A wake-up call at sea

Israel is experiencing growing international isolation which could develop into a strategic threat to the state.

311_yehekzel dror (photo credit: Courtesy)
311_yehekzel dror
(photo credit: Courtesy)
ACCORDING TO THE Israeli narrative, the Mavi Marmara, the Turkish vessel that tried to run the naval blockade of Gaza in late May, was not even carrying token humanitarian aid.
At least 50 of its “peace activists” were members of the IHH, a Turkish humanitarian organization with ties to Islamic terror.
The activists had boarded the ship separately in Istanbul, were not subject to security checks, and smuggled knives and chains aboard. On the ship they sawed off iron bars from the railings, which they subsequently used to beat Israeli commandos rappelling down from helicopters to arrest the ship.
The Israeli account also claims that the IHH has close ties to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) and that, with some degree of official connivance, they deliberately set a trap on the high seas to embarrass Israel, thereby allowing
Turkey to further distance itself from the Jewish State and turn a broad international spotlight on the plight of the Palestinians in Gaza.
If it was a trap, Israel seemed to walk into it with eyes wide-shut. The killing of nine of the IHH activists by Israeli naval commandos in the fight
for control of the vessel brought Israel worldwide opprobrium and prompted calls for an internationally supervised inquiry into its conduct on the high seas. Indeed, the readiness of the international community to put Israel in the dock for what Israel claims was basically a preplanned radical
Islamic terrorist attack raises profound questions over what has left Israel in such unsplendid isolation.
Some on the right tend to dismiss the international brouhaha as no more than a PR hiccup.
Likud Knesset Member Ophir Akunis, for example, argues that the fact that Israel failed to get its version of events out for ten hours after the naval commandos boarded the ship was crucial. “There was an anti-Israel snowball that got as far as UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon and we just weren’t out there, on the air.
Had we been able to show from the outset that we were being subjected to a terrorist attack, things might have been different,” Akunis, a former spokesman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tells The Report.
BUT MOST OBSERVERS AGREE that the anti-Israel mood goes much deeper. For many right-wingers, it stems largely from a pervasive anti-Zionism or anti-Semitism, and what Israel does or doesn’t do makes no difference. Some see it all as part of a sophisticated Arab and pro-Arab campaign to delegitimize Israel. Left-wing critics, however, argue that even if this is true, the hawkish Netanyahu government is playing into the delegitimizers’ hands. By not having credible peacemaking policies or a credible blueprint for ending the occupation, the government is laying itself open to criticism as an occupying power in a post-colonial age, they say.
In the left-wing view, the ferocity of international criticism over the Mavi Marmara affair stems partly from the fact that international patience with the Netanyahu government has worn thin. As a result, foes have a relatively easy ride denigrating Israel, and friendly governments try to use the ensuing furor to pressure Israel into adopting what they see as more constructive policies. Worse: Whatever the reasons for it, the uproar over the clash on the high seas is a reflection of a growing international isolation that, if unchecked, could pose a strategic threat to the Jewish state.
Under heavy pressure internationally and domestically, the government set up two investigation panels, one into the military planning and execution of the commando action, under Maj. Gen. (res.) Giora Eiland, and a second into the legality of the blockade and its enforcement on the high seas, under former Supreme Court Justice Yaakov Terkel. Following strong American pressure, the Terkel commission, unprecedentedly for Israel, will have an international presence, with two foreign observers, David Trimble, a Nobel peace laureate and former prime minister of Northern Ireland, and Ken Watkin, until recently judge advocate general of the Canadian armed forces. The panel will also investigate the way the IHH organized the Mavi Marmara sailing and what its intentions were.
Before it even convened, however, the Terkel commission came under strong domestic criticism. Commentators pointed to the age of its three Israeli members, (Terkel is 76, Brig. Gen. (res.) Amos Horev, a former president of the Haifa Technion, is 86 and acclaimed international jurist, Shabtai Rosen, is 93), and excoriated the panel’s limited powers and mandate.
It will not be able to subpoena witnesses or question the political echelon’s decision-making – like approving an army plan that left commandos in life-threatening situations, or summarily releasing known terrorists who were aboard the Mavi Marmara. Domestic critics complained that by putting the emphasis on the legal issues, Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak were deliberately preempting potentially scathing criticism of their decision-making roles.
