Saturday, June 5, 2010

Flotilla: Symbols as against the Real World


Operation Make the World Hate Us

The assault on the 'Mavi Marmara' was wrong, and a gift to Israel's enemies.

Leon Wieseltier

June 3, 2010 | 11:16 am
.Israel does not need enemies: it has itself. Or more precisely: it has its government. The Netanyahu-Barak government has somehow found a way to lose the moral high ground, the all-important war for symbols and meanings, to Hamas. That is quite an accomplishment. Operation Make the World Hate Us, it might have been called.

I leave it to others to make the operational criticisms of the Israeli action, and will say only that even my amateurish understanding of the tactical challenge posed by the interdiction of the boats suffices to suggest that there were other ways to do this. I also will not pretend to a perfect grasp of what happened on board the Mavi Marmara. I have pondered the videos that both sides have released, and concluded that the Israeli soldiers sliding down that rope had no intention of attacking the people on board and that the people on board had no way of being confident of this. I cannot expect Palestinians and their supporters to believe the best about the Israeli army. (This is what Israeli hardliners call “the restoration of deterrence.”) I do not doubt that some of the activists on the ship welcomed a confrontation with Israel, but the Israelis should not have obliged them. In any event, what took place on that deck looks to me like a tragic misunderstanding. Yet there was no reason to think that anything else would have transpired.

The important point is that the killing of civilians on the Mavi Marmara—I understand that they were “armed” with metal bars and a knife, but still they were civilians, and soldiers are trained to respond unlethally to the recklessness of a mob—cannot be extenuated by reference to “asymmetrical warfare” and Israel’s right to defend itself. This was not warfare, at least of the physical sort. Israel was not under attack. A headline in The Washington Post yesterday reported that “Israel says Free Gaza Movement poses threat to Jewish state.” Such a claim is absurd. It is true that the movement has grown in recent years, and is now troublesome to Israel’s policy in Gaza; and it is also true that the Turkish charity that sponsored the “Freedom Flotilla” has ties to Islamicist groups. But this is hardly what Israel likes to call, in the Iranian context, and there quite plausibly, an “existential threat.” The extension of the definition of a security threat to include hostile activities that have little or no bearing upon security is an ominous development.

It is also the inevitable consequence of Benjamin Netanyahu’s cunning pronouncement last year that Israel is now endangered by “the Iran threat, the missile threat, and the threat I call the Goldstone threat.” The equivalence was morally misleading, and therefore dangerous. Ideological warfare is not military warfare. I have studied the entirety of the Goldstone Report, and whereas I do not doubt (and wrote in this magazine in the days before Goldstone) that Operation Cast Lead caused the unjustifiable death of non-combatants, I also do not doubt that the Goldstone Report, which was nastily indifferent to Israel’s security predicament and to the ethical challenges of Israeli self-defense, was an instrument in a broad campaign of delegitimation against Israel—and yet the threat of delegitimation is not like the threat of destruction. It is different in kind. A commando operation is not an appropriate response to an idea. “This was no Love Boat,” Netanyahu said yesterday. “It was a hate boat.” He is right, but so what? The threat of delegitimation is not a military problem and it does not have a military solution. And the attempt to give it a military solution has now had the awful consequence of making the threat still greater. The assault on the Mavi Marmara was a stupid gift to the delegitimators.

You do not have to be a general to grasp these distinctions. In fact, judging by Israel’s recent history, it might help not to be one. But the militarization of the Israeli government’s understanding of Israel’s situation—this has been the most sterile period for diplomacy in all of Israel’s history—is not all that led to the debacle at sea. Rules of military engagement that allow soldiers to fire on political activists (I leave aside the question of their humanitarianism for a moment) may signify something still deeper and even more troubling. It is hard not to conclude from this Israeli action, and also from other Israeli actions in recent years, that the Israeli leadership simply does not care any longer about what anybody thinks. It does not seem to care about what even the United States—its only real friend, even in the choppy era of Obama—thinks. This is not defiance, it is despair. The Israeli leadership seems to have given up any expectation of fairness and sympathy from the world. It is behaving as if it believes, in the manner of the most perilous Jewish pessimism, that the whole world hates the Jews, and that is all there is to it. This is the very opposite of the measured and empirical attitude, the search for strategic opportunity, the enlistment of imagination in the service of ideals and interests, that is required for statecraft.

