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The flotilla fiasco

Tuesday, June 1, 2010; A12

THE ISRAELI commandos who landed on the deck of the Turkish ferry Mavi Marmara off the coast of the Gaza Strip early Monday were totally unprepared for what they encountered: dozens of militants who swarmed around them with knives and iron bars. The result was a bloody battle in which at least nine passengers were killed -- and a diplomatic debacle for the government of Binyamin Netanyahu. Though the investigations to come will find many to blame, it's already clear that Israel's response to the pro-Palestinian flotilla was both misguided and badly executed.

We have no sympathy for the motives of the participants in the flotilla -- a motley collection that included European sympathizers with the Palestinian cause, Israeli Arab leaders and Turkish Islamic activists. Israel says that some of the organizers have ties to Hamas and al-Qaeda. What's plain is that the group's nominal purpose, delivering "humanitarian" supplies to Gaza, was secondary to the aim of provoking a confrontation. The flotilla turned down an Israeli offer to unload the six boats and deliver the goods to Gaza by truck; it ignored repeated warnings that it would not be allowed to reach Gaza. Its spokesmen said they would insist on "breaking Israel's siege," as one of them put it.

Yet the threat to Israel was political rather than military. So far there's been no indication the boats carried missiles or other arms for Hamas. Mr. Netanyahu's aim should have been to prevent the militants from creating the incident they were hoping for. Allowing the boats to dock in Gaza, as Israel had done before, would have been better than sending military commandos to intercept them. The fact that the soldiers who roped down from helicopters to the lead Turkish ferry were unprepared to subdue its passengers without using lethal force only compounded the error.

Israel will now endure days, if not months, of condemnations by its many enemies. Middle East peace talks are at risk again, as are Israel's once-strong relations with Turkey. What was to have been a conciliatory meeting between Mr. Netanyahu and President Obama Tuesday has been cancelled. The White House has been properly cautious so far in responding to the incident; it should be careful to distinguish itself in the coming days from the anti-Israeli chorus. U.S. diplomacy should aim at ensuring that the inevitable calls for an international investigation do not lead to another one-sided setup like the United Nations' Goldstone commission, whose report on Israel's 2008 invasion of Gaza has become another weapon in the international campaign to de-legitimize the Jewish state.

As for Mr. Netanyahu, the only road to recovery from this disaster lies in embracing, once and for all, credible steps to create conditions for a Palestinian state. A good start would be easing restrictions on both Gaza and the West Bank, once the reactions to Monday's events subside. Mr. Netanyahu also needs to broaden his government to include pro-peace parties; one of his main problems is cabinet hawks who have made Israeli diplomacy an oxymoron. The prime minister is in a deepening hole; his only way out is to move to the center.

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