The affair raises several other, equally troubling, questions: Beyond the dubious tactical decisions – such as lowering commandos one by one into the heart of an angry mob where they were hopelessly outnumbered – what does it say for the government’s strategic thinking? In other words, where is the Netanyahu government leading Israel? And what about the implications for Israel’s regional standing? How much of a threat does Turkey’s accelerated shift towards the Iranian axis pose?
And with regard to the blockade: How necessary is it and how effective has it been? Why was it imposed in the first place? Why was it accompanied by a wider siege blocking civilian goods and movement? Were Israel’s actions on the high seas legal? What should Israel do in the face of the storm of international protest?
And could the imbroglio be turned into a grand bargain, redefining the way the land crossing points into Gaza are monitored and including the release of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, held by Hamas in Gaza since June 2006?
The blockade-siege in its present form was imposed in June 2007 after Hamas violently expelled the secular Fatah leadership from Gaza and seized power from Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority. Israel and Egypt responded by closing land crossings into Gaza, and Israel reinstituted a naval blockade on the Gaza coast.
After renewed Hamas rocket attacks on Israeli civilians, the aim of the naval blockade was to keep weapons, weapons’ manufacturing parts and bunker building materials out of Gaza. The closing of the land crossings, which also limited civilian supplies, was intended to put pressure on Hamas to release Shalit and possibly even to induce popular rebellion against the new radical Gaza regime.
TWO YEARS EARLIER THINGS had been very different. In November 2005, after Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, Israel and the PA, which was still in control of Gaza, signed an “Agreement on Movement and Access” intended to ease the movement of people and goods in and out of Gaza and enhance Palestinian productivity.
Under the terms of the agreement, the main land crossing points at Rafah, Kerem Shalom and Karni were to be fully open.
Nor was there any thought of a naval blockade. On the contrary, work on a feasibility study for an independent Palestinian deep water port in Gaza was underway. Dov Weissglas, then prime minister Ariel Sharon’s right-hand man, says that with Israel out of Gaza, the Palestinians promised an economic miracle, arguing that without the occupation to hold them back, they would turn Gaza into a new Singapore. According to Weissglas, plans for five-star hotels along the coast and an airport at Dahaniya were far advanced, with former World Bank president James Wolfensohn, then the international Quartet’s special representative, playing a leading role.
The idea was to underpin peace between Gaza and Israel through economic progress, much like in the West Bank today. The Hamas takeover, however, put an end to the Singapore dream.
Stepped up Hamas rocket attacks on Israeli civilians led eventually to Operation Cast Lead, the Israeli land invasion of Gaza in December 2008. After the war ended, Israel’s main concern was to prevent Hamas from rearming. There was talk at the time of German, French and British ships patrolling the Gaza coast to prevent arms smuggling. But when this idea fell through, mainly at Egypt’s insistence, Israel was left with the task of monitoring maritime traffic for weapons on its own.
Israel maintains that, despite its tight control of the land crossing points as well as the naval blockade, there is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza. According to the IDF, which coordinates aid to Gaza, in the first three months of 2010, Israel sent in over 3,600 trucks with some 100,000 tons of fruit, vegetables, meat, chicken, fish, dairy products, animal feed, hygiene products, clothing and shoes, as well as 1,000 tons of medical equipment.
Israel also supplies about 60 percent of Gaza’s electricity and chemicals for water purification. Moreover, last year 10,544 Gaza residents were treated in Israeli hospitals.
According to Western figures, average life expectancy in Gaza is 73.68 years compared to around 40 in some African countries, and there is as little malnutrition as in the West.
Against that, human rights activists contend that although there is plenty of food, not everyone can afford to buy enough to meet their basic needs. They say 70 percent of the factories in Gaza are closed, 40 percent of Gaza workers are unemployed and 60 percent of households are “food insecure,” that is they can’t be sure of earning enough to cover the cost of their minimal food needs.
The way the Terkel panel views the situation in Gaza and the relationship between Israel and Hamas will be crucial. Indeed, on the legal issues, the key questions are whether Israel has ended its occupation of Gaza and whether it is in a state of armed conflict with Hamas. Assuming the occupation ended when Israel withdrew in 2005, and that Israel and Hamas are in a state of armed conflict, as both say they are, then the rules of war apply. “On the assumption that we are in an armed conflict, a legitimate step for belligerents to take is to impose a naval blockade. And, of course, there is a precedent for this having been done in other armed conflicts,” Robbie Sabel, an expert on international law at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, tells The Report.
