In the aftermath of last week’s violent suppression of the Gaza flotilla, Israel now confronts a number of critical lessons. Whether and how it deals with them is of far-reaching importance for the coming months.
First and foremost, the Gaza blockade and the flotilla affair are a metaphor for a much broader problem. From Hizbullah to Hamas, from southern Lebanon to the Gaza Strip, Israel has not found effective strategies for dealing with militant Islamist non-state actors operating from bases on its borders.
The economic warfare strategy expressed in the blockade has proven counterproductive; there are ways to prevent the entry of ordnance and strategic construction materials to Gaza without inflicting collective punishment on 1.5 million people, thereby strengthening Hamas.
Military operations have provided a measure of deterrence against rocket attacks but have generated the “Goldstone effect” with its devastating consequences for Israel’s international standing. Certainly no one in Israel wants to reoccupy the Strip — the only conceivable way of actually removing Hamas. Nor does holding all of Gaza hostage to the fate of a single Israeli soldier serve our needs. Maintaining these current failed strategies merely leaves Hamas with veto power, in the form of a few hundred or thousand rockets, over any peace process with the PLO that it doesn’t like.
Finding better ways to deal with Hamas and Hizbullah is not easy. But solutions will not be found until we acknowledge the failure of existing strategies. Since the economic warfare strategy — of which the flotilla affair is but one aspect — has involved a variety of international and regional partners (the Quartet, Egypt, even the PLO), they should be closely consulted regarding possible revisions. Better to do that immediately than to rebuff all demands for an international inquiry.
Then, too, the almost inevitable tragedy on board the Mavi Marmara is a metaphor for additional ticking-clock situations that are bound to explode in our faces if we don’t confront them in time. All of a sudden, everyone realizes that this was bound to happen and that the Gaza blockade should have been reassessed long ago. Where were they a week ago?
One such ticking-clock situation is our deteriorating status in American eyes: When Mossad Chief Meir Dagan tells the Knesset that Washington is beginning to look upon us as a strategic burden rather than an asset, he is sounding a warning. Is anyone listening? Another such situation is the projected political endgame to the Palestinian Authority’s state-building project: Will we really wait until August 2011, when the international community confronts us with the fait accompli of a recognized Palestinian state, before seeking ways to accommodate this direction of events?
Yet another important lesson concerns Turkey. Back in the days of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser and rampant Arab nationalism, Israel was allied with Turkey and Iran. The three non-Arab Middle East states shared common security concerns regarding Arab aims. Thirty years ago, Iran became an Islamist republic and abandoned the alliance.
Now Turkey has adopted a radically different approach that is giving it Islamist and regional-power status and expanding its relations with nearly everyone but Israel. While Israel, Iran, and Turkey remain the strongest states in the region — not the least due to Arab state dysfunctionality and the rise of militant non-state Islam — Israel is now the odd man out. With a little ingenuity and less hand-wringing over the “loss” of Turkey and the ugly rhetoric of Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan, we could exploit Ankara’s new status to our advantage. Recall how then-PM Ehud Olmert embraced Ankara’s offer to mediate between Israel and Syria in 2008, with positive results, however temporary.
The world’s reaction to the bloody outcome of Israel’s attempt to intercept the Gaza flotilla last week is generally understood by the right-wing government in Jerusalem as reflecting anti-Israel and even anti-Semitic prejudices so deeply embedded as to defy rational argument. This in turn seemingly justifies raising the ramparts of fortress Israel even higher, in a kind of paranoid vicious circle of isolation.
Undoubtedly, in some parts of the world, Israel can now truly “do no right”; I was struck last week during a visit to a European capital how easily some observers were convinced that Israel’s naval commandos carried out a premeditated slaughter of innocent peace activists despite the overwhelming visual evidence to the contrary and the open admission by Israel’s military chiefs that they had operated on the basis of faulty intelligence.
Yet it’s pointless to blame anyone but ourselves for the mess. We will indeed have to use force in the future to defend ourselves against genuine threats; we cannot let the flotilla fiasco deter us, but we’d better be aware where this will take us.
In parallel, we need a leadership that is not afraid to reassess the most basic strategies and assumptions regarding Hamas in Gaza. Sadly, I doubt the Netanyahu government has the political motivation or resources to do this.