The government of Israel is supposedly run by the Jewish state’s toughest and most ardent defenders, but so far they have inflicted worse damage on its security and its future than its enemies ever could. By treating a Gaza-bound aid flotilla as a military threat, killing nine civilians and imprisoning hundreds more, that government achieved the only foreseeable outcome: another episode of international isolation and internal demoralization.
Whether Israel’s commandos committed any criminal acts will be determined by investigation, but in the meantime it is safe to say that what happened was not only wrong but exceptionally stupid. Yet while shortsighted brutality has long been a hallmark of Israeli policy toward the Palestinians, that tendency is now clearly undermining the strategic interests of both Israel and its traditional friends, including the United States.
The question that sane Israelis are now openly asking themselves: what is their government’s strategy?
Consider the events over the past two years that have led up to this moment. The war on Gaza, initially justified by Hamas rocket attacks on Israeli civilians, was grossly disproportional and resulted in war crimes against Palestinians that completely overshadowed the casus belli. Since then, the blockade of Gaza has stopped humanitarian assistance and prevented reconstruction-which has only provoked worldwide support for Hamas’ human rights complaints against Israel.
Meanwhile, that war proceeded covertly as well, leading to the clumsiest intelligence operation in Israel’s history-the murder of a Hamas official in Dubai by agents who left behind copious evidence of connections with Mossad. That evidence included passports issued by friendly nations, which of course strained diplomatic relationships with them. Worse, the choice of Dubai as an assassination location put severe pressure on Israel’s unofficial but strong relationship with the United Arab Emirates-a powerful force for moderation and tolerance in the region and beyond.
Whatever Hamas lost when Mahmoud al-Mabhouh was throttled in a Dubai hotel room, the damage to Israel was considerably greater.
Certainly the same can be said of the latest fiasco, which has severely damaged if not ruined Israel’s long-standing ties with Turkey, whose citizens were among those killed and apprehended in the flotilla attack. Until the evening of May 30, the Islamic government of Turkey was prepared to permit its army to participate in joint exercises with the Israel Defense Forces-a stunning development that shows just what Israel’s government so casually risked.
Yet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing government seem blithely unaware or uncaring in the wake of its ruinous actions. The question that Israel’s friends must ask is the same question that sane Israelis are now openly asking themselves: What is their government’s strategy? Indeed, what strategy could these tactics possibly serve to advance? How is their survival, let alone their future peace and prosperity, enhanced by behavior that alienates every friend and potential friend, while encouraging every foe and creating more of them?
If Israel and the United States believe that the most important security problem is Iran and that regime’s possible acquisition of nuclear weapons, then the sane response is to build regional and global alliances in response. Iran’s neighbors in the Gulf are almost as unhappy about that looming threat as Israel is. A wise policy would draw those states into regional security arrangements and enhance connections with them.
Of course, that kind of policy would mean refraining from such destructive acts as the Gaza blockade, the Dubai assassination and the flotilla attack. It would require the serious pursuit of renewed peace negotiations with the Palestinians and the Syrians, so that Iran, not Israel, would face isolation. And that in turn would demand the end of settlement construction and the acknowledgment that Jerusalem is an international holy place that cannot be controlled by a single state.
As Bill Clinton bluntly reminded Israelis in Jerusalem last winter, none of the fundamental factors that imperil the Jewish state’s democratic and peaceful future have changed since his own peacemaking efforts ended in frustration. How unfortunate-and dangerous-that the Netanyahu government is so determined to ignore his warning as its strategic position deteriorates.