Israel does not need enemies: it has itself. Or more precisely: it has its government. The Netanyahu-Barak government has somehow found a way to lose the moral high ground, the all-important war for symbols and meanings, to Hamas. That is quite an accomplishment. Operation Make the World Hate Us, it might have been called.
I leave it to others to make the operational criticisms of the Israeli action, and will say only that even my amateurish understanding of the tactical challenge posed by the interdiction of the boats suffices to suggest that there were other ways to do this. I also will not pretend to a perfect grasp of what happened on board the Mavi Marmara. I have pondered the videos that both sides have released, and concluded that the Israeli soldiers sliding down that rope had no intention of attacking the people on board and that the people on board had no way of being confident of this. I cannot expect Palestinians and their supporters to believe the best about the Israeli army. (This is what Israeli hardliners call “the restoration of deterrence.”) I do not doubt that some of the activists on the ship welcomed a confrontation with Israel, but the Israelis should not have obliged them. In any event, what took place on that deck looks to me like a tragic misunderstanding. Yet there was no reason to think that anything else would have transpired.
The important point is that the killing of civilians on the Mavi Marmara—I understand that they were “armed” with metal bars and a knife, but still they were civilians, and soldiers are trained to respond unlethally to the recklessness of a mob—cannot be extenuated by reference to “asymmetrical warfare” and Israel’s right to defend itself. This was not warfare, at least of the physical sort. Israel was not under attack. A headline in The Washington Post yesterday reported that “Israel says Free Gaza Movement poses threat to Jewish state.” Such a claim is absurd. It is true that the movement has grown in recent years, and is now troublesome to Israel’s policy in Gaza; and it is also true that the Turkish charity that sponsored the “Freedom Flotilla” has ties to Islamicist groups. But this is hardly what Israel likes to call, in the Iranian context, and there quite plausibly, an “existential threat.” The extension of the definition of a security threat to include hostile activities that have little or no bearing upon security is an ominous development.
It is also the inevitable consequence of Benjamin Netanyahu’s cunning pronouncement last year that Israel is now endangered by “the Iran threat, the missile threat, and the threat I call the Goldstone threat.” The equivalence was morally misleading, and therefore dangerous. Ideological warfare is not military warfare. I have studied the entirety of the Goldstone Report, and whereas I do not doubt (and wrote in this magazine in the days before Goldstone) that Operation Cast Lead caused the unjustifiable death of non-combatants, I also do not doubt that the Goldstone Report, which was nastily indifferent to Israel’s security predicament and to the ethical challenges of Israeli self-defense, was an instrument in a broad campaign of delegitimation against Israel—and yet the threat of delegitimation is not like the threat of destruction. It is different in kind. A commando operation is not an appropriate response to an idea. “This was no Love Boat,” Netanyahu said yesterday. “It was a hate boat.” He is right, but so what? The threat of delegitimation is not a military problem and it does not have a military solution. And the attempt to give it a military solution has now had the awful consequence of making the threat still greater. The assault on the Mavi Marmara was a stupid gift to the delegitimators.
You do not have to be a general to grasp these distinctions. In fact, judging by Israel’s recent history, it might help not to be one. But the militarization of the Israeli government’s understanding of Israel’s situation—this has been the most sterile period for diplomacy in all of Israel’s history—is not all that led to the debacle at sea. Rules of military engagement that allow soldiers to fire on political activists (I leave aside the question of their humanitarianism for a moment) may signify something still deeper and even more troubling. It is hard not to conclude from this Israeli action, and also from other Israeli actions in recent years, that the Israeli leadership simply does not care any longer about what anybody thinks. It does not seem to care about what even the United States—its only real friend, even in the choppy era of Obama—thinks. This is not defiance, it is despair. The Israeli leadership seems to have given up any expectation of fairness and sympathy from the world. It is behaving as if it believes, in the manner of the most perilous Jewish pessimism, that the whole world hates the Jews, and that is all there is to it. This is the very opposite of the measured and empirical attitude, the search for strategic opportunity, the enlistment of imagination in the service of ideals and interests, that is required for statecraft.
The complication—the one that deprives anybody who acknowledges it of membership in any of the gangs of commentary—is that there is a partial basis in the actually existing world for a degree of Israeli pessimism. There are leaders, states, organizations, and peoples whose hostility to the Jewish state is irrational and absolute and in some cases murderous. Things are said critically about Israel that wildly burst the bounds of thoughtful criticism. The language in which Israel is described by some governments and international organizations is lurid and grotesque and foul. Anti-Semitic tropes—the conspiracy theory about the Jews, most conspicuously—are regularly encountered in otherwise respectable places. The analysis of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that absolves the Palestinians of any significant role in it is widespread. I do not see how any of this can be denied, or shunted aside, or explained entirely in terms of Israeli behavior. But it is emphatically not the whole picture, except for those Israelis and Jews whose political interests and ideological inclinations prefer it to be the whole picture. For there are forces in Israel, and in its government, that have a use for Jewish hopelessness.
