Slow Apology

Why did it take so long for Israel to say sorry for the flotilla raid?

It's great that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu apologized last week for the 2010 Israeli commando raid that killed nine Turkish civilians on a Gaza-bound flotilla.  But the apology came three years too late. The delay contributed to a host of preventable diplomatic, economic, and geopolitical harms, including some that may prove incurable. Netanyahu's refusal to utter the word "sorry" any sooner was driven by the heart, not the head. Had Jerusalem -- with the support of Washington -- put pragmatism ahead of pride, the flotilla issue might have been put to rest some time ago, and a cascade of ill consequences averted.

Many facts about the flotilla raid remain contested, but six investigations -- two by Turkey, two by Israel, and two by the United Nations -- tell us this much: In May 2010, a six-ship flotilla of boats carrying humanitarian aid and bent on challenging Israel's naval boycott of the Gaza Strip was intercepted by an Israeli commando raid. Aboard one boat, the Mavi Marmara, a violent confrontation led to the deaths of nine activists, eight Turkish and one Turkish-American, by gunshot wounds. Ten of the Israeli commandos were also injured, one seriously.

The flotilla incident had serious consequences for already-deteriorating Israeli-Turkish relations, and reverberated across the region, in Europe and in Washington. Israel and Turkey had enjoyed a mostly harmonious period of close economic, tourism and military ties during the 1990s through to the mid-2000s -- in 2006, the Israeli Foreign Ministry described its relationship with Turkey as "perfect." Dealings between Ankara and Jerusalem then soured due to friction over the 2008-09 Israeli military operation in Gaza and stagnation in the peace process. Yet trade remained robust, as did defense cooperation. For a time, Turkey even played a role as intermediary brokering secret talks between Israel and Syria. 

After the flotilla raid, however, the fissure between Ankara and Jerusalem widened into a gulf. Turkey expelled Israel's ambassador in Ankara and suspended military ties. Israel lost billions of dollars in canceled defense contracts. Domestically, the split strengthened the hand of Turkey's conservative Islamists and heightened Erdogan's support from that camp. The flotilla standoff also complicated U.S.-Turkey relations.  In the latest example, Erdogan's late February remark that Zionism constituted a "crime against humanity," (which he would later clarify) triggered condemnation from the White House at a time when the two countries are trying to cooperate closely on Syria.

Some analysts have argued that the flotilla was little more than a convenient excuse, allowing Erdogan to cloak powerful, preexisting anti-Israel instincts under cover of justifiable anger. But even if that's true, the rift had deleterious consequences. When upheavals began in a half-dozen Arab states in 2011, Israel and Turkey could not turn to one another amid the region's numerous rocky transitions and had to court other allies instead. The incident also deepened Israel's isolation at the United Nations, helping pave the way for the 2012 Palestinian bid for recognition as a state to garner overwhelming support in the General Assembly, including from many countries in Europe.

The question of whether an Israeli apology for the flotilla raid was warranted or wise is now moot. After refusing for almost three years to say sorry, Netanyahu -- a man not known for self-effacement -- finally saw the wisdom in saying what the Turks were waiting to hear. It likely helped that Israel's recent elections were behind him, and that the right-wingers most hostile to an apology lost ground at the polls (Netanyahu's hard-line ex-foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, slammed the apology, saying it would demoralize the Israel Defense Forces and embolden radicals in the region). The prolonged chaos and intensifying threat along both countries' borders as a result of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's brutal onslaught against his people may also have been a motivating factor.

Whether Netanyahu was motivated by genuine remorse or by practical considerations is beside the point. If his standoffishness served Erdogan's ulterior purposes of rallying anti-Israel sentiment in the Muslim world, all the more reason for Jerusalem to get the apology over with faster and deprive the Turkish leader the cover of righteous indignation. The unwillingness to apologize sooner illustrates a familiar pattern of the Netanyahu government's high-minded yet unproductive reaction to the ostracism it faces internationally. The costs that resulted from the delay are a potent reminder that apologies can be a gesture of strength rather than weakness.

