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Israel in a post-flotilla world

Three weeks ago, a guest speaker lectured to our Public Diplomacy class on diplomacy and Web 2.0. A leader of her own diplomatic marketing company focused on web networking, she led us through a vigorous and maybe more argumentative than she expected discussion on the import and impact of Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and so on in major international events such as Iran’s election, the Haiti earthquake, and the U.S. presidential election of 2008, and then posed us a final puzzle, which went as follows:

In a couple of weeks, a group of six boats would be coming to Israel with about 300 tons of humanitarian aid intended for the residents of the Gaza Strip. They would have journalists on board with them and were already creating huge amounts of publicity. Israel, meanwhile, has been letting in tens to hundreds of tons of humanitarian aid to Gaza daily, and no one hears about it. What should Israel do to get the message out?

“Let the boats in?” a classmate said.

“Meet the boats and negotiate on the delivery?” another added.

We can’t change policy, she stressed, just presentation.

“Oh, put a bunch of YouTube videos of the trucks delivering aid, then. And tweet the links,” we guessed as class ended. Seemed obvious enough.

Clearly though, whatever plans the government had for the flotilla were not so well thought out. Starting with the policy.

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Regardless of one’s view on the Gaza blockade, the Israeli government, or the regional conflict in general, the flotilla response was a tactical nightmare for Israel. The general narrative that has emerged in Israel is hardly kind to those on the flotilla: funded by a Hamas-supporting, Turkish, Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated movement, filled with attention-seeking provocateurs at best and Hamas-associated invaders at worst, the flotilla movement endeavor is hardly considered a peaceful one. Few in Israel, for example, blame the soldiers for responding to attacks on their lives and kidnap attempts with live fire. Yes, nine died the story goes, but for many in Israel, soldiers thrown off boats or suffering serious stab-inflicted injuries will be the most salient memory of the fighting.

Still, the majority agrees with the rest of the world that the raid was a phenomenally stupid endeavor. Israel knew about the ships for weeks, and their final plan was to send soldiers one at a time onto a boat in the half-light of pre-dawn? With an intelligence failure rendering the soldiers unprepared for the mob scene waiting for them on deck? With all that time, nothing better could be devised to maintain Israel’s strategy of the blockade without casualties? Hamas could not have dreamed of a better result, for one.

The tactical failure leads to a strategic loss as well: pressure for an end to the blockade builds inside and outside the country. President Barack Obama has been wise to reserve criticism publicly (the trick with Israel is to support publicly and encourage/cajole/threaten privately, and it looks like the U.S. is starting to catch on), but he called for a change on the blockade, joining the rest of the international community. If Israel doesn’t change or at least significantly adjust their policy, the situation could grow beyond their control.

Beyond this, Israel continues to hurt their more significant strategic interests. Israel desires a modicum of world support, especially on the Iran effort. Israel needs to convince the world that Iran’s nuclear policy is a global problem, but nevertheless the U.S. leads the charge for sanctions, and many see the U.S. as serving Israel’s interests in this effort. And while Israel does not want to be treated like a subservient child who can only earn a piece of cake by finishing all their broccoli, they underestimate the importance of generating goodwill, time and again.

The optimist continues to look at the latest crisis as the latest opportunity for change. Indeed, the first post-flotilla boat came in peacefully to the local Israel port Ashdod, and reports suggest Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is open to adjusting the blockade controls and incorporating international help. We might hope no recurrence of such boat takeovers will result. Then again, we might have hoped that before last week as well.

I talked to several Israelis who used the word “depressed” to define their reaction. No one sees the government as one with any vision or, even more crucially, any leadership. It’s widely known that a Palestinian peace plan will be based on the Clinton Parameters, and the Syrian peace plan will be based on Golan Heights for peace and a severing of the Syria-Hezbollah-Iran ties.

Similarly, it’s sensed that Netanyahu can only get there by changing the current government coalition to a Likud/Kadima/Labor national unity government. What is unknown is if and when we’ll ever get there.

I was in the U.S. this weekend for a wedding. Many people asked me what living in Israel is like, and what the deal is with the boats. I said it was intense, and that the news creates its own cycle for me: a new event, usually bad, pops up, and I read the paper and browse the web with trepidation for a few days, hoping things would cool off without major damages to the country. The hit in Dubai, the housing announcement during Vice President Joe Biden’s visit, now this: each event seems to be bigger and more critical than the one before, each cycle of event and feedback longer and more damaging. And this is a very abbreviated list.

The government needs to break this cycle, both with better tactics and with a new strategy, an outlook, heck, a vision even. Somehow, I don’t think a more cohesive YouTube effort will be enough.

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