With diplomatic efforts to stop this year’s flotilla to Gaza a seeming success, a new myth has arisen: The success of this year’s effort proves Israel could also have stopped last year’s flotilla without bloodshed had it only been a bit smarter. Max implied as much here; Haaretz said it openly. But the sorry truth is Israel’s diplomatic efforts succeeded this time only because of its willingness to use deadly force last year.
Since Israel’s diplomatic efforts failed so utterly last year, they garnered no international attention. But in fact, Israel tried desperately to stop the flotilla peacefully right up until its commandos boarded the ships. It negotiated frantically with Turkey, whose nationals comprised the bulk of the passengers, and even reached an agreement under which the flotilla would dock in Israel and the Turkish Red Crescent would then transfer the cargo to Gaza; but Ankara reneged at the last minute. It begged the countries whence the ships were sailing (Turkey, Greece and Ireland) not to let them depart and urged other Western countries, especially the U.S., to employ their diplomatic leverage. But all to no avail: The unanimous response was democracies can’t bar peaceful demonstrators from sailing the high seas.
So why was it suddenly okay for democratic countries to intervene this year? Because this year, they had an excuse: The intervention was meant to prevent bloodshed. Indeed, officials worldwide said this explicitly. Greek Foreign Minister Stavros Lambrinidis said Greece was barring the ships from departing to prevent the “humanitarian disaster” that might ensue from a confrontation with Israel’s navy. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland explained Washington’s opposition to the flotilla similarly: By seeking to break the naval blockade of Gaza, the ships “are taking irresponsible and provocative actions that risk the safety of their passengers.”
It was also last year’s bloodshed, though for different reasons, that led Ankara to pressure the Turkish organization IHH to withdraw from this year’s flotilla shortly before it was due to sail. IHH, which has close links to Turkey’s government, was the driving force behind last year’s violence; its activists brutally assaulted the Israeli soldiers, forcing them to open fire in self-defense. The problem for Ankara is that a UN panel investigating last year’s flotilla is due to present its findings shortly, and astoundingly, it reportedly concluded that Turkey also bore some responsibility for the deadly outcome. Ankara is now frantically trying to get Israel to agree to soften the wording (both countries are on the panel), so the last thing it needed was for IHH to spark another round of bloodshed.
Like Max, I still think Israel mishandled last year’s interception. Yet it now turns out last year’s violence was necessary to achieve this year’s peaceful resolution. That’s certainly a pity. But it also proves, once again, that “soft power” works best when backed by hard power – and the willingness to use it.