Voice

I'm standing behind my analogy

Ben Smith reports that China is facing mounting pressure because of its refusal to condemn North Korea for its sinking of the Cheonan

For while much about the incident remains unclear, a day of carefully parsed statements from Zhongnanhai and the Foreign Ministry left at least one irrefutable aftershock: With much of the world expressing fury over the attack, the contrast with Beijing's muted response could not have been more striking. 

 

“The situation is that they’re so isolated right now that it’s not only that we’re the only ones who will stick up for them,” said an Chinese official. “We’re the only ones who believe them – and what they’re saying is true.”

Oh, wait, you know what?  I might have mixed up some of the words in that cut and paste.  Here's the original:

For while much about the incident remains unclear, a day of carefully parsed statements from the White House and State Department left at least one irrefutable aftershock: With much of the world expressing fury over the raid, the contrast with Washington’s muted response could not have been more striking. 

 

“The situation is that they’re so isolated right now that it’s not only that we’re the only ones who will stick up for them,” said an American official. “We’re the only ones who believe them – and what they’re saying is true.”

Whoops, my bad.  It's a good thing there are no similarities whatsoever between the two situations, or readers could have been confused. 

Look this is bad for Israel, and it's going to get worse.  Stratfor's George Friedman makes a trenchant point here:

With roughly the population of Houston, Texas, Israel is just not large enough to withstand extended isolation, meaning this event has profound geopolitical implications.

Public opinion matters where issues are not of fundamental interest to a nation. Israel is not a fundamental interest to other nations. The ability to generate public antipathy to Israel can therefore reshape Israeli relations with countries critical to Israel. For example, a redefinition of U.S.-Israeli relations will have much less effect on the United States than on Israel. The Obama administration, already irritated by the Israelis, might now see a shift in U.S. public opinion that will open the way to a new U.S.-Israeli relationship disadvantageous to Israel.

The Israelis will argue that this is all unfair, as they were provoked... they seem to think that the issue is whose logic is correct. But the issue actually is, whose logic will be heard? As with a tank battle or an airstrike, this sort of warfare has nothing to do with fairness. It has to do with controlling public perception and using that public perception to shape foreign policy around the world. In this case, the issue will be whether the deaths were necessary. The Israeli argument of provocation will have limited traction.

Internationally, there is little doubt that the incident will generate a firestorm. Certainly, Turkey will break cooperation with Israel. Opinion in Europe will likely harden. And public opinion in the United States — by far the most important in the equation — might shift to a “plague-on-both-your-houses” position.

This is serious, because you have people like Jim Henley minimizing the threat to Israel

Israel not only no longer faces any enemies who pose an existential threat, it doesn’t even have enemies who can thwart any strongly held Israeli policy aim.  No state is going to go to war to “destroy Israel.” I doubt any state particularly wants to. Certainly no state that might want to can do so. But beyond that, no state is going to go to war on behalf of the Palestinians and the Palestinians lack the power to launch an effective war on their own behalf.

Henley is  correct about the current military balance of power, but the notion that Israel has no existential threats to worry about is absurd.  The people who control Gaza don't recognize Israel's right to exist, and there's a government in the region that keeps talking about wanting to wipe the country off the face of the map.  They're not powerful enough at present to take action -- but that hardly means that they won't take such action in the future should they acquire greater capabilities. 

All of this is taking place at a moment when Turkey is pivoting against Israel and IDF tactics are exposed as counterproductive.  As Judah Grunstein notes:

This creates a vicious circle with regard to the emphasis on liberty of action, since the IDF's deterrence is no longer based on its Entebbe-era veneer of Mission Impossible-like efficiency, but rather on the knowledge that the Israeli government is willing to use overwhelming and disproportionate force against all provocations, regardless of their threat level.

In conclusion, I agree with an awful lot of what Max Boot says on this: 

Israel cannot afford to become another South Africa, Burma, or North Korea. Come to think of it, even South Africa couldn’t afford to become South Africa: an international pariah regime. It was too democratic and too Western to bear such isolation indefinitely in the way that absolute dictatorships like Burma or North Korea can. The international embargo ultimately led to a crisis of confidence within Afrikaner leadership circles and to the negotiated end to the racist regime. Israel, I stress, is no South Africa: it is not an apartheid regime. It is in fact the most liberal and democratic regime in the region, offering Arabs more rights than they are offered in any of its immediate neighbors. And Israel is, mercifully, not yet subject to the kind of international opprobrium that South Africa (rightly) received. Unfortunately, it is heading in that direction....