An apology and quick reconciliation after the flotilla incident were not out of the question. Global reaction to the flotilla flowed through two U.N. vessels, the Security Council in New York and the Human Rights Council (HRC) in Geneva. The Security Council took a measured approach to the explosive incident, but the Human Rights Council prolonged the standoff. While the difference is due in part to the distinct make-up and politics of the two bodies, also important were how Washington and Jerusalem played their hands in each. If the aim was to minimize the fallout from the raid on Israel's global standing, the shrewd approach followed in New York should have been mirrored in Geneva.

Within a day of the raid, the Security Council, with U.S. leadership, reached consensus on a statement condemning "those acts which resulted in the loss of at least 10 civilians and many wounded" and calling for a "prompt, impartial, credible and transparent investigation conforming to international standards." Artfully, the council dodged the question of who would conduct the investigation: Israel or the U.N. The United States' decision to join that statement meant that Jerusalem was at least tacitly on board; the administration would have coordinated with Israel on such a high-stakes subject. Rather than asking the United States to block or veto Security Council action, Israel wisely concluded it was better for the Americans to use their leverage to help shape a moderate outcome, one that centered on a credible investigation to determine the facts. In turn, the muted wording of the Security Council text showed the lengths the Turks and their allies were willing to go to get U.S. support. The Turks had initially demanded a strong condemnation of Israel's "act of aggression" and "punishment" for those responsible. Getting the U.S. on board with a statement that implied criticism of Israel was a coup for them, and in return they agreed to language that was acceptable to Washington and -- at least indirectly -- Jerusalem. The resulting text avoided a rush to judgment and set in motion a credible investigation that could help hold those guilty of any abuses accountable, and point out ways to prevent such crisis in future.

Three days later, the Turkish ambassador to the United States, Namik Tan, published an op-ed in the Washington Post arguing that Israel owed Turkey an apology. He stressed that the raid occurred in international waters and represented the first attack on Turkish civilians in the country's 87-year modern history. He also underscored the two countries' history of close diplomatic relations, noted Turkey's status as the first Muslim nation to recognize Israel, and cited his own prior service as Turkey's ambassador in Israel.

The combination of this request and the unified international concern expressed at the Security Council would have seemed to make an apology the obvious next step to defuse the situation. That the full facts weren't yet known could have made it easier to say sorry, making possible a heartfelt statement of contrition rather than a definitive acknowledgment of wrongdoing. 

One reason no apology came may be that the day after the Security Council statement, the flotilla issue was debated at the HRC in Geneva, a fractious 47-member body with a history of heavy focus on Israel. Israel and Washington deplore the HRC's bias, and the United States steadfastly votes against anything Israel-related there. Israel has consistently made clear its preference that the United States vote no down the line on Israel resolutions, even though it means the resulting HRC texts lack Washington's moderating influence. Sustaining the Security Council compromise in Geneva would have been a heavy diplomatic lift, though the U.S. team there thought that it was potentially doable. Getting there would have required, though, that Washington break its pattern of disengagement on Israel-related resolutions and use its leverage to extract wording that matched that of the New York statement. It would also have meant sustaining the Security Council's artful dodge over who would conduct the investigation it mandated: Israel or the U.N.

That didn't happen. Washington and Jerusalem mistrusted the HRC and reflexively stiffened their spines in protest rather than leaning in for compromise. In the hours between Security Council and HRC action, several ambassadors, including a U.S. deputy ambassador, also punctured through the papered-over disagreement over who would carry out the investigation, forcing that dispute into the open. These ill-considered statements made an accommodation at the HRC impossible. The HRC predictably reverted to its default mode of stinging criticism of Israel with scant regard for a still-hazy set of facts. With U.S. leverage removed from the equation, the resulting resolution harshly condemned Israel and established its own HRC fact-finding mission to investigate Israeli actions. This outcome was a clear loss for Jerusalem, which feared a repeat of the Goldstone fact-finding mission that had accused Israel of war crimes in the 2008-09 Gaza operation and called for an International Criminal Court probe. True to form, the United States was one of just three countries to vote no.

