A few simple steps for Israel to win back friends (measured in decades)

Note yesterday’s editorial in Murdoch’s Australian broadsheet. Defensive, seemingly pained that the beloved Israel had acted so brazenly and less defiant as usual. Next step, backing a targeted boycott campaign (ok, I can dream):

The Jewish state must reassure the world it wants peace

In boarding vessels intent on breaking the Gaza blockade the Israeli military has done the Jewish state a great deal of harm. Hamas, the terrorist organisation that controls Gaza, cannot hope to destroy Israel by military means. But by isolating Israel diplomatically it can weaken its ability to defend its interests everywhere from the UN General Assembly to the Gaza border and there is no doubting this morning Israel has fewer friends than it did two days ago.

Israel’s motivation is easy to understand – the flotilla was testing Israeli resolve to ensure the seas did not become a supply route for rockets to be fired at them from Gaza. So is the reason why the Israelis opened fire when they boarded the biggest vessel, their advance party was attacked by friends of Hamas spoiling for a fight. But Israeli explanations are being drowned out by condemnation from Hamas and its allies, a chorus that will be joined by people all over the world who buy the lie Israel is always the aggressor. There are at least nine reasons why – the number of people who died in the fracas. Like Bloody Sunday in Londonderry in 1972, when British paratroopers fired on demonstrators, killing 13, these deaths will be what is remembered, not the way the Israelis offered to accept supplies for Gaza in one of its ports, or any errors of judgment or mitigating circumstances that may be revealed by the inevitable inquiry.

Understandably so. The fact Israel has been in a fight to survive throughout its entire history does not exonerate its officers in the deaths of people who would be alive but for poor planning. Certainly, the five smaller vessels in the flotilla were stormed without strife. But what did the Israelis expect would happen when they boarded a vessel carrying 600 people, including some keen on a confrontation? It appears senior officers involved did not anticipate resistance and deployed too few men, ill-equipped to contain a mob without using deadly force. For a nation whose police and armed forces have decades of experience in containing riots with minimal casualties, this is a failing as unnecessary as it is unacceptable. All military establishments become complacent and make mistakes and the Israelis are no exception, demonstrated by the 2006 incursion into southern Lebanon which was slow to start and lacked clear objectives. And now the Israelis have again demonstrated an inability to manage the new ways of war where terrorists, not troops, are used. It is a long time since Israel’s classic battle victories of 1967 and 1973.

But while military failings are alarming, the real worry for its friends is the way Israel’s government either does not understand or, more alarmingly, no longer cares what the world thinks of it. This year Israel has committed three unforced errors that have made it look arrogant and uninterested in its image. In January, assassins, all but universally agreed to be Israeli agents, killed senior Hamas operative Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai. Nobody outside the terror organisation and its Iranian paymasters mourned Mabhouh. But countries were enraged that the hit squad used forged passports, including some in the names of Australians. In March, Israel announced a new housing development in Jerusalem, on land the Palestinian Authority claims, during a visit by US Vice-President Joe Biden. Mr Biden, who was trying to kick-start talks with the Palestinians, was furious. And now people are dead in a fight that could have been avoided.

Israel’s right to defend itself against terrorists is beyond doubt. But this does not exempt it from continually making its case to the world or mean it need not do everything it can to demonstrate it is the only state in the Middle East governed by democracy and the rule of law. There are all sorts of reasons why Israel seems uninterested in making the effort. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is in coalition with nationalists who are hard to control. Many Israelis are tired of talks that go nowhere and prefer to put their faith in the military. But Israel must remember that it had the sympathy of the Western world when it carried, and occasionally used, a very big stick but always talked of peace and made concessions to secure it. As recently as 2006, retired general and then prime minister Ariel Sharon unilaterally evacuated Gaza. But now Israel is looking like an aggressor. After losing the shooting war, Hamas, which is committed to destroying the Jewish state, is incongruously winning the struggle for sympathy. And Israel is losing support even in social-democratic countries that traditionally supported it. Israel needs to win back their support – its security requires more than military might.

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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