There is a verse in Numbers that Jewish pessimists like to cite: “the people shall dwell alone, and not be reckoned among the nations.” It is Balaam’s divinely inspired description of the Israelites—Balaam, who came to curse and stayed to bless. But I have always regarded it as a curse, this promise of loneliness. I have heard it intoned lachrymosely and proudly—in our time Jewish pride has a disturbingly parasitic relationship with Jewish lachrymosity—all my life. It chills me to the bone. It is a locution for prophets, not prime ministers. The Jews cannot dwell alone. In fact, their history shows that they never did dwell alone. It is not a tale of insularity and isolation. The apartness of the Jews was never a complete secession from their environment. The engagement of the Jews with the world was a matter not only of practical necessity, but also of theological conviction. And not even the darkest and most dire adversity succeeded in driving them entirely into themselves.
When, in the modern era, the Zionists concluded, quite correctly, that the Jews must extract themselves from anti-Semitic societies and establish a society of their own, a sovereign one, in the land of Israel, it was in part to “normalize” them by making them “reckoned among the nations,” and therefore like other nations. Zionism was a reversal of Balaam’s phony blessing. The state was not supposed to be a bunker, even if it had enemies. But Netanyahu is a creature of the bunker. He talks about peace, but not like a man who hungers for it. He takes no steps toward peace except as the consequence of a crisis—a crisis not with the Palestinians but with the Americans. He liturgically intones his warnings, some of them true, about the external dangers facing Israel, and mistakes brutishness for toughness, and offers nothing. He is a gray, muddling, reactive figure. His preferred strategy for his country is: one quiet week after another unto eternity. His problem is that there are not many quiet weeks.
But about those activists: a great deal of bathetic rubbish has been written about them. Insofar as they were bringing food and medicine to Gaza, they were humanitarians; but insofar as they were striking a blow for the government of Gaza, they were anti-humanitarians. A real “Freedom Flotilla” would have sailed for Gaza to liberate it from its rulers. For Hamas stifles Gaza from within even as Israel stifles it from without. It oppresses the Palestininans who live under its sway and has brought them ruin. When did it become progressive to support a theocracy? Consider the case of Henning Mankell, the Swedish writer of thrillers (and the son-in-law of Ingmar Bergman) who was a passenger on one of the boats in the “Freedom Flotilla.” In his youth he took part in anti-Vietnam and anti-apartheid demonstrations, presumably in the spirit of secular reason. For a while he lived in Norway and participated in the activities of a radical Maoist party: let us call that secular unreason. Now he does the work of Hamas and its mullahs. Last year Mankell attended the Palestine Festival of Literature in east Jerusalem—or would have attended it, if the Israeli authorities had not idiotically closed it down. When he returned to Sweden, he wrote that “there is a straight line between Soweto, Sharpeville, and what recently happened [I presume he was referring to the war] in Gaza.” And: “Is it strange that some [Palestinians] in pure desperation, when they cannot see any other way out, decide to become suicide bombers? Not really. Maybe it is strange that there are not more of them.” And: “The state of Israel in its current form has no future. Moreover, those who advocate a two-state solution have not got it right. … The question is whether it will be possible to talk sense into the Israelis in order for them to willingly accept the end of their own apartheid state.” This man has rights, at sea and on land, but he can hardly be lauded as a champion of peace and reconciliation. You are not for co-existence if you advocate the disappearance of one of the terms. (Consider, analogously, the recent adventures of Noam Chomsky in the region. It was widely noted that the Israelis, again idiotically, turned him away at the Allenby Bridge. It was less widely noted that a few days later a reporter for The New York Times accidentally discovered him in Lebanon at the home of Nabil Qaouk, the deputy head of Hezbollah, which is not what Voltaire had in mind.)
And yet the screw must be turned again: the anti-Israeli virulence of Henning Mankell and his maritime comrades does not make Israel’s assault on the Mavi Marmara more just or more wise. Now the Israeli government may find it impossible not to modify or even to lift the blockade of Gaza—an outcome that no decent person can decry, as long as Hamas does not exploit the respite to acquire weapons or what it needs to make them, and the past is not encouraging in this regard. Netanyahu will do what he can to get past the mess, hoping that the approach of the midterm elections in the United States will rescue him from the pressure, and the deadening hand of the status quo will be back. And Israel will be known to more and more people—in a wounding misrepresentation—mainly for cruelty.
Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic.