Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was unequivocal when he addressed the nation on the night of June 2 about the Gaza ship raid: “Israel faces hypocrisy and a biased rush to judgment.”
His message that Israel was exercising its right to self- defense when naval forces boarded an aid flotilla, an operation that left nine pro-Palestinian activists on one ship dead, resonated with Nechama Perelman, a 23-year-old tax adviser.
“There is no need to apologize,” Perelman said while nursing her baby in the Jerusalem Mall the next day. “The army didn’t set out to kill people. It’s easy to judge from far away, and I don’t believe that anything we do will help us be loved by the world.”
A poll of Israel’s Jewish population by the Maariv daily published on June 2 found 94.4 percent of respondents agreed it was necessary to stop the vessel, and 89.1 percent said Netanyahu shouldn’t resign over the matter. The opposition Kadima party has supported the government on the issue, and Netanyahu’s coalition has shown no signs of strain over the incident.
These Israeli views illustrate the gap between how the Gaza flotilla confrontation is perceived at home and abroad.
“I can’t remember a time over the past 30 years when Israel is so out of sync with the rest of the world, and not just its enemies,” said David Newman, professor of political science at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel’s south. “In the globalized world of 2010, where people travel and share and blog, I think it’s very dangerous for this country’s position.”
In his address, Netanyahu, 60, made no mention of any change to Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip or reference to the hardships of its population, didn’t respond to calls by world leaders for an international inquiry into the May 31 deaths or make any suggestion that he or his government bore any blame for the incident.
Just one week ago, Netanyahu was flying to Paris for Israel’s acceptance in the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development before heading on to a planned White House meeting with President Barack Obama. Instead, he had to cut short his trip in Canada and return home without seeing Obama.
The fatalities on one of the six ships defying Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip severely strained relations with Turkey, once its closest ally in the region, and led to the recall of South Africa’s ambassador to Jerusalem yesterday. All of the dead were Turkish; one was also a U.S. citizen.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy said Israel had used “disproportionate” force and German Chancellor Angela Merkel phoned Netanyahu to protest. Sarkozy’s predecessor, Jacques Chirac, said in 2006 that Israel’s military operations in Lebanon in response to the capture of two of its soldiers by Hezbollah were “disproportionate.”
The international criticism has triggered the “Israeli Holocaust syndrome,” said political scientist Yaron Ezrahi of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, in which Israelis see themselves as victims no matter what the circumstances. Still, he said, “Israeli public opinion is more plastic than is commonly assumed” when it comes to making concessions if they believe they are dealing with a genuine peace partner.
Israel says its soldiers were ambushed on the ship by activists armed with clubs, knives and at least one gun, and opened fire only in self-defense. Witnesses among the activists say Israeli forces started the violence. Israel said it had issued numerous warnings to the Gaza-bound flotilla beforehand to change course for the port of Ashdod and unload there.
New Aid Ship
The Free Gaza Movement, which organized the flotilla, has sent another aid ship that’s due to arrive in Gaza early tomorrow, group spokeswoman Audrey Bomse said by phone today. The vessel has “no intention” of docking in Ashdod, the group said in an e-mailed statement.
Countries, including France and the U.K., oppose the blockade on Gaza, which Israel argues is needed to prevent the smuggling of rockets and weapons in the Palestinian coastal enclave controlled by Hamas.
Hamas is considered a terrorist organization by Israel, the U.S. and the European Union. About 330 rockets have been fired from Gaza into Israel since the end of Israel’s January 2008 operation in the territory, killing one foreign worker last March, the army says.
While Netanyahu hasn’t escaped domestic criticism, most of it has focused solely on the execution of the military operation. The Maariv poll found that 62.7 percent of those interviewed said it should have been carried out in a different manner. The number of respondents and margin of error weren’t given.
Netanyahu’s position has been helped by the reaction of Israel’s chief strategic ally. The U.S. has stopped short of criticizing the Israeli flotilla raid and has blocked Turkey’s proposal for a United Nations Security Council statement condemning it and calling for an independent international investigation.
Vice President Joe Biden said in a June 2 interview on PBS television’s “Charlie Rose Show” that Israel has an “absolute right to know” what is being transported to Gaza and that the U.S. supports a “transparent and open” investigation led by Israel. Statements released by the White House say the incident “underscores” the need for progress toward a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
‘Measured and Responsible’
“It was definitely a measured and responsible response, as we would expect,” said Jonathan Peled, the spokesman for Israel’s ambassador to the U.S., Michael Oren.
”The administration is working very closely, hand-in-hand with Israel to contain the situation and to work on promoting the efforts to bring about direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians,” Peled said. “We are exploring ways to reconcile between improving the humanitarian situation and Israel’s security needs.”
In following this course, the Obama administration is taking an approach similar to that of Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, who maintained U.S. support for Israel when it faced international criticism.
While most Israelis support the operation, several Israeli Arab leaders took part in the flotilla, including Islamic Association leader Sheik Raed Salah and legislator Hanin Zoabi. She was later at the center of a debate in parliament that almost ended in fisticuffs as some government members rushed the speakers’ podium in protest when she ascended to address the chamber.
Israelis assume that the world will have a “Pavlovian response when there is an outbreak of violence between Israelis and Arabs,” said Mark Heller, principal research fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies.
“If you perceive this to be a long-term trend, one has to ask what it does to Israel’s relation to the rest of the world and its long-term viability,” Heller said.
To contact the reporter on this story: Calev Ben-David in Jerusalem at email@example.com