By the time that resolution was passed, barely 48 hours after the incident itself, prospects for a swift apology and a single, widely supported international investigation had vanished. Israel was in a defensive crouch and Turkey and the Palestinians had their allies riled up. In the ensuing months of overlapping investigations, accusations and revelations deepened the fissures. Turkey did little to abate the crisis, claiming the high ground of awaiting an apology that most of the world thought appropriate.

The reasons for Netanyahu's reluctance to apologize to Turkey are not hard to discern: The flotilla was deliberately provocative, the actions of the Israeli commandos occurred in self-defense and were justified, according to Israel's account, and relations with Turkey were deteriorating anyway. But just because Netanyahu's position was defensible does not mean it was wise. Had Washington and Jerusalem been bound and determined to extend the New York compromise to Geneva, even though it would have meant setting aside longstanding U.S. policy, they might have averted a frosty and costly two years in Israeli in Turkey relations.

It remains to be seen whether Netanyahu's apology will restore any Turkish goodwill. It's certainly smart of him to try. The question is why he didn't figure this out a lot sooner.



March Madness

The top sports cinderella stories vs. the best from world history.

With America's college basketball championship entering its second weekend featuring face-offs between the Sweet Sixteen best teams in the country, it is the time of year when hopes ride with the Cinderellas, the little squads that have beaten the odds by getting this far in the tournament. Oddsmakers be damned, these little schools from places like Wichita, Kansas (the Wichita State "Shockers") and Fort Meyers, Florida (the Florida Gulf Coast University Eagles) offer hope to the little guy by showing underdogs can stand up to the big, hugely funded programs who dominate the headlines and the airwaves for most of every year.

But Cinderella stories are not just for basketball tournaments. They have their geopolitical side. After all Cinderella, herself was a working-class heroine who turned a pumpkin and a few mice into a successful power grab in a monarchy ready for some charismatic new blood (in glass slippers). It is not a well-known fact, but the earliest known version of the Cinderella story is actually from ninth-century China (in which the missing slipper was made of gold).

For this reason, and because we obviously had too much free time on our hands one afternoon this week, we have decided to cook up a Sweet Sixteen bracket of our own, pitting eight of the sports world's greatest Cinderella stories against eight of the great rags to riches stories from world history. The goal: determining the greatest Cinderella story of all time. Here's how it all plays out:

The Round of Sixteen

Our first match pits the most famous underdogs ever to play in a U.S. Super Bowl, the 1969 Jets of "Broadway Joe" Namath, versus those once-upon-a-time underdogs of the modern Middle East, those little Davids that took on the Goliaths of the unified Arab World, the Israel Defense Forces of the 1967, led by the equally charismatic one-eyed general, Moshe Dayan.

In the second contest, the Canadian Football League's answer to the Jets, the '00 British Columbia Lions, a team that entered the playoffs following a losing season, suit up against the ultimate long-shot contender: 13 fractured, struggling colonies that first took on the British Empire to win their freedom and then in two short centuries rose to become the greatest power the world has ever known.

Next up we find the 1980 "Miracle on Ice" USA Olympic Hockey Team that beat the powerful Soviet ice hockey behemoth in the semi-final rounds of the Lake Placid Olympics versus a guy who spent much of his youth homeless and penniless but grew up to rule the greatest land empire in human history, that fan favorite, Genghis Khan.

Finally, at the bottom of our left-hand bracket, we have the inspiring Japanese Women's National Soccer Team of 2011, winners of the World Cup in the immediate aftermath of the Fukushima disaster, facing off with the world's most beloved former welfare recipient, the woman from whose brow Harry Potter and the Hogwarts crowd sprang fully grown, J.K. Rowling, now herself a billionaire.

Across the bracket, we find the young man who won "the greatest game ever played": amateur golfer Francis Ouimet, winner of the 1913 U.S. Open, playing the son of a slave who grew up to rule the Roman Empire, the Emperor Diocletian.

Next, perhaps the best-known of all basketball Cinderellas, the 1954 Milan Indiana High School team that were the subjects of the movie Hoosiers confront another Midwestern legend, a man who was born poor but would remake global industry and create a breathtaking fortune in the process: Henry Ford.

The Greek national soccer team of 2004 that stunned the football world by winning the European Championships then encounters a man who knows a thing or two about adversity, who quit school at age 15 to help support his family and then built one of Asia's greatest business empires: Hong Kong investor Li Ka-Shing.

