Israel’s ill-fated commando attack on the Turkish ferry Mavi Marmara, the sixth boat in a self-styled “freedom flotilla” which set sail on Sunday, in international waters near the Gaza Strip brings to mind the French diplomat Talleyrand’s famous remark: “It was worse than a crime. It was a mistake.” In no conceivable way can this operation, which resulted in numerous deaths, be justified as being in Israel’s national interest. Instead, it has harmed Israel in four obvious ways.
First, Israel has always prided itself on carrying out swift and flawless commando operations. Its reputation for precise, surgical strikes, however, is fast eroding. It seems clear that among the peace activists were some hardened fighters, as the Israeli government is asserting. But why is it that the commandos were unprepared for what the Washington Post editorial page is deeming the “dozens of militants who swarmed around them with knives and iron bars”? Purely as a military operation, this raid was a bungled one. It looks as though Israel was caught napping. This isn’t the Israel of Entebbe. Instead, it recklessly endangered the lives of the Israel Defense Forces.
Second, Israel has further isolated itself internationally. It is becoming a pariah state under Netanyahu. Its Middle East ally, Turkey, is denouncing it. Meanwhile, Iran prospers from the outcry in the Arab world and continues to work on its nuclear program with no real restraints. Sanctions on Tehran? Israel’s foes will seize upon this incident to argue that they should be inflicted on Tel Aviv. The UN Security Council held an emergency meeting to discuss the incident, and condemned “acts” Israel took during the operation. That will surely force President Obama into a very uncomfortable position as he weighs abstaining from or vetoing a resolution condemning Israel.
Third, Israel is thus humiliating not only itself, but also President Obama. Obama had invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the White House this Tuesday. Netanyahu, of course, has cancelled his visit so that Obama isn’t confronted with even more calls to decry Israel. But the readiness of Israel to jeopardize its relations with America by embarking on this action is bizarre. According to Harretz, Meir Dagan, the head of the Mossad, told the Knesset, “‘Israel is gradually turning from an asset to the United States to a burden.’”
Fourth, the episode further sabotages the peace process, weakening Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and strengthening the hand of Hamas. Israel is decisively losing the international public relations battle with the terror group. Hamas prepared a trap. Israel didn’t stumble into it. It rushed into it.
Where does this leave Israel and America? In Andrew Sullivan’s opinion, “US aid to Israel, especially military aid, should be suspended until the Israeli government starts acting like something other than a rogue state.” But Israel’s defenders are already arguing that nothing should change. Israel, they suggest, is the real victim and it’s the critics of Israel who are responsible for any violence. According to the Wall Street Journal editorial page, “Those who denounce Israel today ought to at least propose how they mean to keep arms from going to Hamas—or else consider the role their denunciations will play in encouraging another war.”
The Israeli action, however, has already boomeranged. International condemnation of the Gaza blockade will increase. More ships will attempt to breach the Israeli cordon sanitaire. The idea behind isolating the Gaza strip was to force Hamas to crack. It isn’t. Instead, it’s just reaped a public-relations bonanza.
So the bottom line of this incident could not be clearer. Israel attacked a ship of fools and ending up looking like the foolish one. Good work, Prime Minister Netanyahu.
Jacob Heilbrunn is a senior editor at The National Interest.