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Israel & Gaza Flotilla: First Thoughts

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Israel's forceful interdiction of a humanitarian aid flotilla destined for the Gaza Strip has understandably provoked shock and outrage. Part of the shock reflects a global audience's difficulty comprehending how the Israeli government blundered headlong into an obvious and avoidable trap. I would argue that the shock is misplaced, since the incident is ultimately consistent with Israel's recent behavior at least since the Lebanon War of 2006, which has very obviously prioritized the operational advantage conferred by liberty of action over the political costs exacted by international isolation. Dan Drezner goes so far as to compare Israel's diplomatic isolation to that of North Korea. Though I don't think it stands up under scrutiny, the fact that such a comparison can even be made seriously underscores just how tragically misguided Israel's policy is.

A few other points seem noteworthy, but I'll preface them by saying that they are not meant to mitigate the moral and political arguments against the Israeli action. First, with regard to the legality of such an assault in international waters, Galrahn at Information Dissemination suggests that in fact maritime blockades can legally be enforced in international waters, especially when the limits of the blockade are announced, as was the case here.

Second, the attention being given to the Turkey angle is often leaving out the important ways in which the Gaza issue is serving Turkish political interests, both domestically and internationally. (Thanks to Yigal Schleifer for the link.) On both ends, this was a manufactured and avoidable crisis, and one that, as Greg Scoblete points out, has ended up serving everyone's intended purpose.

Third, the assault has once again proven to be an unqualified disaster in terms of the Israeli armed forces' operational reputation. This creates a vicious circle with regard to the emphasis on liberty of action, since the IDF's deterrence is no longer based on its Entebbe-era veneer of Mission Impossible-like efficiency, but rather on the knowledge that the Israeli government is willing to use overwhelming and disproportionate force against all provocations, regardless of their threat level.

Finally, I've argued for the past year that the biggest error the Obama administration made in its Middle East policy was to make the settlement issue, and not the Gaza humanitarian issue, its opening demand of the Israeli government in the Israel-Palestine peace track. Opening Gaza, regardless of the security risk, would have paid symbolic dividends throughout the region, nurtured a Turkish-Israeli rapprochement, and caused fewer problems in terms of Netanyahu's coalition. This incident alone doesn't necessarily prove that argument, but it lends it a lot of weight.