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Meet the Legal Wonks Who Brought Down the Flotilla

At a radical left-wing coffee shop in Washington, D.C. last month, Code Pink founder and “Freedom Flotilla II” passenger Medea Benjamin woefully recounted the moment she realized her boat, the Audacity of Hope, wouldn’t be legally permitted to leave a port in Greece to sail to Gaza.

“There was something called a ‘complaint’ that was put against our boat,” Benjamin explained to a crowd of anti-Israel activists stuffed into the back room of the restaurant. “Well, it didn’t take long for somebody to uncover that the person, or entity, that lodged the complaint was none other than this right-wing Israeli law center based in Tel Aviv, that knew nothing about our boat and certainly had no interest in the passengers’ safety.”

The “right-wing” law center that caused Benjamin so much grief is Shurat HaDin – the Israeli group that single-handedly took down the “Freedom Flotilla II” simply by filing creative lawsuits. In total, nine out of the 10 boats in the flotilla never touched Israeli waters, largely due to Shurat HaDin’s work.

Led by Nitsana Darshan-Leitner and her husband Avi Leitner, the legal center is pioneering a new strategy of Israeli-self defense: Pro-Israel Lawfare.

“There is a way of fighting back, we just have to start thinking like Jews again,” Avi Leitner told me during the Leitners’ recent visit to D.C. “And remember, the Jews invented lawfare, the Jews invented law. So you don’t sit on your hands.”

The first step the legal center took against the flotilla was to target private companies that may have been assisting it. “We thought, what do boats need in order to sail?” Darshan-Leitner told me. “And we realized that all boats must have insurance.” Shurat HaDin began by contacting the major maritime insurance agencies, and informing them they might be criminally liable for “aiding and abetting” a terrorist organization if they provided insurance.

The response was very positive: some of the companies even said they were aware of the legal consequences, and had already made the decision not to work with the flotilla.

Shortly after, Shurat HaDin was contacted by the Israeli Prime Minister’s office, which offered its assistance. “They said we had to do anything, anything possible to stop the flotilla,” said Darshan-Leitner. “They asked if there was anything they could do. We said, ‘you tell us, what else do ships need?’”

The prime minister’s office said the boats would require satellite communication service to access GPS, contact the port, and – most importantly – to facilitate media coverage. Shurat HaDin immediately sent a letter to the major satellite provider for the area, warning it of the legal consequences if it worked with the flotilla.

Next, Shurat HaDin lawyers discovered American flotilla activists were potentially in violation of the Neutrality Act, which prohibits U.S. citizens from taking part in a hostile act against an allied country. “So we approached the Attorney General of the United States to fix it. And we also got Gov. Rick Perry to write a letter to Eric Holder,” said Darshan-Leitner.

It may seem a little weird that the governor of Texas would be one of the first people Darshan-Leitner approached to help with the plan. But she explained that Perry was enthusiastically on-board with the cause ever since he met her on a trip to Israel.

“I once spoke at a mission that Perry took part in, in Israel,” she said. “And he approached me and said, ‘I love what you do. It’s amazing what you do. If you ever need help combating Israel’s enemies, I’m here to assist.’”

So with Attorney General Holder on notice – and a Neutrality Act lawsuit filed in New York federal court – Shurat HaDin turned its attention toward Greece. The group discovered the country had a Neutrality Act similar to the one in the U.S., and it prohibited boats from leaving Greece to sail to illegal ports, including Gaza.

Shurat HaDin notified the Greek minister of civil protection about the flotilla, and he immediately blocked the ships from leaving Greece.

“The second thing he did was order the port authorities in Greece to raid the boats and to find what’s wrong with each and every boat – to be very, very particular,” said Darshan-Leitner, clearly amused. “And at that point, an additional six or seven boats were grounded. Because they found a lot of [problems] there.”

This was around the time Code Pink’s Medea Benjamin and her fellow flotilla activists finally caught on to the scheme. But by that point, there wasn’t much they could do.

“When the activists found that [the Audacity of Hope ship was] grounded, they came and they did a press conference, blaming us: ‘How dare this lawfare organization use lawfare against our boat,’” said Darshan-Leitner, laughing.

It’s certainly an ironic scenario. For years, Israel has struggled to combat the left’s delegitimization tactics. But Israel’s public relations strategy has tended to fall short, coming off as overly-defensive and reactionary. And some of its recent attempts to crack down on delegitimization – like the latest anti-boycott law – have done more to damage Israel’s public image than improve it.

Which is why Shurat HaDin’s tactics are so refreshing. There’s something immensely satisfying in outthinking and outmaneuvering the enemy. Stuxnet, Entebbe, Operation Eichmann – these all inspire awe in part because they illustrate the cleverness and ingenuity of the Israelis.

Blocking the Gaza flotilla doesn’t exactly measure up to those historic events. But it’s still a story that should make Israel supporters cheer.

“It evens the playing field. You can either sit there and moan about it, or you can actually try to do something about it,” said Leitner. “There is a way to fight back, there is a way to get good media, and there is a way to get the world to respect you.”


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