According to Sabel, a blockade can be enforced on the high seas under the following conditions: that ships are first warned that they are entering a blockaded war zone, that they are not attacked but “arrested” by boarding and taking control, and that all neutral passengers are released, all of which Israel did in the case of the Mavi Marmara. Sabel contends that Israel could even keep the Mavi Marmara and the six smaller accompanying ships in the late May “peace flotilla” after applying to a “prize court,” which in this case would be the Haifa District Court. But so far, Israel has not made any such application.
As to the closure of the land crossings or siege on Gaza, Sabel maintains that in a state of armed conflict, belligerent A does not have to allow trade from its territory into that of belligerent B, but it cannot use starvation as a weapon of war. Therefore, he says, Israel had to strike a careful balance between limiting the free flow of goods and not starving the population.
The end result, however, was an arbitrary list of products allowed in, with others excluded as “luxury items.” Even though there was no hint of starvation, in Sabel’s view, holding back foodstuffs like coriander, macaroni and chocolate seemed absurd, and made Israel look petty and vindictive.
The counter pro-Palestinian legal argument would be that Israel remains an occupying power in Gaza, precisely because of its continued control of Gaza’s air and sea space and its land entrances. If that is adjudged to be the case, the siege could be seen as a form of collective punishment against people for whose welfare Israel, as the occupying power, is still responsible.
BESIDES TURNING ATTENTION to the situation on the ground in Gaza, the Mavi Marmara affair also puts a searing spotlight on government statecraft. Netanyahu’s most significant strategic decision so far seems to have been a rejection of US President Barack Obama’s “Grand Bargain”: Significant Israeli engagement on the Palestinian track to facilitate American handling of the Iranian nuclear threat. This has led to a degree of American coolness towards Israel, manifest for example in America’s support last month of a UN resolution singling out Israel’s presumed nuclear capabilities.
In a recent briefing of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Mossad Chief Meir Dagan noted that US strategic ties with Israel were less important to Washington today than they had been during the Cold War, a fact which, taken together with the Obama administration’s coolness towards Netanyahu, has potentially deleterious ramifications: Even a partial removal of America’s protective diplomatic umbrella on Israel could signal open season for attacks on the Jewish state.
As for the actual handling of the Mavi Marmara affair, the government has been widely criticized, especially for allowing the commandos to be placed in life-threatening situations. Political scientist Yehezkel Dror, a member of the Winograd Commission of Inquiry into the 2006 Second Lebanon War, holds that the government seems to have repeated many of the cardinal errors it made then.
“They underestimated the enemy, didn’t question military plans, failed to take minimum precautions for coping with uncertainty, and did not factor in potential implications for relations with Turkey,” he tells The Report. Dror puts much of this down to endemic flaws in the culture of Israeli government. There is, he says, no long tradition of statecraft, coupled with an ongoing failure to recognize the increasing sophistication of the enemy and a gung-ho reliance on simplistic military solutions to complex problems, going back to pre-state days.
“I play out in my head the following scenario: The government is engaged in proximity talks with the Palestinians and deeply involved with the Iranian issue. They are overloaded and the prime minister is abroad. Then I assume the IDF said the navy will do a good job, relax. The senior ministers were happy to rely on the generals, and not to push too hard on what might go wrong or what the consequences would be if something did go wrong. The idea of a trap didn’t occur to them. And if it did, no preparations were made,” he charges.
To extricate itself from the diplomatic morass, Dror argues that Israel should come out with an initiative for a truly comprehensive Middle East peace. He argues that giving up major assets for a separate peace with the Palestinians is a “bad bargain,” because it would leave Israel without bargaining chips vis-a-vis the Arab world as a whole; but that for a comprehensive peace, including the Palestinians, all the Arab states and even Iran, he would be ready to give up “virtually everything.” “Israel,” he says, “needs to throw a surprise at history.”
IN THE REGION, THE MAVI Marmara affair highlights the fact that Israel faces a dangerous new strain of radical strategic thinking aimed at delegitimizing it and anything it does in self-defense. After the UN Human Rights Council’s Goldstone Report, which virtually disqualified Israeli land incursion into to enemy territory as a defense against persistent rocket fire, the radicals behind the Mavi Marmara were out to turn international opinion against Israel’s naval blockade as a means of defending its citizens by keeping rockets out of the potential war theater.
Given the enormity of the threat, Elie Podeh, a professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the Hebrew University, argues that the current Israeli government has got its regional policy all wrong. The government’s hard line plays into the hands of the extremists, like Hamas and Iran, and alienates the moderates, like the PA, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, Israel should be working with to create a more stable environment, Podeh tells The Report. The clumsy handling of the Mavi Marmara was a prime example of this; but worse, in Podeh’s view, is the lack of a credible peace process with Palestinians and the Arab world.
