An old Israeli saying describing various less-than-esteemed military leaders says: “He was so stupid that even the other generals noticed.” The same derisive remark could be applied almost without exception to the present generation of Israeli politicians.
Such healthy skepticism among Israelis about the abilities of their military and political leaders has unfortunately ebbed in recent decades. As a result, Israelis are left perplexed as to why their wars, military interventions and armed actions have so often ended in failure since the 1973 war, despite the superiority of their armed forces.
The latest example of this is the assault on the Gaza aid convoy by naval commandos, a confrontation initiated by Israel which thereby ensured that the convoy’s organizers achieved their objectives to a degree beyond their wildest dreams. By using assault troops in a police action against civilians with predictably bloody results Israel managed to focus international attention on its blockade of Gaza, which the world had hitherto largely ignored. The Israeli action infuriated Turkey, once its strongest ally in the region, and strengthened the claim of Hamas to Palestinian leadership.
The capacity of Israel to shoot itself in the foot needs explanation. From the beginning the operation was idiotic, since Israel was always likely to look bad after any confrontation between élite troops and civilian protesters. Even more ludicrous is the Israeli explanation that their élite and heavily armed soldiers were at risk of their lives because they had to use thick gloves to protect their hands when sliding down cables from a helicopter and therefore could not use their weapons.
The nature of the fiasco should cause little surprise because such botched Israeli military actions have been the norm for years. The 1982 invasion of Lebanon was discredited by the massacre of Palestinians in Sabra and Shatila refugee camps by Christian militias loosed on them by Israeli army commanders. Syria, not Israel, became the predominant power in Lebanon. In south Lebanon, the Israeli army fought a long and unsuccessful guerrilla war against Hizbollah. The bombardments of Lebanon in 1996 and 2006 left Hizbollah stronger, and a similar attack on Gaza in 2008 failed to weaken Hamas.
The problem is that nobody believes Israeli propaganda as much as Israelis. Pro-Palestinian activists often lament the fluency and mendacity of Israeli spokesmen on the airwaves and the pervasive influence of Israel’s supporters abroad. But, in reality, these PR campaigns are Israel’s greatest weakness, because they distort Israelis’ sense of reality. Defeats and failures are portrayed as victories and successes.
The slaughter of civilians is justified as a military necessity or somehow the fault of the other side. Opponents are demonized as bloodthirsty terrorists. Comforted by such benign accounts of their activities, Israeli leaders are consumed by arrogance because they come to believe they have never made a mistake. Denial that errors have occurred makes it extremely difficult to sack generals or ministers, however gross their incompetence or record of failure.
Many Israelis privately take their own propaganda with a pinch of salt, though the number is diminishing. But abroad, the most third-rate Israeli politicians strut before fawning audiences as heroic defenders of the state. Not surprisingly they return home with a dangerously inflated idea of their own abilities and in a perilously self-important mood.
The Israeli propaganda machine, official and private, has been running full throttle in the last few days justifying the assault on the aid convoy to Gaza. Probably spokesmen feel they are performing well given the weakness of their case. In fact, they do nothing but harm to Israel. The greater their success in denying gross and culpable mistakes, the more likely it is that the perpetrators will hold their jobs – and the more likely it is that the mistakes will be endlessly repeated.
PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of “Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq.”