Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (Photo:
Debate rages around the world about the Israeli attack on the humanitarian flotilla headed to Gaza. And it should rage. As Martin Luther King Jr., said, an injustice to one is an injustice to all.
But the debate that matters most - the one that will decide the fate of Palestinians and Israelis alike - is going on inside the Oval Office. If Barack Obama ever decides that the Israelis absolutely must end the occupation of the West Bank and the blockade of Gaza, he'll demand and get a settlement. Then, both peoples can start living in peace, sooner than most Americans think.
If Obama continues waffling and lets the Israelis maintain the status quo, the conflict will continue, and so will the insecurity it inflicts on both sides.
Obama must understand that perfectly well as he prepares for the delayed visit of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He must know that he could make the conversation a genuine turning point in US policy, if he wants to. The agenda he sets for that conversation is crucial.
So far, the indications are not promising. In a brief phone talk with Netanyahu just hours after the brutal attack at sea, Obama merely "expressed the importance of learning all the facts and circumstances around this morning's tragic events as soon as possible," the White House said.
No, Mr. President, that's the wrong way to begin. It avoids the real issue - which is just what the Israeli leader wants. He'd love to see the world debating about "all the facts and circumstances." He'd love to treat the whole terrible disaster at sea as if it were a schoolyard scrap: He hit me first. No, he hit me first. Liar! No, you're a liar!
Netanyahu and the Israeli government would be happy to drag that argument out because it gives them a double victory. They get to play their favorite role - the victim of threats to their very existence - while distracting the Obama administration from the issue that really matters: the Israeli domination of Gaza and the West Bank.
As long as that domination continues, whether in the form of occupation or blockade, it makes a peace settlement impossible. And that seems to be precisely what the Israeli government aims for - or certainly at least its powerful right wing, which has Netanyahu in its power. Instead of pursuing peace, Israeli leaders want to pursue a public relations effort at damage control, which comes down to image control.
So, they're happy to have everyone - especially in the Oval Office - scrutinizing all the video footage and eyewitness accounts to figure out exactly what happened on the Mavi Marmara, minute by minute. The battle of competing images and interpretations could go on for months, even years. As long as the world is distracted by that battle, it will bring any chance of a meaningful peace process to a grinding halt.
The Israelis seem to have had something like that in mind when they set out to stop the Gaza flotilla. Their PR machine was in high gear before the flotilla even set sail. A sympathetic analyst in the conservative Jerusalem Post lamented the failure of the Israeli "diplomatic [read: PR] initiative aimed at explaining to the world why it planned to stop the ships." As he noted, "stories were leaked by the government to the press about the Turkish Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH), the Turkish organization that is behind the flotilla, described as a 'radical Islamic organization.'"
Within hours of the attack at sea, top Israeli leaders were holding press conferences touting the same unsubstantiated claims that the flotilla was led by violent supporters of international terrorist groups. "Gaza has become a base for terrorists backed by Iran," said Netanyahu, suggesting that this unsubstantiated claim somehow justified all that killing; it was simply "self-defense."
Could it be just coincidence that so many Israeli military personnel, politicians and journalists all repeated the same strange charge that IDF soldiers were victims of "attempted lynching"? (Find it here, here, here, here and here, for example.) It's more likely that the word "lynch" was cooked up in a PR office, well before the disaster at sea took place (probably by some flake who doesn't know English well enough to know what the word really means).
The Israelis went to sea not only with 50 Border Guards as well as sailors, but also with embedded Israeli reporters. Prominent journalist Ron Ben-Yishai was apparently given permission for a scoop, the first direct report from scene, predictably sympathetic to the Israelis. (The other reporters' dispatches were embargoed until they could be vetted by censors.) Back on land in Israel, one blogger reported hours after the event, the talking heads were already focusing only on "the threat to the soldiers lives and the insufficient force that was sent to take control over the Mavi Marmara." The Israeli media allowed little doubt that their military personnel were the victims, not the perpetrators, of the attack.
