Aid Ships and the Future of Israel
The last two weeks have proven that foreign aid is a potent political symbol. Ships carrying food and other supplies to Palestinians in Hamas-controlled Gaza have become more of a problem for Israel than any recent Palestinian military force. The aid ships appear benevolent, they carry human goods and international do-gooders. Israel`s efforts to survey cargo, as part of its military blockade of Gaza, appear heavy-handed. Attacks on Israeli soldiers doing this surveillance work look innocuous, or even legitimate. Israeli retaliation seems terribly out of proportion, at least at first glance.
Visiting Europe, I have watched citizens and politicians of all stripes re-tell this same story. The Israelis are the brutal Goliath, the aid workers are the idealistic humanitarians victimized by Jewish fanaticism. European newspapers and television shows convey that same simplistic message. That is what so many reasonable and intelligent people believe. It is not accurate, but that does not matter. Israel`s efforts to isolate Hamas, deter rocket attacks, and interdict military materials flowing into Gaza – all acts with some claim to legitimacy – have, in fact, isolated Israel more than ever before. To make matters worse, Israel must now oppose an international investigation of recent events for fear of biased reporting by any panel of “experts” assembled from the United Nations, the European Union, or another international body.
It is time for Israeli leaders to stop arguing about the reasons and the legitimacy of their actions. No one is listening any more. Right and wrong do not matter in such a conflict-infested context. Instead of defiance, belligerence, and isolation, Israel would be best served if it called the bluffs of its critics. Give the critics some of what they want: Show that Israel will make deals. Seize the peace agenda for Israel, not its enemies.
What does this mean in practice:
1. Israel should lift its blockade and allow open trade with Gaza. Call upon international observers from the UN and the EU to monitor against weapons shipments. Make it clear that Israel will react strongly if violence from Gaza increases.
2. Israel should recognize Hamas as the most legitimate and popular party representing the Palestinian people. Israel should also offer to talk with Hamas. Why not? Is Hamas worse than the PLO was in the years before Camp David? Give Hamas and its international advocates a reason to support peace, and hold them accountable if they do not reciprocate. That will put the onus on Hamas for a change.
3. Stop the new settlements. Israel could make a strong gesture of goodwill if it ceased all new settlement construction in occupied territories. To begin with, these settlements are counter-productive for Israeli security. They create forward positions that are difficult to defend. They also fund the most extreme, hateful, and unrepresentative elements of Israeli society. Stopping the settlements would serve Israel´s national interests, and it would show a commitment to live with its neighbors. It would also generate strong international pressure for Hamas and its international supporters to reciprocate with a significant peace gesture.
The tragic events and hyperbolic media coverage of the last few weeks have turned the world against Israel in ways that threaten the Jewish state more than any single enemy. Israel must reverse this tide of world opinion if it is going to survive. Israel needs to seize the high ground, from a position of strength that will not last much longer, and turn tragedy to opportunity. That is the true test of patriotism and statesmanship. That is the tradition of Israel, from Chaim Weizmann to Yitzhak Rabin.
It is also the tradition of the United States. As Israel`s closest friend, the United States must encourage its ally to take the diplomatic high ground and avoid irreparable descent into depths of international resentment and hostility. If Washington does not help Jerusalem to shift direction, American public support for Israel might also be in jeopardy. No one wants to defend commandoes enforcing a blockade against an occupied people. Again, this is not a question of right or wrong. This is a question of international perception, and perceptions make reality, especially in the Middle East.
The opinions expressed in this blog are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of either Global Brief or the Glendon School of Public and International Affairs.