Let The Flotilla Through

This is a guest post by Captain Birdseye

As I write, the latest flotilla to Gaza is beginning to form up somewhere in the north-eastern Mediterranean. It will soon set sail for Gaza, and an expected confrontation with the Israeli navy.

Israel claims to have learnt the lessons of last year’s disastrous episode, and will not make the same mistakes again. However, everything that Israel’s leaders have said and done so far on this subject makes me think that they have not learnt anything at all.

Israel’s strategy is still based on the goal of preventing the flotilla from reaching Gaza. Their idea of learning from last year seems to involve (a) trying to convince people that Israel is within its rights to intercept the ships; and (b) finding ways to intercept them in which nobody is killed or seriously injured. This is fine to a point, but all they are doing is preparing the ground to do the same thing they did last year. As is so often the case with Israeli governments, they have convinced themselves that the problem lies not in their policy, but in their messaging.

Because Israel’s leaders are locked into a mentality that sees every threat as a military-security threat, with a military-security solution, they see the flotilla in this light. By this way of thinking, the threat that the flotilla poses is that, if it reaches Gaza, it will undermine the blockade which is meant to prevent weapons from reaching the terrorist groups there. Therefore, in the battle of the flotilla, victory is defined by Israel as preventing the flotilla from reaching Gaza, and defeat is defined as failing to do so.

This narrow military-security framework is a weakness in Israeli thinking which delegitimisation activists have recognised and are exploiting ruthlessly. The fact is that, while Israel has good reason to prevent weapons from entering Gaza, the flotilla does not, itself, represent a military or security threat to Israel. This is a very basic point which seems to be beyond the grasp of the Israeli government. There will be no weapons of significant quality or quantity on the ships; or at least, none that will enhance the ability of Hamas or other Gazan terrorist groups to attack Israel. The passengers may well include lots of people who hate Israel and belong to extremist movements in their own countries, but they are not coming to Gaza to kill Israelis.

The reality is that the flotilla poses a challenge of legitimacy, not of security. This challenge undermines Israel’s legitimacy not by breaking through the blockade, which is the military-security view; but by provoking it into behaving in a way that is seen by many people around the world as illegal, or immoral. Ignore all their Brer Rabbit-boasting about how much they want to break through the blockade: the true victory for the flotillistas comes the moment that Israel intercepts their ships.

Plenty of Israeli leaders have read and absorbed the work of the Reut Institute and others in identifying and mapping those people and organisations who seek to undermine Israel’s legitimacy. However, very few have fully understood the policy implications. Not every challenge to Israel requires a military-security response, and some problems are made worse by such a response.

The best response to this flotilla would be to let it through, because it will not be carrying any significant weapons. It probably won’t be carrying any significant humanitarian cargo either, but this is beside the point. For all Israel’s diplomatic efforts, many people around the world do not accept their reasons for a full naval blockade; for most people, the default position is to support freedom of movement, unless there are very good reasons to deny it. If the flotilla does not present a physical threat – which it does not – then there is no good reason to stop it.

This does not mean that Israel would give up its right to stop other ships. When Libya was trying to smuggle weapons and explosives to the IRA, the British government did not intercept every ship heading for Northern Ireland; just those that it thought might be carrying weapons. Israel should do the same. Let the flotilla through; let them proclaim their pyrrhic victory; and let them go home. The flotillas will lose their power and relevance, and more importantly their media interest, very quickly. If the organisers then try to use future flotillas to smuggle in weapons – which seems to be Israel’s fear – then they and their campaign will lose their own legitimacy, and that would be a real victory for Israel.