That doesn’t mean [Israel] should refrain from legitimate acts of self-defense (such as killing Hamas big shots or retaliating for Hamas rocket strikes), but it should be ultra careful to manage public perceptions of its actions. Unfortunately, the Israeli Defense Forces have always shown more competence at tactical kinetic operations than at information operations. That deficiency was revealed during the 2006 war with Hezbollah and now more recently in the botched raid on the Gaza ships. Granted, Israel is getting better about managing the consequences of its actions; the IDF gets kudos for posting video of the raid online quickly and making some naval commandos available for interviews. But if Israel were strategically smarter, it would have avoided the raid altogether, with all the possibilities of something going wrong, and used more stealthy means to prevent the Hamas activists from reaching their objective. The IDF should be mindful of the French experience in Algeria and the American experience in Vietnam: it is possible to win every battle and still lose the war.

Developing.... in a precipitously bad way for Israel. 

Daniel W. Drezner

Israel's increasingly untenable situation

How badly has Israel f**ked up in its response to a flotilla intending to deliver aid to Hamas-controlled Gaza?  Pretty f**king badly

Sure, you can argue that the people on the ships weren't exactly Christ-like in their embrace of nonviolence.  Based on the number of e-mails I got from the flotilla organizers in the last 72 hours, they were dying for a confrontation with Israeli forces.  That said, it should be possible to gain control of an unruly ship without, you know, killing more than ten people, further worsening relations with your primary regional ally, and forcing the UN Security Council into emergency session.   At this rate, Israel and the Netanyahu government will be blamed for the sinking of the Cheonan and the cancellation of Law & Order by the end of the week. 

Gideon Rachman thinks Israel is placing itself in an increasingly untenable situation

There are three particular angles for the Israelis to worry about. First, that there will be some sort of new intifada. Second, the continued deterioration in their relationship with Turkey. Third, their fraying ties with the Obama administration.

My colleague in Israel, Tobias Buck, seems to rate the chances of renewed unrest in the Palestinian territories as fairly high. That would obviously be a major blow. For the last year, Israel has been quietly building a fairly decent relationship with the Palestinian Authority on the West Bank. And Hamas, bottled up on the West Bank with the connivance of the Egyptians, has also been relatively quiet....

Ironically, a sanctions package against Iran is arguably as much in the interests of Israel, as in the interests of the US itself. The US may now feel that it has to go along with a UN condemnation of Israel to preserve the chances of getting its Iran resolution through. It would be a classic Israeli own goal, if their assault on the Gaza ships sank the choices of a new resolution on Iran.

I concur with Jeffrey Goldberg -- episodes like this are exposing the lack of Israeli wisdom in thinking about its situation: 

There is a word in Yiddish, seichel, which means wisdom, but it also means more than that: It connotes ingenuity, creativity, subtlety, nuance. Jews have always needed seichel to survive in this world; a person in possession of a Yiddishe kop, a "Jewish head," is someone who has seichel, someone who looks for a clever way out of problems, someone who understands that the most direct way -- blunt force, for instance -- often represents the least elegant solution, a person who can foresee consequences of his actions....

I'm trying to figure out this story for myself. But I will say this: What I know already makes me worried for the future of Israel, a worry I feel in a deeper way than I think I have ever felt before. The Jewish people have survived this long in part because of the vision of their leaders, men and women who were able to intuit what was possible and what was impossible. Where is this vision today? Israel may face, in the coming year, a threat to its existence the likes of which it has not experienced before: A theologically-motivated regional superpower with a nuclear arsenal. It faces another existential threat as well, from forces arguing that Israel's morally disastrous settlement policy fatally undermines the very idea of a Jewish state. Is Israel ready to deploy seichel in these battles, rather than mere force

Ha'aretz columnists are saying no -- and based on Israel's foreign policy and approach towards the occupied territories, I can't say I disagree with them.  Indeed, the parallels between Israel and -- gulp -- North Korea are becoming pretty eerie.  True, Israel's economy is thriving and North Korea's is not.  That said, both countries are diplomatically isolated except for their ties to a great power benefactor.   Both countries are pursuing autarkic policies that immiserate millions of people.  The majority of the population in both countries seem blithely unaware of what the rest of the world thinks.  Both countries face hostile regional environments.  Both countries keep getting referred to the United Nations.  And, in the past month, the great power benefactor is finding it more and more difficult to defend their behavior to the rest of the world. 

The Obama administration has reacted to this incident in remarkably similar ways to China's reaction to the Cheonan incident -- with a call for more information.  Rachman wonders if there will be a quid pro quo on Iran and Israel at the Security Council.  I wonder if the quid pro quo will involve Jerusalem and Pyongyang. 

Developing.... in a ridiculously bad way for Israel.