Israel’s latest
brutal blunder

Stephen M. Walt
Foreign Policy
May 31, 2010

By now you’ll all have heard about the IDF’s unwarranted attack on the Gaza
Freedom Flotilla, a fleet of six civilian vessels that was attempting to
bring humanitarian aid (i.e., medicines, food, and building materials) to
Gaza. The population of Gaza has been under a crippling Israeli siege since
2006. Israel imposed the blockade after Gaza’s voters had the temerity to
prefer Hamas in a free election held at the insistence of the Bush
administration, which then refused to recognize the new government because
it didn’t like the results.

Late Sunday night, IDF naval forces and commandos attacked one of the
unarmed ships in international waters, killing at least ten of the peace
activists and injuring many more. IDF spokesman claim that the use of force
was justified because the passengers resisted Israel’s efforts to board and
commandeer the ship. Other Israeli officials have sought to portray the
activists, whose ranks included citizens from fifty countries, a Nobel Peace
Prize winner, a former U.S. ambassador, and an elderly Holocaust survivor,
as terrorist sympathizers with ties to Hamas and even al Qaeda.

My first question when I heard the news was: “What could Israel’s leaders
have been thinking?” How could they possibly believe that a deadly assault
against a humanitarian mission in international waters would play to their
advantage? Israel’s government and its hard-line supporters frequently
complain about alleged efforts to “delegitimize” the country, but actions
like this are the real reason Israel’s standing around the world has
plummeted to such low levels.  This latest escapade is as bone-headed as the
2006 war in Lebanon (which killed over a thousand Lebanese and caused
billions of dollars worth of damage) or the 2008-2009 onslaught that killed
some 1300 Gazans, many of them innocent children. None of these actions
achieved its strategic objective; indeed, all of them are just more evidence
of the steady deterioration in Israel’s strategic thinking that we have
witnessed since 1967.

My second question is: “Will the Obama administration show some backbone
on this issue, and go beyond the usual mealy-mouthed statements that U.S.
presidents usually make when Israel acts foolishly and dangerously?”
President Obama likes to talk a lot about our wonderful American values,
and his shiny new National Security Strategy says “we must always seek to
uphold these values not just when it is easy, but when it is hard.”  The same
document also talks about a “rule-based international order,” and says
“America’s commitment to the rule of law is fundamental to our efforts to
build an international order that is capable of confronting the emerging
challenges of the 21st century.”

Well if that is true, here is an excellent opportunity for Obama to prove
that he means what he says. Attacking a humanitarian aid mission certainly
isn’t consistent with American values — even when that aid mission is
engaged in the provocative act of challenging a blockade — and doing so in
international waters is a direct violation of international law. Of course,
it would be politically difficult for the administration to take a
principled stand with midterm elections looming, but our values and
commitment to the rule of law aren’t worth much if a president will
sacrifice them just to win votes.

More importantly, this latest act of misguided belligerence poses a broader
threat to U.S. national interests. Because the United States provides Israel
with so much material aid and diplomatic protection, and because American
politicians from the president on down repeatedly refer to the “unbreakable
bonds” between the United States and Israel, people all over the world
naturally associate us with most, if not all, of Israel’s actions. Thus,
Israel doesn’t just tarnish its own image when it does something outlandish
like this; it makes the United States look bad, too. This incident will harm
our relations with other Middle Eastern countries, lend additional credence
to jihadi narratives about the “Zionist-Crusader alliance,” and complicate
efforts to deal with Iran. It will also cost us some moral standing with
other friends around the world, especially if we downplay it. This is just
more evidence, as if we needed any, that the special relationship with
Israel has become a net liability.

In short, unless the Obama administration demonstrates just how angry and
appalled it is by this foolish act, and unless the U.S. reaction has some
real teeth in it, other states will rightly see Washington as irretrievably weak
and hypocritical. And Obama’s Cairo speech — which was entitled “A New
Beginning” — will be guaranteed a prominent place in the Hall of Fame of
Empty Rhetoric.

How might the United States respond? We could start by denouncing Israel’s
action in plain English, without prevarication. We could help draft and push
through a Security Council resolution condemning Israel’s action and calling
for an international commission of inquiry to determine what happened. And
if American intelligence was monitoring the flotilla — and it should have
been — we should make any information we collected available to the
commission. We could also cancel or suspend elements of our military aid
package to Israel. And we could say loudly and clearly that the blockade of
Gaza is illegal, inhumane and counterproductive, and openly press Israel and
Egypt to lift it immediately.

But even strong measures like these won’t solve the underlying problem,
which is the conflict itself. I’ve learned not to expect much from this
administration when it comes to pushing the two sides toward a settlement,
as Obama talks a good game, but doesn’t follow through by putting meaningful
pressure on the two sides. This latest incident, however, might convince
Obama that he was right to put the Israeli-Palestinian issue on the front
burner when he took office, and wrong to cave into Netanyahu when the latter
dug in his heels last summer (2009) and again this past spring. The result
of those retreats was a waste of precious time, while the situation in the
Occupied Territories deteriorated.

Because time is rapidly running out on a two-state solution,* Obama should
seize this opportunity to explain to the American people why a different
approach is needed and why bringing this conflict to an end is a national
security priority for the United States. He should also explain why using
U.S. leverage on both sides is in Israel’s interest as well as America’s
interest. And he will need to bring some new people on board to help him do
this, because the team he’s been using has spent more than a year without
achieving anything. (If his economic team was this decisive, our economy
would still be spiraling into the abyss.) Getting the so-called “proximity
talks” restarted doesn’t count, because those discussions are a step
backwards from earlier face-to-face negotiations and because they are likely
to fail.

A third thought has to do with Israel itself, and especially its present
government. How are we supposed to think about a country that has nuclear
weapons, a superb army, an increasingly prosperous economy, and great
technological sophistication, yet keeps more than a million people under
siege in Gaza, denies political rights to millions more on the West Bank, is
committed to expanding settlements there, and whose leaders feel little
compunction about using deadly force not merely against well-armed enemies,
but also against innocent civilians and international peace activists, while
at the same time portraying itself as a blameless victim?   Something has
gone terribly wrong with the Zionist dream.

Fourth, this incident is a litmus test for the “pro-Israel” community here
in the United States.  One of the reasons why Israel keeps doing foolish
things like this is that it has been insulated from the consequences of
these actions by its hard-line sympathizers in the United States.  AIPAC
spokesmen are already bombarding journalists and pundits with emails
spinning the assault, and we can confidently expect other apologists to
prepare op-eds and blog posts defending Israel’s conduct as a principled act
of “self-defense.” And if the Obama administration tries to proceed in any
of the ways I’ve just suggested, it can count on fierce opposition from the
most influential organizations in the Israel lobby.

In this context Peter Beinart’s recent article in the New York Review of
Books is even more salient, especially his question:

The heads of AIPAC and the Presidents’ Conference should ask
themselves what Israel’s leaders would have to do or say to make
them scream “no.”  … If the line has not yet been crossed, where is
the line?”

Over the next few days, keep an eye on how politicians and pundits line up
on this issue. Which of them thinks that Israel “crossed a line” and
deserves criticism — and maybe even sanction — and which of them thinks
that what it did was entirely appropriate? Ironically, it is the former who
are Israel’s friends, because they are trying to save that country before it
is too late. It is the latter whose misguided zeal is leading Israel down the
road to further international isolation — and maybe even worse.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer Professor of International
Relations at Harvard University and co-author with John J. Mearsheimer of
The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy.
©2009 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive, LLC.