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Jun-07-2010 15:41printcomments

Why Israel Chooses Violence

The attack on the flotilla off Gaza is the Jewish state's latest attempt to radicalise the Palestinians.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

(LONDON) - Israel's deadly commando assault last Monday on the Freedom Flotilla has been variously denounced around the world as state terrorism, piracy, a war crime and as the latest example of Israel's arrogant contempt for international law and its criminal indifference for (non-Jewish) human life.

In view of the enormity of the act — and the toll of dead and wounded among unarmed activists seeking to break the three-year Gaza siege — these charges appear justified. But they do not explain why Israel chooses to behave as it does. Its leaders, both civilian and military, are not fumbling, hysterical novices. Their actions are deliberate and carefully weighed. So what is the cold-eyed strategy behind them?

There would seem to be two distinct security doctrines at work, one directed at the Palestinians, the other at Israel's adversaries in the wider Middle East — Iran, first and foremost, but also Tehran's Arab allies, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas.

There is no great mystery about Israel's strategy towards the Palestinians. From the very beginning of the Zionist project, it has sought to defeat them and chase them off their land. Ever since the 1967 war, Jewish colonisation of the Occupied Territories has proceeded apace under Israeli governments of all political colourings. The longing for a Greater Israel extending from the sea to the Jordan River is not confined to messianic zealots and far-right nationalists. It is more widely shared in Israel today than at any time since the creation of the state.

To realise its expansionist ambitions, Israel has always sought to avoid serious negotiations with the Palestinians because, if negotiations were to succeed, they would inevitably mean ceding territory. Israel detests Palestinian moderates, who want to negotiate — like Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas — and far prefers Palestinian radicals, like Hamas, with whom no negotiation is possible. A familiar Israeli refrain gives the game away. "How can you negotiate with someone who wants to kill you?"

The attack on the flotilla off the Gaza coast must be seen as Israel's latest attempt to radicalise the Palestinians, and hence torpedo, even before they have properly started, the so-called ‘proximity' talks, which George Mitchell, US President Barack Obama's Middle East envoy, has laboriously set up. Abbas will now be under great pressure to withdraw from the talks or risk being denounced as a traitor by inflamed Palestinian and Arab opinion.

Buying time

No doubt the Israeli calculation is that the storm will blow over and time will have been gained for more expansion. Israel's latest armed assault will soon be forgotten in much the same way as its murderous war on Gaza in December-January 2008-9 has itself been largely overtaken by events. The Gaza siege continues, the Palestinians remain divided, the international community huffs and puffs but does nothing, and Israel prepares to extend its colonies.

No doubt, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu believes Obama will not dare to get tough with Israel before the mid-term elections next November — or indeed after them, if the Democrats lose ground.

As for Israel's security doctrine towards the wider Middle East, this was forged even before the creation of the state by David Ben-Gurion, its first prime minister: to guarantee its security and continued existence in a hostile environment, Israel must be the military master of the region, more powerful than any combination of its adversaries. Israel must never show weakness and must never fail to react with full force to any challenge — even one posed by unarmed pro-Palestinian peace activists. "Never again!" is the slogan of a belligerently defiant Jewish state.

Netanyahu and his fellow ideologues are, of course, engaged in a high-risk and high-cost strategy. Israel now finds itself at odds with much of the world. Hatred of the Jewish state will become more intense, and not only among Muslims, with its inevitable accompaniment of anti-Semitism. The ‘de-legitimisation' of Israel — which already worries many Jewish intellectuals in the US and Europe — will gather pace.

International pressure on Israel to lift the cruel three-year siege of Gaza may become irresistible. Egypt, formally at peace with Israel since 1979, will come under great pressure from its own angry public to sever relations. Turkey, once Israel's ally, has now joined the ranks of its most bitter enemies. This is the heaviest price Israel will have to pay for its violent oppression of the Palestinians, its land hunger and its extravagant regional ambitions. The crisis has developed into a contest for regional supremacy between Israel and Turkey.

The United States will itself pay a heavy price for Israel's aggressive behaviour. Its troublesome ally has become a burden. This is Obama's dilemma. If he confronts Israel firmly — as he would no doubt like to do — he will suffer politically at home; if he does not, his reputation will suffer abroad.

The key, so-far unanswered question is whether the international crisis will lead to an internal crisis in Israel itself. There is just a possibility that Israeli opinion, alarmed at the hostility of the world and fearful of losing American support, may rebel against Netanyahu's intransigent and dangerous policies. He may be forced to resign and face fresh elections.

This is perhaps the outcome Obama is praying for.


Patrick Seale is a British journalist and author who specialises in the Middle East. He is a former correspondent for The Observer, and has interviewed many of the Middle East's most prominent leaders and personalities.

Seale is the author of a number of books, including The Struggle for Syria (1965), French Revolution 1968 (1968), Philby, the Long Road to Moscow (1973), The Hilton Assignment (1973), Asad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East (1988) and Abu Nidal: A Gun for Hire (1992). He also ghostwrote Desert Warrior, the 1995 Gulf War memoirs of Saudi prince Khaled bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz.

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