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Flotilla raid offers Israel a learning opportunity

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Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Governments make mistakes. But if they're smart, they learn from them. If the Israeli government is sensible, it will use the uproar provoked by its attack on a flotilla of relief ships to rethink its policies for Gaza and the region.

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Israeli commandos stormed the ships early Monday in an effort to enforce their blockade on the Gaza Strip and thereby weaken the grip of the extremist Hamas movement there. But like many of Israel's hard-nosed operations lately, this one backfired, and it's useful to think about why.

Let's start by conceding all the obvious points made in Israel's defense: It is combating a terrorist adversary in Gaza; its friends in Europe and the United States are increasingly unreliable; its key Muslim ally, Turkey, is buddying up with Iran; and the Turkish organizers of the Gaza relief mission have links with the Israel haters in Hamas.

All true and, from an Israeli standpoint, infuriating. But it's a situation where a wise leader should hedge his bets rather than roll the dice with a showy commando operation at sea.

The immediate problem for Israel is that the Gaza blockade is not sustainable. It is producing the opposite of the intended outcome: Hamas strengthens its control in Gaza while Israel becomes more isolated internationally.

Worse, the blockade invites challenges from pro-Hamas militants and well-meaning humanitarian groups alike. The ships boarded on Monday were carrying 10,000 tons of relief assistance, plus hundreds of activists and peaceniks from across Europe armed with cellphones and video cameras. And more such voyages are said to be planned.

Recognizing that the flotilla would be a public relations problem, the Israelis had been talking with the Turkish government about how to deliver the supplies without a confrontation. Evidently, that compromise approach failed and the commandos staged their attack in international waters, about 70 miles off the Israeli coast. The passengers onboard fought back, the shooting started and at least nine of the activists were killed.

Why did Israel choose such a high-risk option? The answer is that over many years, Israel has become accustomed to unchallenged freedom of military action in the Middle East. Operating boldly and often far from home, it has attacked and intimidated its adversaries. This confrontational approach worked brilliantly when Israel's foes were backward guerrillas and incompetent Arab armies, but it has been less successful in the era of the Internet and missile proliferation. And military supremacy tempted Israel into ever-greater risk-taking. A prime example is the invasion of Lebanon in 1982, which many Israelis would argue left their nation less secure than before.

By attacking the relief flotilla, Israel picked a fight with Turkey, a more dangerous foe than Hamas. The quarrel has been brewing for the past several years, and it's a huge strategic change in the Middle East. Once Israel's most important regional ally, Turkey now seeks to challenge Israel's hegemony as the local superpower. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is a Muslim populist with a charismatic message: We won't let Israel push us around. Where Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is often a buffoon, Erdogan is a genuinely tough if erratic rival.

The Turkish challenge was voiced Tuesday by Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who likened the Israeli attack to "pirates off the coast of Somalia." He warned at a breakfast meeting with reporters: "Now it is time to decide: Are we in a civilized world, or do some continue to have the law of the jungle? If it is the second, we know what to do."

How can Israel and the United States learn from mistakes and bend this crisis toward a better outcome? The answer is to use the fact that this has become an Israel-Turkey standoff, rather than just a Gaza problem. Turkey has regional ambitions, but it isn't a crazy terrorist enclave and it doesn't spout Holocaust-denying rhetoric. It's a big, strong country that wants to be a power broker. There should be a way to satisfy Turkey's hunger for respect without weakening Israel.

The right diplomatic formula should also involve the United Nations, an institution that Israel normally mistrusts, with good reason. Israel has been unable to resolve the Gaza mess on its own; it should turn now to the Security Council for help. That begins with a U.N. investigation of what happened off the Israeli coast. The next step might be a greater U.N. role in rebuilding Gaza, with real safeguards against importation of weapons.

Israel needs to embrace the paradox: Sometimes the best way to manage an intractable problem is to internationalize it.

davidignatius@washpost.com



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