Monday, June 27, 2011

Israel's Flotilla Emergency

A second Gaza flotilla is expected to set sail for Gaza in the next few days. The ship will attempt to violate the Israeli-imposed naval blockade of the Gaza strip, as its predecessor did last May.

To prepare for the raid, Israel has been issuing a combination of diplomatic pleas and threats. An Israeli group called Shurat haDin submitted a complaint to Greek authorities alleging the boats to be used in the flotilla were not seaworthy. The Israeli government has been pressuring the international community to prevent the flotilla from setting sail. The government also threatened journalists who rode with the flotilla with being banned from Israel for 10 years. The threat was later retracted at the request of the Prime Minister. Finally, the government is claiming that passengers have hidden sulfur aboard the ship, which could be used against Israeli soldiers.

The diplomatic efforts have had some success. The IHH, which sent a number of its members on the last flotilla, pulled out of this year's foray at the request of the Turkish government which has slowly been mending ties with Israel in the wake of last year's incident. Israel is at a disadvantage diplomatically, however, as a result of its foreign policy under the current administration which has exacerbated Israel's diplomatic isolation.

For Israel, the current situation is no-win. Gaza is a hot-button issue which draws universal resentment from the Arab world. Arabs see the Israeli blockade on Gaza as symbolic of Israel's overall treatment of Palestinians, and the West's relationship with the Arab world more generally. Any action taken by the IDF to preserve the blockade will be met with contempt. Even if the flotilla is stopped peacefully and without a single shot being fired or single person being injured, the Arab world will express righteous indignation. This anger will be exacerbated if Israel uses deadly force, regardless of who is responsible for the initial escalation. Unfair, to be sure, but also the state of play in 2011.

This complex political environment in which the IDF is being asked to operate is sub-optimal and reflects a concerning lack of governmental foresight. In the wake of two major Syrian border protests and a Palestinian bid for statehood, any situation which exacerbates Palestinian anger is gunpowder in a gas tank for Israel's control of the status quo. The government's reactive and reactionary security policy has created the environment for the political emergencies Israel faces at the UN come September, and now on the Gaza shoreline.

It is not solely the government's fault that each crisis arose. But instead of attempting to shape a less hostile political environment to bolster Israel's long-term security, the government chose reactionary policies with a complete lack of foresight for their long-term political consequences. The bottom line is this: after 63 years, the fact that political crises happen in the Middle East should no longer catch the Israeli government off guard.

Furthermore, in the current emergency, the IDF's job is to maintain order, not to serve as a political shield for current Israeli government. It cannot be blamed for allowing its soldiers to use force to defend themselves if they are violently attacked. If the use of such force will reflect negatively on Israel, it is the responsibility of the government to preempt and control the damage, and not to buck-pass the costs by launching an inquiry into the IDF's conduct or blaming delegitimization for the reaction of the global public, as it did the last time around.

Israel's best strategy against the flotilla is not military but political. To cut its losses from the flotilla, Israel needs to delegitimize it's rationale. Loosening tight and often arbitrary restrictions on goods going into Gaza would be an easy way to preemptively undermine the flotilla and make it look like a group of attention-hungry activists rather than freedom fighters. It would also have a negligible security impact on Israel to remove, for example, restrictions on strawberries or tomatoes. Some may spin such policy shifts as concessions. But this flotilla is not likely to be the last regardless of the steps Israel takes. The sooner the government can undercut a political environment which motivates flotillas and risks setting a Palestinian resistance (non-violent or otherwise) in motion, the better for Israel's security.

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