The complication—the one that deprives anybody who acknowledges it of membership in any of the gangs of commentary—is that there is a partial basis in the actually existing world for a degree of Israeli pessimism. There are leaders, states, organizations, and peoples whose hostility to the Jewish state is irrational and absolute and in some cases murderous. Things are said critically about Israel that wildly burst the bounds of thoughtful criticism. The language in which Israel is described by some governments and international organizations is lurid and grotesque and foul. Anti-Semitic tropes—the conspiracy theory about the Jews, most conspicuously—are regularly encountered in otherwise respectable places. The analysis of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that absolves the Palestinians of any significant role in it is widespread. I do not see how any of this can be denied, or shunted aside, or explained entirely in terms of Israeli behavior. But it is emphatically not the whole picture, except for those Israelis and Jews whose political interests and ideological inclinations prefer it to be the whole picture. For there are forces in Israel, and in its government, that have a use for Jewish hopelessness.

There is a verse in Numbers that Jewish pessimists like to cite: “the people shall dwell alone, and not be reckoned among the nations.” It is Balaam’s divinely inspired description of the Israelites—Balaam, who came to curse and stayed to bless. But I have always regarded it as a curse, this promise of loneliness. I have heard it intoned lachrymosely and proudly—in our time Jewish pride has a disturbingly parasitic relationship with Jewish lachrymosity—all my life. It chills me to the bone. It is a locution for prophets, not prime ministers. The Jews cannot dwell alone. In fact, their history shows that they never did dwell alone. It is not a tale of insularity and isolation. The apartness of the Jews was never a complete secession from their environment. The engagement of the Jews with the world was a matter not only of practical necessity, but also of theological conviction. And not even the darkest and most dire adversity succeeded in driving them entirely into themselves.

When, in the modern era, the Zionists concluded, quite correctly, that the Jews must extract themselves from anti-Semitic societies and establish a society of their own, a sovereign one, in the land of Israel, it was in part to “normalize” them by making them “reckoned among the nations,” and therefore like other nations. Zionism was a reversal of Balaam’s phony blessing. The state was not supposed to be a bunker, even if it had enemies. But Netanyahu is a creature of the bunker. He talks about peace, but not like a man who hungers for it. He takes no steps toward peace except as the consequence of a crisis—a crisis not with the Palestinians but with the Americans. He liturgically intones his warnings, some of them true, about the external dangers facing Israel, and mistakes brutishness for toughness, and offers nothing. He is a gray, muddling, reactive figure. His preferred strategy for his country is: one quiet week after another unto eternity. His problem is that there are not many quiet weeks.

But about those activists: a great deal of bathetic rubbish has been written about them. Insofar as they were bringing food and medicine to Gaza, they were humanitarians; but insofar as they were striking a blow for the government of Gaza, they were anti-humanitarians. A real “Freedom Flotilla” would have sailed for Gaza to liberate it from its rulers. For Hamas stifles Gaza from within even as Israel stifles it from without. It oppresses the Palestininans who live under its sway and has brought them ruin. When did it become progressive to support a theocracy? Consider the case of Henning Mankell, the Swedish writer of thrillers (and the son-in-law of Ingmar Bergman) who was a passenger on one of the boats in the “Freedom Flotilla.” In his youth he took part in anti-Vietnam and anti-apartheid demonstrations, presumably in the spirit of secular reason. For a while he lived in Norway and participated in the activities of a radical Maoist party: let us call that secular unreason. Now he does the work of Hamas and its mullahs. Last year Mankell attended the Palestine Festival of Literature in east Jerusalem—or would have attended it, if the Israeli authorities had not idiotically closed it down. When he returned to Sweden, he wrote that “there is a straight line between Soweto, Sharpeville, and what recently happened [I presume he was referring to the war] in Gaza.” And: “Is it strange that some [Palestinians] in pure desperation, when they cannot see any other way out, decide to become suicide bombers? Not really. Maybe it is strange that there are not more of them.” And: “The state of Israel in its current form has no future. Moreover, those who advocate a two-state solution have not got it right. … The question is whether it will be possible to talk sense into the Israelis in order for them to willingly accept the end of their own apartheid state.” This man has rights, at sea and on land, but he can hardly be lauded as a champion of peace and reconciliation. You are not for co-existence if you advocate the disappearance of one of the terms. (Consider, analogously, the recent adventures of Noam Chomsky in the region. It was widely noted that the Israelis, again idiotically, turned him away at the Allenby Bridge. It was less widely noted that a few days later a reporter for The New York Times accidentally discovered him in Lebanon at the home of Nabil Qaouk, the deputy head of Hezbollah, which is not what Voltaire had in mind.)

