By now you'll all have heard about the IDF's unwarranted attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla, a fleet of six civilian vessels that was attempting to bring humanitarian aid (i.e., medicines, food, and building materials) to Gaza. The population of Gaza has been under a crippling Israeli siege since 2006. Israel imposed the blockade after Gaza's voters had the temerity to prefer Hamas in a free election held at the insistence of the Bush administration, which then refused to recognize the new government because it didn't like the results.
Late Sunday night, IDF naval forces and commandos attacked one of the unarmed ships in international waters, killing at least ten of the peace activists and injuring many more. IDF spokesman claim that the use of force was justified because the passengers resisted Israel's efforts to board and commandeer the ship. Other Israeli officials have sought to portray the activists, whose ranks included citizens from fifty countries, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, a former U.S. ambassador, and an elderly Holocaust survivor, as terrorist sympathizers with ties to Hamas and even al Qaeda.
My first question when I heard the news was: "What could Israel's leaders have been thinking?" How could they possibly believe that a deadly assault against a humanitarian mission in international waters would play to their advantage? Israel's government and its hard-line supporters frequently complain about alleged efforts to "delegitimize" the country, but actions like this are the real reason Israel's standing around the world has plummeted to such low levels. This latest escapade is as bone-headed as the 2006 war in Lebanon (which killed over a thousand Lebanese and caused billions of dollars worth of damage) or the 2008-2009 onslaught that killed some 1300 Gazans, many of them innocent children. None of these actions achieved its strategic objective; indeed, all of them are just more evidence of the steady deterioration in Israel's strategic thinking that we have witnessed since 1967.
My second question is: "Will the Obama administration show some backbone on this issue, and go beyond the usual mealy-mouthed statements that U.S. presidents usually make when Israel acts foolishly and dangerously?" President Obama likes to talk a lot about our wonderful American values, and his shiny new National Security Strategy says "we must always seek to uphold these values not just when it is easy, but when it is hard." The same document also talks about a "rule-based international order," and says "America's commitment to the rule of law is fundamental to our efforts to build an international order that is capable of confronting the emerging challenges of the 21st century."
Well if that is true, here is an excellent opportunity for Obama to prove that he means what he says. Attacking a humanitarian aid mission certainly isn't consistent with American values -- even when that aid mission is engaged in the provocative act of challenging a blockade -- and doing so in international waters is a direct violation of international law. Of course, it would be politically difficult for the administration to take a principled stand with midterm elections looming, but our values and commitment to the rule of law aren't worth much if a president will sacrifice them just to win votes.
More importantly, this latest act of misguided belligerence poses a broader threat to U.S. national interests. Because the United States provides Israel with so much material aid and diplomatic protection, and because American politicians from the president on down repeatedly refer to the "unbreakable bonds" between the United States and Israel, people all over the world naturally associate us with most, if not all, of Israel's actions. Thus, Israel doesn't just tarnish its own image when it does something outlandish like this; it makes the United States look bad, too. This incident will harm our relations with other Middle Eastern countries, lend additional credence to jihadi narratives about the "Zionist-Crusader alliance," and complicate efforts to deal with Iran. It will also cost us some moral standing with other friends around the world, especially if we downplay it. This is just more evidence, as if we needed any, that the special relationship with Israel has become a net liability.
In short, unless the Obama administration demonstrates just how angry and appalled it is by this foolish act, and unless the U.S. reaction has some real teeth in it, other states will rightly see Washington as irretrievably weak and hypocritical. And Obama's Cairo speech -- which was entitled "A New Beginning" -- will be guaranteed a prominent place in the Hall of Fame of Empty Rhetoric.
How might the United States respond? We could start by denouncing Israel's action in plain English, without prevarication. We could help draft and push through a Security Council resolution condemning Israel's action and calling for an international commission of inquiry to determine what happened. And if American intelligence was monitoring the flotilla -- and it should have been -- we should make any information we collected available to the commission. We could also cancel or suspend elements of our military aid package to Israel. And we could say loudly and clearly that the blockade of Gaza is illegal, inhumane and counterproductive, and openly press Israel and Egypt to lift it immediately.
But even strong measures like these won't solve the underlying problem, which is the conflict itself. I've learned not to expect much from this administration when it comes to pushing the two sides toward a settlement, as Obama talks a good game, but doesn't follow through by putting meaningful pressure on the two sides. This latest incident, however, might convince Obama that he was right to put the Israeli-Palestinian issue on the front burner when he took office, and wrong to cave into Netanyahu when the latter dug in his heels last summer (2009) and again this past spring. The result of those retreats was a waste of precious time, while the situation in the Occupied Territories deteriorated.
Because time is rapidly running out on a two-state solution, Obama should seize this opportunity to explain to the American people why a different approach is needed and why bringing this conflict to an end is a national security priority for the United States. He should also explain why using U.S. leverage on both sides is in Israel's interest as well as America's interest. And he will need to bring some new people on board to help him do this, because the team he's been using has spent more than a year without achieving anything. (If his economic team was this decisive, our economy would still be spiraling into the abyss.) Getting the so-called "proximity talks" restarted doesn't count, because those discussions are a step backwards from earlier face-to-face negotiations and because they are likely to fail.
A third thought has to do with Israel itself, and especially its present government. How are we supposed to think about a country that has nuclear weapons, a superb army, an increasingly prosperous economy, and great technological sophistication, yet keeps more than a million people under siege in Gaza, denies political rights to millions more on the West Bank, is committed to expanding settlements there, and whose leaders feel little compunction about using deadly force not merely against well-armed enemies, but also against innocent civilians and international peace activists, while at the same time portraying itself as a blameless victim? Something has gone terribly wrong with the Zionist dream.
Fourth, this incident is a litmus test for the "pro-Israel" community here in the United States. One of the reasons why Israel keeps doing foolish things like this is that it has been insulated from the consequences of these actions by its hard-line sympathizers in the United States. AIPAC spokesmen are already bombarding journalists and pundits with emails spinning the assault, and we can confidently expect other apologists to prepare op-eds and blog posts defending Israel's conduct as a principled act of "self-defense." And if the Obama administration tries to proceed in any of the ways I've just suggested, it can count on fierce opposition from the most influential organizations in the Israel lobby.
In this context Peter Beinart's recent article in the New York Review of Books is even more salient, especially his question:
The heads of AIPAC and the Presidents' Conference should ask themselves what Israel's leaders would have to do or say to make them scream "no." ... If the line has not yet been crossed, where is the line?"
Over the next few days, keep an eye on how politicians and pundits line up on this issue. Which of them thinks that Israel "crossed a line" and deserves criticism -- and maybe even sanction -- and which of them thinks that what it did was entirely appropriate? Ironically, it is the former who are Israel's friends, because they are trying to save that country before it is too late. It is the latter whose misguided zeal is leading Israel down the road to further international isolation -- and maybe even worse.
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.