The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Keeping focus and countering the spin

Amidst the rage about yesterday's flotilla murders, it's important to keep a sense of proportion and focus about what's really important. And, of course, to be prepared to poke holes in the way the pro-Israel-no-matter-what community is going to spin this.


✩ Yesterday's murders were an unwarranted attack on civilians by elite units of one of the most fearsome and best-equipped army in the world. It's not a "blunder" or poorly planned attack — the decision to raid the boat is itself illegal, immoral and is what needs condemning. 

✩ The fact that the boat was attacked in international waters adds to the legal case against Israel, but should not become the whole story as much as the "pirates of the Eastern Mediterranean" narrative is tempting. If the boat had been attacked in Israeli or Palestinian or Egyptian territorial waters, the murders would be just as offensive and the decision to raid just as reprehensible.

✩ The best way to honor the memory of the victims of the raid is, as well as defending them and ensuring their murders are punished, keep an eye on the big picture: Gaza. The flotilla was trying to break the blockade — a blockade that is illegal by any international standard, as UN Envoy Archibishop Desmond Tutu and other statesmen have stated:

Tutu said the blockade was "a siege" and a "gross violation to Human Rights", echoing rights groups which accuse Israel of collective punishment. Former President Jimmy Carter last month referred to the blockade as an atrocity.

It is not enough to call for action on the boat raid itself — the aim should be to pressure the Middle East Quartet (US, EU, UN and Russia) to stop giving political cover to Israel's blockade.

✩ There is no need to use hyperbole in referring to the attack on the boat — it is not the worst thing Israel has done by far. The attack on the boat and international indignation should be channeled towards accountability for the Gaza war (notably for the international process started by the Goldstone Report to continue at the UN), and ultimately an end to settlements leading to an end to the occupation. Israel, under the present government, may be pressure-proof, but its allies in the US and EU are not.

Countering the spin:

It's interesting to see that Israel's most establishment defenders, especially in the US, are generally keeping mum. The NYT has not commented on the crisis in its opinion page, the Obama administration has put out a weak non-committal statement, and AIPAC has not said anything. They had the handy excuse yesterday that it was a public holiday in the US, which gave them time to prepare their approach.

✩ First of all, the Obama administration cannot be allowed to get away with its weak statement or obstructionism at the UN on behalf of Israel. As Marina Ottaway of the Carnegie Endowment (hardly a radical person) puts it:

Condemnation of the Israeli action has been strong, not only in Turkey and Arab countries, but in most European countries as well. In comparison, the initial response from the White House is completely inadequate and President Obama will need to choose how forcefully to react. Obama must decide whether to sacrifice his credibility in the region in order to continue a well-established U.S. tradition of mild rebukes toward Israel, or break with “business-as-usual” policies and condemn the Israeli action. 

This is an opportunity to drive a major wedge between the Obama administration and its already nervous friends in the lobby. Let's use it.

✩ So far, major pro-Israel voices are obviously embarrassed and trying to find ways to spin it. Look no further than Jeffrey Goldberg for the model, which goes something like this:

I don't know yet exactly what happened at sea when a group of Israeli commandos boarded a ship packed with not-exactly-Gandhi-like anti-Israel protesters. I learned from the Second Intifada (specifically, the story of the non-massacre at Jenin) not to rush to judgment without a full set of facts (yes, I know what you are thinking: So why have a blog?). 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.

This approach says:

  1. Oh, it's too confusing and too soon to know what really happened. BULLSHIT: the basic fact is that Israel attacked a boatful of activists and killed 10-20 of them in order to defend its morally bankrupt blockade policy. You don't need to know much more.
  2. The activists on the boat were not non-violent. BULLSHIT: They were provoked by being raided from helicopters by elite commando units armed with guns. They acted in self-defense, not offensively.
  3.  Bad leadership is responsible. BULLSHIT: People like Goldberg may growing ever more uncomfortable with the PR disaster that is the Netanyahu administration, but its actions are consistent with those of other governments that carried out attacks against civilians to assert Israeli deterrence — see Lebanon, 2006, and Gaza, 2009.
  4. Oh, look, Iran! BULLSHIT: This is a lame attempt to change the topic of conversation. There is an international process underway to deal with the Iran nuclear issue, and it will continue. The flotilla issue is completely separate, and related instead to the humanitarian disaster caused by the blockade of Gaza.

✩ You are seeing another approach in conservative pro-Israel sites such as the National Review's The Corner, where Michael Rubin argues it's a question of proportionality:

A lot of the criticism surrounding Israel’s actions against the Free Gaza flotilla center on proportionality. Did Israel apply disproportionate force? The same charges form the basis of the criticism leveled by the Goldstone Report and, indeed, also were leveled against Israel following the 2006 Hezbollah War and, before that, Operation Defensive Shield in 2002.

But why should any democratic government empowered to defend its citizenry accept Europe’s idea of proportion? When attacked, why should not a stronger nation or its representatives try to both protects its own personnel at all costs and, in the wider scheme of things, defeat its adversaries?

BULLSHIT: It's not about proportionality, it's about the use of force in the first place. Raising the question of proportionality not only sidetracks the issue, but it implicitly accepts that some use of force was warranted and makes it about the degree.

✩ Also at The Corner, the reprehensible Daniel Pipes writes:

Rachel Corrie has been an albatross around Israel’s neck since 2003; today’s dead on the seas off Gaza will prove an even worse source of anti-Zionism. Thus did the “armada of hate and violence” achieve its purpose. Thus did the Israelis fall into a trap.

BULLSHIT: This is the classic blame-the-victim approach. That Pipes stoops this low is no surprise, but shame of Der Spiegel (that "trap" link) for falling into the trap of using the same approach.

✩ If you need reminding, many are making the "Islamist flotilla of terror" argument by focusing on the IHH, the Turkish NGO that ran the main boat that was attacked. I've already highlighted that it's BS on a previous post.

Watch out for these arguments to crawl out of the cesspool of right-wing and Likudnik magazines and blogs and into the mainstream narrative, especially in the US where these people have made tremendous advances onto the pages of mainstream newspapers and television stations in the last two decades. And be ready to ignore them or counter them when necessary — they should not be allowed to dominate the conversation on this issue.

Update: Just saw Jackson Diehl's piece, which has strong words — the attack was "indefensible" and so on — but note how his main concern is to get back to his favorite pastime, bashing Obama from the neocon perspective (as he does unconvincingly on democracy in the Middle East). The bulk of his piece expresses his concern that Obama's tiff with Israel over settlement expansion means he has little wiggle room left to defend Israel on this issue. And so Diehl scrapes the bottom of the moral barrel.  

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