And yet the screw must be turned again: the anti-Israeli virulence of Henning Mankell and his maritime comrades does not make Israel’s assault on the Mavi Marmara more just or more wise. Now the Israeli government may find it impossible not to modify or even to lift the blockade of Gaza—an outcome that no decent person can decry, as long as Hamas does not exploit the respite to acquire weapons or what it needs to make them, and the past is not encouraging in this regard. Netanyahu will do what he can to get past the mess, hoping that the approach of the midterm elections in the United States will rescue him from the pressure, and the deadening hand of the status quo will be back. And Israel will be known to more and more people—in a wounding misrepresentation—mainly for cruelty.


A central part of Wieseltier’s argument is that Israel’s interdiction, gone terribly badly, exemplifies its currently incompetent politics under Netanyahu, which incompetence feeds the world’s hatred of Israel, based as that politics is--according to Wieseltier—on the overly binary, virtual conclusion “…that the whole world hates the Jews, and that is all there is to it.”

So, incompetent leadership, instanced by the interdiction, fails to make necessary distinctions amongst existential threats, the Free Gaza Movement, delegitimation, and the “Goldstone threat”. Wieseltier’s version of Israeli political reasoning appears to be: perilous Jewish pessimism washes away the need to discriminate amongst different kinds of threats and that, therefore, starting from this premise of perilousness, all threats are part of the same seamless anti Israeli whole:

“This was no Love Boat,” Netanyahu said yesterday. “It was a hate boat.” He is right, but so what? The threat of delegitimation is not a military problem and it does not have a military solution. And the attempt to give it a military solution has now had the awful consequence of making the threat still greater. The assault on the Mavi Marmara was a stupid gift to the delegitimators.”

A big problem with this argument—the argument that there are specific and different trees in the anti Israeli forest— as instanced at least by the interdiction is the inclination not to see the forest, for all its admittedly very different trees. Seeing the forest as context, Israel’s interdiction makes sense and Wieseltier’s tree-bound parsing does not. To try to test what I suggest, I’ll deal with a big brunt of Wieseltier’s argument as built out of the points he makes in his second and third paragraphs, which form the core of his argument from interdiction, and which he then expands outwards. In those paragraphs he says the following:

1. while the young Israeli soldiers intended no mayhem, those on board the Mavi Marmara had no expectation of that non-intention. Rather, they likely expected mayhem, even as the “activists” on board welcomed a confrontation;

2. and even though the “activists” welcomed a confrontation, Israel should not have obliged them;

3. what eventuated was a “tragic misunderstanding”; and its happening was inevitable;

4. beyond this inevitable tragic outcome, the “important point” is the civilian dead, albeit “‘armed’ with metal bars and a knife”;

5. neither self defence—neither Israel’s nor the young soldiers’—nor assymetricality can accommodate any justification for these dead civilians. After all, “This was not warfare, at least of the physical sort”;

6. the proposition that the Free Gaza Movement imperils Israel is absurd, even as it’s troublesome; and it is not what Israel likes to refer to as an existential threat; and, coup de grace,

7. “The extension of the definition of a security threat to include hostile activities that have little or no bearing upon security is an ominous development.”

But how do these points and the overarching argument that emerges from them stand up in context?

That context is this: Israel is at war with an Iranian backed Hamas, an Islamist group bent on Israel’s destruction; when Israel left Gaza and Gaza was under Fatah’s governance, such as it was, it employed no embargo; but after Hamas violently and murderously wrested control of Gaza from Fatah, it embarked on bombing and rocketing Israel, limited, in large part, by the limits of its weaponry; Israel then took steps to protect its citizenry, Jew and Arab alike, including the embargo to staunch the inflow of war materials, as did Egypt, with the embargo being legal under international law; to be functional the embargo at a minimum entails inspecting shipments and extracting war materials and then letting through non war materials; the Free Gaza Movement has no concern for the security threat to Israel, which the broken embargo makes real; and, so, with some succor from Turkey and operationally driven by a jihadist organization with ties to al-Qaeda, and with some useful idiots on board, the Mavi Marmara became the vessel with which either to break the embargo or, hopefully, die trying; Israeli attempts to forestall the sailing, and then its pleas, warnings, offers after inspection to deliver any humanitarian cargo, and threats fell on purposefully deaf ears as the jihadis had a twofold purpose, to which the delivery of humanitarian goods was sheer pretext:

1. run the embargo and thereby help lay a foundation for breaking it by breaking Israeli resolve; and / or

2. foment an incident leading to “civilian death”, world condemnation and increased international pressure, more Goldstoneism, and finally the imposition of terms on Israel in tandem with the intensification of its status as a pariah among nations.

Given this context, what do Wieseltier’s paragraphs two and three points, and the argument they raise, come to?

