The ‘air flotilla’ and Israel’s PR blunder

Arresting and deporting the ‘flightilla’ protesters for what is essentially an act of free speech, the government has demonstrated that Israel - the Middle East’s democratic haven - is not so different from the other countries in the region after all.

flightilla activists at ben gurion 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
flightilla activists at ben gurion 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Sometimes, it just hurts to watch: At the last minute, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu et al have managed to pry defeat from the jaws of victory. After flubbing the response to the flotilla last year, the final verdict on the air flotilla—or “flightilla”—is that it provided fodder for our critics to undermine our democratic credentials. As usual, we won the battle over the specific issue, but in the larger picture, we actually notch up yet another loss in the larger PR war.
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The problem with Netanyahu’s response to the flotilla last year was not that Israel used excessive force. That Israel can initially rappel down navy commandos armed only with paintball guns and still be accused of using excessive force is just scratching the surface for how ludicrous that claim is. No, the real fault was that even if we successfully stopped the flotilla, let’s face it, Hamas and its allies won the PR battle, and worse yet, Hamas-ruled Gaza has largely broken out of its siege. In short, Netanyahu achieved precisely the opposite of what he sought.
This year’s response to the flotilla seemed more promising. A number of smart efforts made sure the flotilla never made it here, and so direct confrontation—precisely what the organizers sought—was averted. Bravo.
And then, those terribly misguided souls, in their utter desperation, decided to fly into Ben-Gurion airport just so they could hold up signs saying “Welcome to Palestine.”
Yep, their big plan was colorful signs. Did you find yourself shaking in your boots too? And the response? Well, we have to credit the government for successfully convincing many airlines not allow the protesters aboard flights to Israel. So hats off to Israel for preventing a classic CNN moment with almost no cost.
At this point, the game should have been over, 2-0 Israel. Lessons from last year were learned with Bibi the Great leading Israel to victory in the PR war.
But then, as we are so very talented at doing, in the 90th minute we score an own-goal that costs us the game: we take the few, isolated clowns who make it here, and with great pomp and circumstance (and hundreds of police), arrest and deport them. This, you imbeciles, was precisely the not-so-great CNN moment we were trying to avoid.By arresting and deporting people for what is essentially an act of free speech, this government has demonstrated that “the only democracy in the Middle East” acts… well… kinda like all the other countries in the region.  
Police officials and other spokesmen argued that the arrests were meant to prevent provocations and disturbances to the public order. How very unconvincing: all political speech aims to be provocative. And the argument that their tactics somehow present a grave danger to public order is a hard pill to swallow.
What if, instead, we had just let them in to hold up their anachronistic “Palestine” signs, and moved on? A smart reaction would have been to say, yes, these people held up signs and enjoyed a little demonstration - as is their iron-clad right in a democracy such as ours.
Moreover, we could have used their own message against them and asked the question: “Does hailing Palestine in Ben-Gurion airport mean that you do not believe in the two-state solution?” IN a dramatic CNN moment, Israel’s spokesman could have then asked, “Do they not believe in Israel’s fundamental right to exist?” And then, after tarnishing what little reputation they had left, he could have concluded, “But still, when visiting our democratic country, these people have a right to their opinions, however misguided.” 
The decision to act otherwise simply undermines Israel advocacy efforts, calling into question the depth of our democratic commitment. Almost as bad, this decision succeeded in reaffirming what people think about this particular government: that Bibi (as Barak once hinted about their time together in Sayeret Matkal) cracks under pressure and that Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman is driven by fascist tendencies. Of course, by following up this performance by passing the atrociously anti-democratic “boycott law,” one wonders if anyone in Israel is permitted to exercise rights that go hand in hand with a “liberal democracy.”
Watching the Israeli government perform is like rooting for a bad football team; by the time the game ends, you're always left wishing that the next time they’ll get it right. The writer is the former Deputy Director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center (GLORIA) in Herzliya.