After the flotilla attack, it's time for a new, kinder Israeli narrative

By Daniel Kurtzer
Sunday, June 6, 2010

Of the many confounding aspects of Monday's flotilla fiasco, one of the most curious is the monotone quality of Israel's response. Within hours of the Israeli assault on an aid ship bound for Gaza, while the dead and wounded were still being evacuated from the scene, Israel's deputy foreign minister delivered a verbal broadside that became his nation's public line: The flotilla organizers are terrorist sympathizers, they ambushed Israeli forces, and they are responsible for what followed.

Even so adept a communicator as Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, in a prepared statement Wednesday that attacked Israel's critics as much as it defended Israel's actions, could manage only one sentence of regret for civilian casualties.

Why, even to its friends, has Israel sounded so shrill, even tone deaf? Where are the grief and sadness that Israelis ought to feel about a military operation gone awry? The French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy expressed anger with the tendency of some Israeli leaders to believe that "they are alone in the world and will always be blamed, and to act accordingly."

Israel's friends know that the country has a case to make. But by hunkering down in self-justification, Israel has confused that case. And now the jury of world public opinion, comprising at least as many friends as foes, has stopped listening. At the United Nations, speaker after speaker condemned Israel's action, and even the United States joined in a harsh statement of condemnation. Normally pro-Israel editorial writers added to the chorus of ostracism.

Israel has long seen itself as the Alamo, a fortress under siege. Decades ago, a song titled "The Entire World is Against Us" hit the Israeli pop charts. At the time, there was some truth to the words: Arab states rejected Israel's existence. An Arab economic boycott persuaded major companies in Europe and Asia to decline to do business in Israel. Trade with many countries had to be conducted through third parties.

Indeed, Israel has faced recurring threats to its security and existence, a reality reflected in a maxim I heard often during my time as U.S. ambassador there early this decade: Israel goes to sleep with memories of the Holocaust and wakes up to the Arab-Israeli conflict. In this context, the nation's military power was seen as a necessary response. And in turn, Israel's narrative portrayed the country as a David facing an Arab Goliath.

Although the 1967 war changed this reality, Israel's narrative never really caught up. Newly demonstrated military superiority and deepening ties with the United States provided a measure of security the country had not enjoyed before. Egypt's President Anwar Sadat was the first Arab leader to recognize this new strategic reality, and in 1979, he made peace with Israel.

But even as the outdated David vs. Goliath theme lingered in the minds of many Israelis, among other segments of the population a new, religious-national narrative that centered on settling and holding all of Eretz Israel was taking hold. Even though settlements complicated Israel's relations with the Palestinians, and even though Israel had evacuated the Sinai settlements to make peace with Egypt -- a move that vitiated the argument that settlements were required for security -- activists such as Ariel Sharon continued to argue that they enhanced security.

For a while, conditions allowed this new narrative to take root: The Palestine Liberation Organization was busy attacking Israel from Jordan, Lebanon and the United Nations and pursuing a tactical moderation designed to lull Israel into complacency.

But soon this reality, too, began to change. The PLO decided in 1988 to officially support a two-state solution to the conflict and entered into dialogue with the United States. In 1991, Arab states participated in multilateral negotiations with Israel on water, the environment, economic development and regional security. Arab and Israeli business leaders met at international conferences. Israel's diplomatic isolation eased as China, India and others established formal ties, and Israeli liaison offices opened in Morocco and Arab states in the Persian Gulf. In 1994, Jordan made peace, removing the security justification for Israeli settlements in the West Bank. And in 2002, Arab states announced an "Arab peace initiative" offering peace and security in return for Israel's withdrawal from lands taken in the 1967 war.

But the Palestinian intifada put a brake on these developments, ushering in a decade of violence. As Palestinian terrorists attacked not only soldiers and settlers in the occupied territories, but also civilians in Israeli cities, the Israeli storyline of the 1950s -- David vs. Goliath -- revived.

I arrived in Israel as the U.S. ambassador in 2001, right after the first Palestinian suicide bombing, and discussed these issues often with then-Prime Minister Sharon, usually in the context of the choices Israel made in dealing with terrorism. Sharon believed that a strong and unyielding military response was all that was needed to persuade Palestinians to stop the intifada. A terrorist attack in Tel Aviv would often lead him to impose a closure on Gaza, preventing the movement of people and goods.

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