty, even at the price of some bad press in the Guardian or Le Monde. Jerusalem doesn't need to be too concerned that a precedent was set by letting the boat pass, because it made clear this was a one-time deal, and that it reserved the right to stop other boats if they tried to enter Gaza. Rather, Israel needs to be worried that the country's enemies will see it is sorely afraid of bad press, and will fold on its principles to avoid a negative media event. The danger now is not that the two Free Gaza boats will be followed by a flotilla of others bearing more humanitarian aid for Gazans, but rather that the method these protesters used - employing the media as an instrument to force Israel to buckle under - will be honed and adopted for more effective use later. In the short term Israel did well in depriving the Free Gaza folks their carnival. But in the long term it may be that Israel caused more harm to its interests by avoiding a high-profile, precedent-setting scuffle now on the high seas off the coast of Gaza.