Column

06.14.12

Israel's Real Image Problem

Israel’s State Comptroller released a remarkably harsh report yesterday regarding the government’s handling of the 2010 aid flotilla to Gaza, and I have one question:

Is the issue the people who died – or the way Israel talked about the people who died?

Nine Turkish citizens were killed in the raid on the Mavi Marmara (five of them killed by shots to the head), and Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss doesn’t mince words about the government’s failure to deal properly with what it knew in advance could end in disaster: “The decision-making process was flawed,” he writes, “the discussions were hurried and superficial, the National Security Council was kept in the dark, and scenarios of extreme violence were ignored.” Furthermore:

Five days before the flotilla’s arrival, in the only meeting on the subject the seven-member forum of senior ministers held, [IDF Chief of Staff Gabi] Ashkenazi warned the ministers that a military takeover of the Mavi Marmara would lead to a violent confrontation.…"Let it be made clear. The people will confront us. I think it's an illusion to think that if 20 people descend onto a ship with 400 people aboard they will be met with applause. They will fight them," he added.

The entire report is 153 pages long and, Haaretz reports, “deals with both the government's performance in the Turkish flotilla incident and with the application of the National Security Council Law, as well as Israel's national propaganda apparatus.”

“The Foreign Ministry is struggling to act properly in the realm of public relations due to the wide gap between what is required of it and the ministry’s limited abilities,” Lindenstrauss wrote in the report, adding that “Public relations have never been more important due to ever-growing media-related challenges.”

...Lindenstrauss also criticized the fact that officers in uniform spoke to the press during the event. “The appearance of the IDF Spokesperson and his representatives in uniform while speaking to the media may cause the international community, which does not differentiate between state spokespeople and military ones, to think that the officers represent Israel in all matters, not only in military ones,” Lindenstrauss wrote. “This kind of situation does not match the national outlook of the State of Israel.”

I’m brought right back to the conclusion I reached about hasbara, Israeli PR, back when I lived in Tel Aviv: If you don’t want people talking smack about what you do, you probably shouldn’t do the things they talk smack about.

There are a lot of conclusions that could be reasonably drawn about the flotilla, its participants, and Israel’s handling of things, but one thing is abundantly clear: The biggest problem, the problem that actually needs addressing, is not how Israel presents itself to the world.

The problem that actually needs addressing is the fact that, as is so often true in Israel's disagreements with the world, rather than try to talk its way past the challenge posed by a group of international activists on a boat, Israel chose the military route. When all was said and done, nine people lay dead—that’s the problem.

Indeed, I’ll go one further: Remember the reason for the flotilla? The blockade?

The blockade was/is the problem—the blockade that gives Israel control over Gaza’s coast, air space, and borders (save for one small pedestrian crossing into Egypt) and which Israel has used as a means of collective punishment against the Gazans since Hamas won a narrow electoral victory in the 2006 elections. As of late last year, the blockade had rendered 35% of the Strip’s agricultural lands and 85% of its fishing waters entirely inaccessible to inhabitants; led to food insecurity for 54% of Gaza’s 1.6 million people; and created drastic shortages in essential medications. For a start.

 And I’ll go further still: The ongoing failure to achieve peace, launch serious negotiations toward peace, or do anything that might convince the Palestinian people or leadership that Israel actually wants peace – that’s the problem.

Or, as Haaretz columnist Anshel Pfeffer put it in the flotilla’s immediate aftermath:

Criticizing the IDF is too easy. The real blame lies with successive Israeli governments and the broad public that are not brave enough to end the 42-year-old occupation and prefer instead to throw the army at the problem. As good as our army is, the result will only be more and more bloodshed. So how do we deal with it? By convincing ourselves that we are the moral ones and everyone else just wants to kill us.

That’s the problem.