Not since the dark days of the Yom Kippur War has Israel found itself in such a dire predicament. In 1973, Israel faced a military threat. Now it is confronted by a political one that goes to the core of the Israel's international standing. The Jewish state is bleeding politically not just because of the latest flotilla debacle, but also for appearing to be completely insensitive to the plight of civilians. It finds itself completely cornered not by Arab states and their armies, but rather by international opinion, a determined group of protesters and a new foe it has made along the way—Turkey.
There is an honorable way out. Israel has to devise a strategy that defuses the current crisis and begins to win back some of the international trust it has squandered away. Whether it likes it or not, the flotilla troubles resulted from poor intelligence, planning and execution, and the Israeli leadership blindly fell into a trap that was set up for it. Someone ought to be held accountable for this. Beyond the flotilla incident, Israel will have to come up with an alternative approach to the blockade. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's reaction that the blockade will remain in effect is counterproductive and likely to increase challenges to the quarantine by protest groups and foreign governments. In the duel of images, narratives and countercharges, the Israelis are going to lose.
It is now clear that the blockade is not going to rid Gaza of Hamas, as Israel may have hoped at one point; quite the contrary. Hamas is now more entrenched than ever. The confrontation with Israel has fed the organization's lore and enhanced its status, not to mention its control over Gaza's residents. If this is the case, what are Israel's objectives? It wants assurances that arms will not flow into the strip, that no projectiles or raids will be launched against its territory and the release of Corporal Gilad Shalit, who was abducted by Hamas some four years ago.
So how can it best achieve these aims? Israel should have announced that it was willing to have a third-party investigation of the flotilla events and would consider seriously any recommendations. States make mistakes; to circle the wagons and insist that one is in the right is something that most countries routinely do. In this particular case taking the high road and accepting its ramifications would have demonstrated a rare degree of self-confidence. Israel will emerge stronger not weaker if it has to admit that it committed errors. It has instead, by setting up an Israeli investigation panel with foreign participation, selected the second-best option. Whether this panel will have credibility will depend on the results, but it starts with the odds stacked against it.
In the meantime, Israel should announce that it has set up the port of Ashdod as a receiving node for all aid, and that a third party can be appointed to liaise with the Palestinian Authority to ascertain what humanitarian supplies are needed by the Palestinians in Gaza.
Israel should announce that the blockade will be lifted the moment Shalit is released and Hamas undertakes credible assurances that it will not engage in cross-border attacks of any kind. The international community, which has hitherto been always silent or at best unconvincing in its condemnations of Hamas attacks, needs to step up and warn the Palestinian organization that it will not tolerate such behavior. Here it is important for the United States and the Europeans in particular to help push for such an understanding.
Such a declaration would dramatically change the dynamic and put the onus on Hamas to change its behavior.
The world is tired of this conflict and wants it resolved as soon as possible. Israel, one of the most globally integrated countries in the world, has to prevent the slow but decidedly successful moves to boycott it culturally, economically, academically, and politically. In recent years, Israel has been on the diplomatic defensive and military offensive. It needs to reverse this relationship. In the twenty-first century, international relations are about images, Twitter accounts and Flickr networks. Ironically, the Flotilla crisis offers an opportunity to Israel, the Palestinians and the international community. Israel should take the occasion to alter its discourse, open up Gaza for all to see, and, most importantly, make real efforts with the Palestinian Authority on the peace process. Always marking time for different and better circumstances forty-three years after the Six-Day-War is not a policy.
Henri J. Barkey is a professor of International Relations at Lehigh University and a visiting fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.