Max, there is no question that the Israeli operation was a problematic one because it was (a) detected, (b) went badly for the commandos who were given the task of interdicting it, and (c) was clearly designed to create an international incident. Let’s take these in order.
Detected: You, like Ronen Bergman in the Wall Street Journal today, suggest Israel should have done something to the Mavi Marmara and the flotilla before the commandos had to board it. But the very fact that Israel didn’t do that suggests that it couldn’t. I don’t know this for a fact, but you and Bergman don’t know otherwise.
Went badly: The operation went badly because people were killed and Israeli soldiers were beaten. Clearly, this was not what a pristine operation would have been like. The Israelis certainly need to figure out what went wrong here and why the staging proved incompetent. But military operations involving commandos do go wrong. That doesn’t make them fiascoes, catastrophes, or justify the use of terms that suggest this event is on a par with the French defeat at Agincourt. This one is only a worldwide “fiasco” because of the media response, which is what this is really all about, anyway.
Create an international incident: The Gaza blockade is a signal part of Israel’s military strategy against Hamas. This whole business was ginned up to provoke an Israeli response. Either way. Way One: Israel lets the ships go through, and Hamas exults in the shattering of the blockade. Way Two: Israel interdicts the flotilla, hauls “humanitarian activists” into jail, and Hamas scores a propaganda victory. Way Two is what happened, with the addition of bloodshed and Israeli casualties. That was horrible, but it was in the cards once the ships sailed — if, as I presume is true, the Israeli claim that the Mavi Marmara could not be stopped at sea because it was a cruise ship and was simply too big. Bergman uses as his example of what Israel did better a 2006 blockade run that Israel allowed to go through — but that’s not an apposite example, because in that case, Israel was able to interdict the ship and bring it into port and search its cargo. And thus the blockade wasn’t breached. In this case, it would have been.
The Hamas-staged event was a brilliant gambit. But it is not analogous to the disaster in Lebanon in 2006, because that was a full-scale war that failed to achieve its objectives. This is more akin to a classic intifada event in which the Palestinians succeed with media collusion in portraying a completely moral Israeli military action as a war crime.
Finally, you write:
Israel should be willing to risk international opprobrium when it faces a true existential threat. It needs, for example, to retaliate for Hamas rocket strikes, as it did with Operation Cast Lead. No state can allow its territory to be attacked with impunity. Israel also needs to seriously consider the possibility of bombing Iranian nuclear facilities no matter the denunciations that such an operation would inevitably bring; the potential payoff is worth the public-relations cost. But the Mavi Marmara was not an existential threat; it was not loaded with missiles or other weapons. It was a provocation, an act of political theater — and Israel should have been smart enough to avoid playing the part scripted by its enemies. Even letting the ship dock in Gaza would have done less damage to Israel than the manner in which it was stopped.
I think the problem here is that this presumes a greater degree of knowledge than Israel may have possessed. Perhaps Israel should have known that the Mavi Marmara did not possess missiles and other weapons, but evidently it didn’t. And it also presumes something even more problematic: that the blockade of Gaza is less important militarily or existentially than Israel getting a lot of heat for what happened on the ship. Because once the ship docks, the blockade is over.
The defense of Israel these past few days on CONTENTIONS isn’t intended to quell discussion of what might have gone wrong; rather, it is, as it always is, to refute the constant insistence that any time Israel acts in its own defense it is engaged in immoral action rather than in the vital task of preserving the security of its people.