Some skilled video producers went along on the mission, too. Shortly after the confrontation, they released slick footage, which does indeed seem to show Israeli troops descending onto the Mavi Marmara and immediately being brutally attacked. No doubt, Netanyahu will bring that film with him to the Oval Office and hope Obama watches every second of it. After all, the president says he wants to know "all the facts and circumstances."
In the end, though, Netanyahu will tell him that only one fact really matters: Israel was justified because it was acting in self-defense. And, surely, he'll remind Obama of Israel's ultimate goal, the one he repeats at every opportunity: preventing another Holocaust. He'll link the killing on the Mavi Marmara with the specter of the Holocaust, using the whole arsenal of weapons that his skilled PR experts have invented in their fertile imaginations.
He'll try to keep the conversation focused on the one question that dominates Israeli political life: Weren't the Israelis merely doing what they had to do to stop the next Holocaust? And, perhaps, even to save Western civilization against "radical Islamic forces," according to an analysis published hours after the attack by a prominent Israeli academic in one of his nation's most popular newspapers. That will be a common response among many Jews, especially in Israel, but some here in the US, too.
Uri Avnery, the grand old man of the Israeli peace movement, summed it up most incisively, as usual, in a recent column titled "Hallelujah, the World is Against Us!" In recent years, he wrote, as Jews have escaped persecution and gained power, "a sense of unease, of disorientation, set in." Many Jews "felt that something was out of order, that the well-known road signs were not working anymore.... That's frightening," and it makes many Jews suspicious. So, "without being conscious of it," many Jews "do what we can to be hated again, to feel at home, on familiar ground.... We shall not rest until the world is anti-Semitic again, and we know how to behave. As the jolly song goes: 'The entire world is against us, but what the hell.'"
If Obama, and the world, focus only on "all the facts and circumstances" about who did what during that tragic dawn at sea, it will give Israeli leaders another excuse to lead their people in singing their jolly song, perpetuating their cherished images of victimization. The more criticism they receive, the more most Israelis will be convinced that the worlds really is against them. And the more excuse that will give them to resist serious negotiations for peace.
This is not to deny the need for a full investigation. But it's vital to put even the worst events in broader perspective. The US government has supported so many evils of the Israeli occupation and blockade because the Israeli PR machine has been so successful. It has managed to get the US mass media, most of the US public and, very possibly, their president to believe that the whole world just might be against Israel, that any Israeli violence might very well be justified self-defense against another Holocaust.
If Obama really wants to be the president who brings peace to the Middle East, he has to take a much broader view. When he asks Netanyahu for "all the facts and circumstances," he must ask the big, crucial questions: By what right does Israel maintain its blockade of Gaza at all costs, despite all the human suffering it brings? By what right does Israel maintain its occupation of and settlements on the West Bank at all costs? Why does Israel resist the peace settlement that the rest of the world sees as fair and just? Why does Israel persist in such self-defeating policies, keeping its own people as well as its Palestinian neighbors locked in a vicious cycle of insecurity?
Even those who want to focus on the one terrible incident of violence at sea should be asking not who started the fighting, but by what right did the Israeli Navy steam into international waters and unilaterally declare a "naval blockade"? (Strangely, the Israeli PR machine put out video of that declaration, as if it somehow justified all the killing to come.) It's all part of the same pattern: Israel making unilateral decisions that put intolerable restrictions on Palestinians' lives.
That's what the flotilla to Gaza was trying to shine a light on. Now, the light has grown much brighter, though it is encased in the dark shadow of mourning. But if we let it become a narrow pencil light, illuminating only the events of a few tragic hours, we will miss the larger picture at which the Obama administration should be looking: the injustices perpetuated by Israel over many tragic decades.
Those of us who want to see a just peace and a truly independent viable Palestinian state should do whatever we can to break through the fallacious stereotype of Israel as the eternal victim. If that image is discredited - if it no longer frames discussion of the Middle East conflict here in the US - the Obama administration can begin to explore new options for US policy.
Every time we persuade a friend, a neighbor, a relative, a co-worker to see Israel as a dominating power, not an endangered victim, we take a step closer to a just peace in the Middle East. That can be the most fitting memorial for the victims of Israeli bullets, who wanted only to bring humanitarian relief to Gaza.