The National Times

by Jeremy Pressman

How sad to see Israeli officials from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu down hotly defend a ship boarding gone horribly awry. For an Israeli action so detrimental to Israeli national security, especially in relation to Iran and Turkey, perhaps a more measured Israeli response would have been appropriate.

Israel's military and intelligence agencies were once deemed invincible. There was a certain aura around Israeli operations, whether they were conventional campaigns such as the 1967 triumph in six days, the daring rescue at Entebbe of hijacked passengers in 1976, or the capture of Nazi leader Adolf Eichmann in Argentina in 1960.

Having such a reputation was not trivial. Israel's national security doctrine has long been based on the idea of deterrence, inspiring such fear in one's adversaries that they will opt not to challenge in the military arena. Israeli military prowess not only helped Israel survive but also contributed to major diplomatic breakthroughs such as Egypt's peace treaty with Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation's recognition of Israel.

But if in Israel's first three decades it mastered the military game, more recent history has told a different story. In 1982, Israel's invasion of Lebanon not only led to massive domestic protests but also sparked the creation of Hezbollah. Israeli forces became bogged down in southern Lebanon until a unilateral withdrawal in 2000. In 2006, Hezbollah fought mighty Israel to a draw in a month-long war.

In the clandestine realm, a botched assassination attempt of a Hamas leader in Amman in 1997 not only led Israel to release Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin from prison but also jeopardised Israel's then-new peace treaty with Jordan.

Fast forward to May 31, 2010. Once again, we are presented with a botched Israeli operation in tactical terms. But more importantly, Israel either failed to anticipate or simply disregarded the international fallout. If, as Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman suggested on the Wall Street Journal's editorial page, it was the latter, this likely will not be the last of Israel's self-inflicted wounds.

Now, instead of an aura of operational effectiveness, Israeli forces look poorly prepared. Who will fear the Israeli military if elite Israeli commandos are complaining about being hit with deck chairs and metal rods? Questions have already been raised in Israel about training, intelligence, planning, and unit selection.

On the regional level, the implications are not good for Israel either. The focus on the incident takes attention away from the international focus on Iran's nuclear program. Moreover, a sense of Israeli disregard for the rule of law, of Israel as a rogue state and thus the need to protest that no, Israel is not like North Korea, obviously does not lay the proper groundwork for dealing with Iran.

Does Israel want the UN Security Council to focus on Iran or Israeli actions on the high seas? The answer would seem to be obvious, but Israeli actions suggest otherwise.

Meanwhile, the boarding has harmed already worsening Israeli-Turkish ties. While both sides share some of the blame for the deterioration in the past two years, current Israeli leaders seem unable to recognise the great value of the close, positive ties they had just two years ago with Turkey, a Muslim-majority country. Israel should be working extra hard to keep Turkey as an ally, and yet it pressed forward with a policy of further alienation.

A world in which Turkey is hell-bent on confronting Israel will not be pleasant.

Israel had other options that would preserve its security. It could have modified the Gaza blockade, either through the crossings it controls or working with Egypt on the crossing at Rafah. It could have allowed the ships to reach Gaza, as Israel has done sometimes in the past. Who around the world knew that Israel had let ships in before? Almost no one, because not falling into the public relations trap meant neither Israel's security nor image suffered at those times.

The irony is that the Israeli government and many of its so-called defenders here and around the world are vigorously defending an action that undermines Israeli security on the very issues that they profess to be so concerned about. Oddly, these pro-Israeli forces are promoting Israeli insecurity.

Jeremy Pressman is a postdoctoral fellow at the US Studies Centre. He is writing a book on force and diplomacy in the Arab-Israeli conflict.