Israel’s blunder

31 May 2010

This post is a continuation of the previous post Gaza aid ships and tries to see how this action may fit into the larger pictures. I have chosen ‘blunder’ in the title, since Israel really seems to have done much more damage to its interests than it had anticipated.

Storming the aid ships in international waters was a tactical blunder, and mainly because it was carried out badly. But it also raises more important and pressing questions as to why this action took place in the first place. Was it so urgent? Was it absolutely necessary? So far, it’s difficult to ascertain whether this course of action was truly needed. Did these ships really threaten Israel? A convincing case is yet to be made. There are conflicting reports about whether the crew were armed or not, but leaving so many dead points to a failure on the part of the troops to manage the situation. Had the troops taken control of the ships without any deaths, it would have still attracted much condemnation and negative press, but the reactions would not have been as strong as they currently are. The fact that there were many casualties suggests that this was badly planned or that the command did not have proper intelligence and information.

Even more ominous for Israel is the diplomatic fall-out from this incident. This was a strategical blunder, that can hurt Israel for many years to come. Not only because of the strained relations with the US, but Israel’s actions have damaged its ties with other crucial states in the region.

As I have argued before in a post titled Turkey at crossroads, the West and Israel have taken Turkey for granted, for too long. There have been some noticeable shifts in Turkish attitudes towards the West and its place in the world. There were many Turkish nationals on board the flotilla, and this fact will not help the relationship between Turkey and Israel. Turkey is a democracy, and people will be upset and angry about what happened to the Turks on the ships. Popular opinion counts, and it will reflect in government policies.

If Turkey is one stabilizing power in the region, another country that plays a similar role is Egypt. The Gaza blockade, which will be discussed below, depends on Egyptian co-operation. Egypt too is going through transformation, and the presidential election takes place next year, so there may be more volatility, and Egypt’s relationship with Israel could become a matter of debate. If Egypt were to open the Gaza crossing, then Israel’s blockade policy will come to nought.

This incident also casts doubt on Israel’s strategy of containing Hamas in Gaza Strip through a blockade, and its long term security.

Blocking Gaza has not achieved much in removing Hamas from power. There is no sign that Hamas’s popularity or their grip on power is weakening. It’s probably to the contrary. Most people blame outsiders for their woes, and tighter the blockade, more unpopular Israel becomes, not Hamas. Whether it can continue without appreciable (from Israeli perspective) results remains to be seen. It can be argued that Israel somehow managed to corner itself: if it were to lift the blockade without removing Hamas, it will be seen as a victory for Hamas, but if it continues, there will be more protests that will put Israel in a bad light.

The longer term Israeli strategy remains unclear. Without a political solution in the Middle East, Israel will become more and more vulnerable to attacks, because military hardware will improve: the rockets will become lighter, deadlier, more mobile and longer in range (see Middle East Israel’s long-term strategy?). Israel will not be able to attack and defend as it currently does.

This incident on its own may change little in the grand scheme of things, except to harden the views against Israel among those who are already critical towards it. It was a high-risk operation, and the potential diplomatic difficulties must have been within the realm of predictable, but Israel decided to carry it out. And carried it out badly. It was wrong. It was a wrong decision. It did not make sense. It’s difficult to understand or justify why this operation was carried out in a manner and the place it did.

The reverberations from this incident will be felt for some time, and that does not bode well for all concerned.