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Israel Can Win Every Battle but Still Lose the War

In the Wall Street Journal today, I write about the disastrous consequences of Israel’s boarding operation off Gaza. Although the Israelis were perfectly justified in trying to stop Hamas from receiving outside aid, the way they went about it resulted in a public-relations catastrophe. A friend asks me in essence, So what? Is growing international approval really a problem for Israel? I believe it is.

Israel cannot afford to become another South Africa, Burma, or North Korea. Come to think of it, even South Africa couldn’t afford to become South Africa: an international pariah regime. It was too democratic and too Western to bear such isolation indefinitely in the way that absolute dictatorships like Burma or North Korea can. The international embargo ultimately led to a crisis of confidence within Afrikaner leadership circles and to the negotiated end to the racist regime. Israel, I stress, is no South Africa: it is not an apartheid regime. It is in fact the most liberal and democratic regime in the region, offering Arabs more rights than they are offered in any of its immediate neighbors. And Israel is, mercifully, not yet subject to the kind of international opprobrium that South Africa (rightly) received. Unfortunately, it is heading in that direction.

Other CONTENTIONS bloggers have noted that liberal Gentiles long ago turned on Israel; now it’s the turn of liberal Jews. Israel already faces the most hostile administration in Washington in decades — perhaps ever. This is an ominous trend. Israel depends on trade and interaction with the rest of the world; its people are liberal and Western in their outlook — they need to feel a part of the “West.” That image is furthered when Israel joins the OECD, the club of advanced industrial countries, as it just did. But incidents such as the Gaza flotilla fight set Israel back and further the propaganda war being waged against it by its enemies. Israel cannot afford to provide its foes further ammunition.

That doesn’t mean it should refrain from legitimate acts of self-defense (such as killing Hamas big shots or retaliating for Hamas rocket strikes), but it should be ultra careful to manage public perceptions of its actions. Unfortunately, the Israeli Defense Forces have always shown more competence at tactical kinetic operations than at information operations. That deficiency was revealed during the 2006 war with Hezbollah and now more recently in the botched raid on the Gaza ships. Granted, Israel is getting better about managing the consequences of its actions; the IDF gets kudos for posting video of the raid online quickly and making some naval commandos available for interviews. But if Israel were strategically smarter, it would have avoided the raid altogether, with all the possibilities of something going wrong, and used more stealthy means to prevent the Hamas activists from reaching their objective. The IDF should be mindful of the French experience in Algeria and the American experience in Vietnam: it is possible to win every battle and still lose the war.



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