Friday 15 February 2019

Israel can't defy world forever

EARLY yesterday morning, Israeli commandos attacked the flotilla trying to run the blockade of Gaza and bring 10,000 tonnes of humanitarian aid to the 1.5 million inhabitants. At least 10 people were killed.

In military terms this was not a big operation, but its repercussions are enormous and could be disastrous. The forces of a sovereign nation have attacked unarmed vessels on the high seas, in flagrant violation of international law. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has demonstrated once again his contempt for legal norms and human rights, and his belief that his country, uniquely, can behave with impunity in any way it pleases.

He has also shown an astonishing lack of common prudence. He has offended both the United States and his one truly friendly neighbour, Turkey, a country of massive geopolitical importance and a mainstay of NATO.

Yesterday in Istanbul, thousands of people took part in anti-Israel demonstrations. The Turkish government recalled its ambassador from Israel and cancelled three joint military exercises. That may not suffice to placate public opinion, which wants a boycott of Israeli goods. The government itself says that the incident "might cause irreversible consequences in our bilateral relations".

Elsewhere in the region and the wider world, the initial shock and disbelief swelled to condemnation, varying from standard regrets for the loss of life to apocalyptic forecasts of far greater violence, even war.

The Syrian and Libyan leaders jointly declared that the incident could lead to war spreading beyond the region. A statement from Amr Moussa, secretary general of the Arab League, was less heated but in its way more dismaying. Israel, he said, was not ready for peace.

The tentative negotiations now under way could not succeed. "We must re-evaluate how to deal with the conflict."

In Ireland and many other countries, Israeli ambassadors were summoned to hear the views of the relevant countries' foreign ministers. Their response to those ministers' criticisms was not such as to soften attitudes.

They and their government argued that the flotilla was warned to stay away from Gaza and sail instead to the Israeli port of Ashdod. They also claimed that the campaigners on board the leading ship attacked the commandos, who acted in self-defence. Did they expect anyone to believe that?

Perhaps they did not care. The most striking feature of the Netanyahu government is its contempt for the feelings of any other country (as witness its attitude to Turkey) which extends on occasion even to the United States, its patron and protector.

Since early in the reign of President Barack Obama it has been evident that he and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are baffled by Israel's constant refusal to take the most tentative steps towards accommodation with the Palestinians. Instead, Israel has continued with the construction of Jewish settlements and it is difficult to believe that Mr Netanyahu has acted in good faith at any time.

When he last visited Washington, Mr Obama inflicted on him a devastating snub, leaving him alone while he went to dine with his wife and daughters. That, however, did nothing to help solve the Palestinian problem.

Yesterday Mr Netanyahu was in Canada. He was due to meet the President in Washington today. In the wake of the attack on the aid flotilla, he decided to cancel that part of his trip and go home.

But whatever the location on the field of these players, they will have to meet. The Israeli premier must learn that he does not have complete freedom of action; that he cannot defy world opinion for ever. And only the President of the United States can bring that home to him.

Yesterday's shocking events brought forth a mealy-mouthed statement from the White House. Mr Obama will have to do better than that. At a minimum, he can remind the Israeli premier of his country's dependence on the United States. He can advise him to show some respect for the United Nations and the international inquiry for which Brian Cowen and others called yesterday.

And none of this conflicts with the great overriding principle to which Ireland, no less than the US, subscribes wholeheartedly. Israel's right to exist and live in peace is absolute. But it does not include leave to breach the rights of others.

What happened yesterday was not an accident. It was a crime.

Irish Independent

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