Finally, we see the stars of one of the most improbable sports success stories of the recent past, the 2008-09 Afghan National Cricket Team, which came from nowhere to win Division 5, 4, and 3 championships and qualify for the ICC World Cup. Their opponents? The battered Swedish banking system of the early 1990s, which recovered so well that when the rest of the financial world was rocked by trouble in the crisis of 2008-2009, it was hailed and studied as a model for doing things right.

The Elite Eight

Not surprisingly -- and totally appropriately -- the winners of this all-Cinderella tournament produced some heartwarming victories and for some, the disheartening tolling of midnight as their time as belles of the ball came to an end.

The feisty Israelis easily defeated the New York Jets thanks to a very different idea of what air superiority could mean in such a contest. This set them up in a battle with the United States of America, which handily crushed the BC Lions given the fact that the United States is a nuclear superpower while the Canadian Football League isn't even the third-best football conference in North America. (Lagging behind both the NFL and college football's SEC.)

The "do you believe in miracles?" boys of Lake Placid may have put their Russian rivals' hopes on ice but they could hardly hold their own against Genghis's Mongolian Hordes. And while JK Rowling may have conjured up an end to He Who Must Not Be Named, she was no match for the gutsy Japanese 11, whose rise from the mid-ranks of women's soccer was more breathtaking than any Quidditch contest.

Francis Ouimet went on to become a successful businessman and an ambassador for the sport of golf. But he was no match against Diocletian, who would have won by virtue of his full name alone (Gaius Aurelius Valerius Diocletianus Augustus) even had he not won the Battle of the Margus, defeated the Sarmatians, the Carpi, and the Persians and brought stability to the empire.

Hoosier spunk faced a formidable foe with the man who built the modern automobile industry, but Ford was disqualified for his virulent anti-Semitism -- a trait that won him the Nazis' Grand Cross of the German Eagle, their highest award given to a foreigner, not to mention the enduring admiration of many really, really bad men including Hitler Youth leader Baldur von Shirach.

In a more uplifting victory, the Greek national soccer team was awarded a sentimental victory over Li Ka-shing because, well, he is rich and Greece, well, not so much.

Finally, because the Afghan National Cricket Team didn't actually advance in the Cricket World Cup (and because cricket is appallingly boring and pointless), the Swedish banking system edged them out in the final match of the round.

The Final Four

In the contests among the top eight contenders, the United States defeated Israel because, well, Israel without the support of the United States would not be the same. (Following the defeat, President Barack Obama did however say that the United States would always be a friend to Israelis even if we did have to tend to our own interests in a way that ultimately undercut their aspirations. This alarmed some Israelis, who feared the remarks might one day resonate in the real world.)

This set up a match between the Americans and the Great Khan, from whom the Japanese women fled (for good reason) without putting up a contest. This was after they learned of the fact that DNA evidence showed that as many as 16 million people living today were descendants of the prolific conqueror and his harem of 2-3000 women -- an intimidating record by any measure.

Meanwhile, the boys from Milan High defeated Diocletian because while he had Roman legions, they had the irascible but brilliant guidance of their coach, played by Gene Hackman. (And it is well known that almost no one from any era beats Hackman in his prime.) For their troubles, the Hoosiers were awarded a match against those coolly rational socialist financial wizards from the Swedish banking system.

The Final

America may be the powerhouse of its day, but Genghis Khan ruled the greatest empire of all time and he did it without the benefit of nukes or drones while riding on horseback and living on yak's milk.

On the other side of the final: the Hoosiers. The boys from Milan High beat the Swedes, who had no outside game and nothing like the free-throw accuracy of the under-handed shooters from rural Indiana.

Unfortunately for them, those plucky, corn-fed upstarts then faced the man who conquered most of Eurasia, linked East and West as never before, and was so ruthless that in Iran alone, his victims were so numerous that the country did not reach pre-Mongol population levels until just a few decades ago -- 800 years after his death.

And so the final result: Khan rules. The Cinderella story that began in China ends there as well. Read into that what you will, sports fans.