One of the most important rules for a strategist is not to be put on the defensive. David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, developed this concept into a doctrine of forward defense that brilliantly served his state in its early years.
Israeli soldiers aboard a military vessel in international waters off the Gaza coast surrounding a Turkish ship.
Israel's command structure, having mastered the old ways of war (the ones that lasted to 1973), has shown utter strategic incompetence at the new ways of war (in place since 1982). The new rules require an agile sense of public relations, which means that a powerful state never physically harms, even inadvertently, its rag-tag political adversaries.
Rachel Corrie has been an albatross around Israel's neck since 2003; today's dead on the seas off Gaza will prove an even worse source of anti-Zionism. Thus did the "armada of hate and violence" achieve its purpose. Thus did the Israelis fall into a trap. (May 31, 2010)
June 1, 2010 update: As sometimes happens, lots of readers were not satisfied with my analysis, this time of the "Free Gaza Flotilla" episode. Some put it nicely:
- "In four short paragraphs you told the entire sad truth of what happened. I wish the solution could be written as succinctly."
- "If a powerful state can never physically harm, even inadvertently, its rag-tag political adversaries, how do you prevent lethal cargo from getting to Gaza? How do you keep a blockade in effect to protect your citizens?"
- "Weren't the Israelis damned if they did and damned if they didn't?
- "Your posting identifies Israel's difficulties, but we know them all too well. I'd like to read an essay or article detailing what Israel could have done, realistically."
Others are more incensed:
- "I am absolutely astounded at what you are saying. What would you have had the Israeli Government do with these ships?"
- "How can you criticize the Israelis without saying what they should have done differently?"
- "Good points. But what would YOU have done instead?
- "So, how should Israel be responding?"
(1) I cannot offer a detailed alternative, for I am not on the scene, I lack the relevant knowledge and experience, plus I am a strategist, setting out the broad outlines to win, not a tactician, figuring out implementation in detail. I do know that Israeli soldiers should never have rappelled their way into the trap on the Mavi Marmara. They should have had intelligence about the ship's passengers' readiness for a clash and found some way to avert a bloody confrontation. That might have meant boarding the ship with protective gear; anchoring it at sea; deploying the Long Range Acoustical Device or a dazzling laser; or towing the ship to an Israeli harbor.
(2) This incident fits a larger pattern, for Palestinians and their supporters are wising up and finding creative ways to impugn Israel in world opinion. Supermarkets in Norway refuse Israeli produce, universities in the United Kingdom break relations with Israeli counterparts, and so on. Palestinians a while back organized a march from Jordan to the Israeli border. Currently, they are boycotting West Bank products made by Israelis. Will Jerusalem finally learn to take this challenge seriously? For some thoughts by specialists on the matter, see my extracts from a thoughtful article by Leslie Susser.
(3) This is not an exclusively Israeli dilemma but one that extends across the Western world. Israel just feels it first and hardest, as so often is the case.
June 4, 2010 update: Two aphoristic thoughts:
You know it's a media war when you want your own side to take casualties.
Israel governments have posted a dazzling streak of own-goals since 1982.
June 6, 2010 update: "Where was Mossad?" I have been wondering. Hundreds of stray people on a ship and Israel's vaunted intelligence service has no idea what is going on there – something's wrong with this picture. Yossi Melman asked the same question of Maj. Gen. (ret.) Amos Gilad, former head of the research arm of Military Intelligence and head of the Defense Ministry's political-security branch and was told that "Turkey has never been included in [Israel's] intelligence coverage. The intelligence [service] can't collect data on everything; it has limited resources."
Comment: Israel's authorities, like other Western governments, has not yet woken up to the profound transformation in Turkey. Maybe this shock will change things.
June 8, 2010 update: Survey research of 500 Hebrew-speaking Israeli Jews asked questions over the telephone yesterday finds corroboration of an inability to understand the new kind of war. Here are answers to the two relevant questions asked by Pechter Middle East Polls, with the to-me striking replies bolded:
Regarding the recent ship incident, did Israel use too much force, not enough force, or the right amount of force?
Too much force 7.60%
Right amount of force 45.50%
Not enough force 39.20%
Dont know 6.10%
Do you think that Israel should or should not adjust its tactics to elicit a more favorable international reaction? Do you feel that way strongly or just somewhat?
Should strongly 12.30%
Should somewhat 22.60%
Should not somewhat 16.60%
Should not strongly 44.10%
Dont know 4.20%
Comment: The clueless Israeli leaders seem reflect the sentiments of a clueless body politic.
June 10, 2010 update: In an interesting piece of bravado, Robert Weissberg (emeritus professor of political science at the University of Illinois-Urbana) argues that "Israel is Winning Not Losing the War" – in other words, precisely the opposite of what I maintain. Weissberg's analysis jibes with mine:
the definition of "victory" has almost invisibly sifted in recent decades so what was once a "victory" now may be "defeat" and vice versa. The culprit in this linguistic transformation is how the mass media, skillfully abetted by chronic losers, now substitutes political image—PR-- for tangible outcomes. While victory was once measured by enemy casualties and territory captured, in today's upside down, if not Orwellian, vocabulary, "victory" goes to those most skilled at fabricating political reality. What kind of war is it when one side exaggerates its casualties and happily provides guided tours to demonstrate the enemy's military prowess?
Our difference is that I emphasize the importance of this new reality and he dismisses it:
In the final analysis, all the raving and ranting, whether from Turkish Prime Ministers or left-loony Professors of Oppression Studies, are nuisances compared to what previously transpired. Arab armies once killed thousands of Jews though they lost the war. Today, these same enemies annoy millions with their duplicitous political machinations and given a choice, I'll take the latter—having one's blood boil is better than having it spilled. Moreover, with time and repeated failure, these largely harmless but seriously annoying political tactics will become even more aggravating.
Given a choice, I'll also take the latter. But that's no reason to sit back complacently and dismiss the policy of delegitimization as "largely harmless but seriously annoying." Israel's enemies wish to turn it into the new apartheid South Africa and they are steadily gaining.
June 10, 2010 update bis: We might soon have a chance to see if the Israelis learned a lesson from the flotilla fiasco. "Lebanese Threaten Mass March on Israeli Border" reports Hillel Fendel for Arutz 7:
The anti-Israel flotilla has turned the tide of world opinion against Israel, Fatah leaders in Lebanon say, and the time is ripe for a mass civilian charge against Israel's border. Mounir Al-Makdah, a leading Fatah leader in Lebanon, says plans are being made for a mass charge against Israel's northern border. "What can Israel do," he asks, "kill the entire Palestinian nation? And even if they kill all those who take part in the march, the number of remaining Palestinians will still be more than all the Jews in the world."
Al-Makdah told the Lebanese newspaper Al-Safir that the plans for the march are being made via letters to thousands of "Palestinians" living around the world inviting them to take part. "It could be that they will just break through the border, with their children and their elderly. What will Israel be able to do? A wind of change has begun to blow," he said, "and Israel has begun to be a yoke not only for the Palestinian nation, but for the whole world. The freedom flotilla brings a message of the beginning of the end of Israel," Al-Makdah said.
He made similar remarks to a French news agency earlier this week, saying that such marches should take place from all areas that border on Israel – Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Gaza, and Judea/Samaria. He said he hopes the Lebanese government, of which Hizbullah is a part, will soon grant a permit for the mass march.
Comment: A century ago, who imagined that Jews one day as the great warriors and Arabs as the great publicists?