As for Turkey, he argues that it is not yet a lost cause for Israel, and not, as many Israelis tend to think, already part of the Iranian axis. On the contrary, he insists, Turkey is trying to maintain balanced relations with all the relevant players in the region, which, he says, paradoxically puts it in a very good position to mediate between Israel and the Arab states. In his view, Israel should do everything possible to keep Turkey away from the radical axis, including giving it a mediating role in Israel-Arab peacemaking.
Otherwise he fears a dangerous dynamic: “Let’s say Turkey severs ties with Israel. That would put Egypt and Jordan on the spot. If Turkey, a non-Arab country severs ties, what does that say about them? They would be under great pressure to follow suit. Israel must find a way to stop the erosion,” he warns.
To reverse the trend, Podeh suggests that Israel coordinate closely with Washington and come out with a US-backed peace initiative that includes a Palestinian element and acceptance of the 2002 Arab peace plan as a basis for dialogue. “I think if we were to get all the moderate Arab states behind a viable peace initiative, then Hamas would be marginalized and under a lot of pressure to become more conciliatory.
In short, we have to find ways of reaching all those regional players with whom we can cooperate, when, in fact, we are doing exactly the opposite,” he declares.
OPPOSITION VOICES ALSO suggest that the government should rethink the civilian siege, which, they say, has not achieved its goals: After four years in Hamas captivity, Gilad Shalit has not been released, or even so much as allowed a compulsory visit by the Red Cross; there is also little sign of the siege sparking an anti-Hamas uprising; and, they conclude, persisting with the failed policy could compromise the far more important naval blockade designed to keep out larger, more accurate and longer-range missiles.
To keep weapons out of Gaza and allow more food and humanitarian aid in, Meretz leader Haim Oron says he would negotiate an agreement with the US and Europe on the blockade and the crossing points, similar to the arrangement in force between 2005 and 2007, when the crossings on the Gaza side were jointly manned by European and PA monitors. “Once the land crossings are monitored differently, international pressure on Israel will ease and exclusion or interception of weaponry on land or on the high seas is something most people in the world will understand,” he declares.
Then, to further stabilize the Gaza situation, Oron says he would enter into serious talks with the PA on the core peace issues with the backing of the whole Arab world and the international community. “That,” he says, “is the real answer to the political challenge posed by Hamas.”
But he is under no illusion that Netanyahu is about to do anything like that. “I have more respect for him than many others do. I think he knows exactly what a 180 degree U-turn looks like and is determined not to make one. He says ‘I am not going to be the prime minister who divides Jerusalem or who agrees to a territorial compromise that takes us back to the 1967 borders.’ And without those two things, there is no point going into the negotiating room,” Oron tells The Report.
ON THE RIGHT, THERE IS LITTLE sign that the Mavi Marmara incident has induced any major policy review.
And Likud spokesmen strongly reject the insinuation that Israel is in any way to blame for the current impasse with the Palestinians. Indeed, they suggest the Palestinians are trying to exploit the current anti-Israel mood for political gain, and are deliberately fueling it by refusing to enter into direct talks with Israel.
Likud MK Akunis points out that for over a year now Israel has been calling for direct talks on the basis of two states for two peoples, and even agreed to a freeze on building in Judea and Samaria to get talks going. “We have urged the Palestinians time and again to begin direct talks. Nothing is stopping them except their own decision. Obama wants direct talks, Cameron, Merkel and all the others want direct talks. The whole world including Israel wants direct talks and the only ones preventing them are the Palestinians,” he insists.
On the right, the strong consensus is that despite its growing isolation, Israel must hang tough – otherwise it will be torn to pieces by regional predators. “If Israel shows any sign of weakness in this region, it will find itself in much more serious trouble than it is today. Israel will not allow itself to become a second Czechoslovakia, sacrificed by the West to appease an axis of evil,” Akunis declares.
There can be little doubt that the volume and intensity of the criticism of Israel after the violent clash aboard the Mavi Marmara was part of a double standard reserved only for Israel. No other country in the same situation would have been subjected to similar abuse. “Israel faces hypocrisy and a biased rush to judgment,” Netanyahu declared in the immediate aftermath. But complaining about double standards or unfair bias is not a policy.
The question is whether the fallout from the Mavi Marmara turns out to be a wake-up call for sweeping new policy initiatives or just another sad milestone on the road to deeper isolation and conflict.