Following my numbering of Wieseltier’s points I say against them:

1. Those driving the embargo breaking operation calculated the young Israeli soldiers’ reaction to an attack on them of unexpected ferocity. The real point here is the opposite of Wieseltier’s. The jihadis baited the young soldiers’ reaction in expectation of it. It was the soldiers, armed with paint guns, and their command, who did not expect the ferocity of the attack. (The deaths of any useful idiots on board form another issue. But they put themselves in harm’s way by accompanying, and trying to facilitate, the war like act of breaking the embargo. And here again, as in Cast Lead, jihad was only too ready to use civilian shields and deaths for its own strategic and tactical purposes.)

2(a) The notion that Israel shouldn’t have obliged the “activists” is pious coming from a secluded literary editor with nothing more threatening him than the D.C. traffic, the occasional scuffle with Andrew Sullivan and other like perils. The corollary to the bromide of Wieseltier’s prescription was the maiming and death of Israel’s young soldiers and Israel's display of feckless weakness, both sacrifices on the altar of Wieseltier’s acontextual abstraction. On board, things were real, even without Andrew Sullivan. Without any fighting back, the “activists” and the “civilians”—about who, the “civilians”, more soon—would have maimed and murdered to any extent possible.

2(b) If by non-obliging, Wieseltier means the initial higher command decision to interdict in the first place, what would the consequences of not-obliging have been: allowing the ship to break the embargo with impunity; creating a kind of template for the further breaking of it; rendering the embargo dysfunctional; the unimpeded inflow of war material; the consequences of that for Israeli citizens, Jew and Arab alike; Hamas enabled to do its relatively unencumbered will?

3. So, stipulating for argument’s sake the operational failures of the interdiction, the locution “tragic misunderstanding” is precious. Putting to the analytical side the tragedy of the loss of life as a necessary condition of war, “tragic misunderstanding” as formulated here by Wieseltier isn’t only precious, it has the vice of smuggling in an implicit and inapposite moral equivalence, a tragedy of misunderstanding on both sides.

But against that implicit moral equivalence, there is in this incident, misunderstandings granted, a clear immoral hierarchy and an equally clear moral hierarchy. Those clarities ought not to be occluded. Paramount evil resided in the jihadist driven project only too willing to lay life—Israeli and Jihadist and “armed” civilian—to waste in furtherance of its ends. Morally, in context, Israel has nothing for which to apologize, whatever mistakes it operationally made. The leap from those mistakes to the railing against the justice and wisdom of the interdiction and the included issue of the young Israeli soldiers defending themselves against maiming and death, granting even possibly some disproportion in the immediate circumstances, trashes context and makes no case. The intended interdiction and included self defence were neither, to invert Wiesletier, unjust or unwise.

4. It is hard to understand both Wieseltier’s notion of civilians “‘armed’ with metal bars and a knife” and their deaths being the “important point”. The important point, I argue, is, rather, to understand how context informs where to draw the moral lines here. With those drawn lines understood, then one can go forward to deal with Wieseltier’s concern over “Operation Make the World Hate Us.” As to the "'armed' civilians”: not only are their deaths not the “important point”, but, more, I feel Wieseltier is uncharacteristically disingenuous in under describing them to argue his bad thesis for at least two reasons:

1. so armed, and with maiming and killing on their minds, these "civilians" lost their civilianality and became part of the machinery of a war like effort to break the embargo; and

2. more generally, Wieseltier makes a hash of any meaningful distinction between fighters and non fighters by assimilating these armed to civilians.

5. So, in precise antithesis to Wieseltier, in context, self defence—which is to say the young soldiers’ and Israel’s too—and asymmetricality provide an understanding of the deaths of those armed who attacked. The battle on board was, in context, warfare, or, at least, akin to warfare. And young Israeli soldiers being beaten, stabbed, thrown overboard, and shot at comes within my definition of “the physical sort.”

6. Acts furthering the Free Gaza Movement are not in themselves, obviously, existential threats to Israel. But, in context, they are more than “troublesome”. In context, these acts carry within them the seeds of breaking the embargo, allowing, I repeat, thereby the inflow of war material to Hamas who will use same to kill Israelis, Jews and Arabs alike. Interdiction was a proportionate response to the unrelenting determination of the Jihadists to run the embargo, for as wrong as the interdiction may have gone. Any possible stepping, by the young Israeli soldiers, over the line of proportionality is understandable in the circumstances and was done in pursuit of a lawful objective.

7. Finally, Wieseltier is just flat wrong when he concludes that the interdiction was not undertaken in relation to a threat to Israel’s security. In context, the attempt at running the Mavi Marmara through the embargo was nothing but. It may be that not seeing that, as Wieseltier does not, is an ominous development

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