Israelís deadly commando assault last Monday on the Free Gaza flotilla has been variously denounced around the world as state terrorism, piracy, a war crime, and as the latest example of Israelís arrogant contempt for international law and its criminal indifference for (non-Jewish) human life.
In view of the enormity of the act -- and the toll of dead and wounded among unarmed activists seeking to break the three-year Gaza siege -- these charges appear justified. But they do not explain why Israel chooses to behave as it does. Its leaders, both civilian and military, are not fumbling, hysterical novices. Their actions are deliberate and carefully weighed. So what is the cold-eyed strategy behind them?
There would seem to be two distinct security doctrines at work, one directed at the Palestinians, the other at Israelís adversaries in the wider Middle East -- Iran, first and foremost, but also Tehranís radical Arab allies, Syria, Hizbullah and Hamas.
There is no great mystery about Israelís strategy towards the Palestinians. From the very beginning of the Zionist project, it has sought to defeat them and chase them off their land. Ever since the 1967 war, Jewish settlement in the occupied Palestinian territories has proceeded apace under Israeli governments of all political colourings. The longing for a Greater Israel extending from the sea to the Jordan River is not confined to messianic zealots and far-right nationalists. It is more widely shared in Israel today than at any time since the creation of the state.
To realise its expansionist ambitions, Israel has always sought to avoid serious negotiations with the Palestinians because, if negotiations were to succeed, they would inevitably mean ceding territory. Israel detests Palestinian moderates, who want to negotiate -- like Mahmud Abbas, the luckless president of the Palestinian Authority -- and far prefers Palestinian radicals, like Hamas, with whom no negotiation is possible. A familiar Israeli refrain gives the game away. ĎHow can you negotiate with someone who wants to kill you?í
The attack on the flotilla off the Gaza coast must be seen as Israelís latest attempt to radicalise the Palestinians, and hence torpedo, even before they have properly started, the so-called Ďproximityí talks, which George Mitchell, President Barack Obamaís Middle East envoy, has laboriously set up. Mahmud Abbas will now be under great pressure to withdraw from the talks or risk being denounced as a traitor by inflamed Palestinian and Arab opinion.
No doubt the Israeli calculation is that the storm will blow over and time will have been gained for more expansion. Israelís latest armed assault will soon be forgotten in much the same way as its murderous war on Gaza in December-January 2008-9 has itself been largely overtaken by events. The Gaza siege continues, the Palestinians remain divided, the international community huffs and puffs but does nothing, and Israel prepares to extend its settlements.
No doubt, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu believes Obama will not dare to get tough with Israel before the mid-term elections next November -- or indeed after them, if the Democrats lose ground.
As for Israelís security doctrine towards the wider Middle East, this was forged even before the creation of the state by David Ben-Gurion, its first prime minister: to guarantee its security and continued existence in a hostile environment, Israel must be the military master of the region, more powerful than any combination of its adversaries. Israel must never show weakness and must never fail to react with full force to any challenge -- even one posed by unarmed pro-Palestinian peace activists. ĎNever again!í is the slogan of a belligerently defiant Jewish state.
To retain its military mastery over the region, Israel and its American friends -- well-placed at the time in the Pentagon and the Vice-Presidentís office -- pushed America into war against Saddam Husseinís Iraq in 2003, not hesitating to forge the evidence of Iraqís possession of weapons of mass destruction. From Israelís point of view, if not from Americaís, the war was a success since it set back any Iraqi threat to Israel for at least a generation.
Today, Israel sees Iran as its main challenger. If it decides to attack Iranís nuclear sites, it wants to be sure the United States will join in to finish the job and protect it from any backlash. But to ensure Americaís backing it must demonstrate its own utter resolve to confront -- and defeat -- any threat to is supremacy, however trivial. The attack on the Gaza flotilla should perhaps be seen, therefore, as a show of force to prepare the ground, politically and psychologically, for an attack on Iran. In Netanyahuís mind, and in Obamaís, Israelís struggle with the Palestinians and its contest with Iran are linked together.
Netanyahu and his fellow ideologues are, of course, engaged in a high-risk and high-cost strategy. Israel now finds itself at odds with much of the world. Hatred of the Jewish state will become more intense, and not only among Muslims, with its inevitable accompaniment of anti-Semitism. The Ďde-legitimizationí of Israel -- which already worries many Jewish intellectuals in the United States and Europe -- will gather pace.
International pressure on Israel to lift the cruel three-year siege of Gaza may become irresistible. Egypt, formally at peace with Israel since 1979, will come under great pressure from its own angry public to break relations. Accused by many Arabs of complicity with Israelís siege, Egyptís President Husni Mubarak has already ordered the opening of the Rafah crossing into Gaza for the passage of humanitarian aid. Jordan, close to Israel for many years, may also find it necessary to distance itself.
Turkey, once Israelís ally, has now joined the ranks of its most bitter enemies. This is the heaviest price Israel will have to pay for its violent oppression of the Palestinians, its land hunger and its extravagant regional ambitions. The crisis has developed into a contest for regional supremacy between Israel and Turkey.
As a right-wing Israeli commentator, Mordechai Kedar of Bar-Ilan University, wrote on Ynet this week: ďWho is the master of this region?... The forces of the Ottoman Empire, who aspire again to rule the Middle East... will be stopped at Gazaís shore.Ē
The United States will itself pay a heavy price for Israelís aggressive behaviour. Its troublesome ally has become a burden. This is Obamaís dilemma. If he confronts Israel firmly -- as he would no doubt like to do -- he will suffer politically at home; if he does not, his reputation will suffer abroad.
The key so far unanswered question is whether the international crisis will lead to an internal crisis in Israel itself. There is just a possibility that Israeli opinion, alarmed at the hostility of the world and fearful of losing American support, may rebel against Netanyahuís intransigent and dangerous policies. He may be forced to resign and face fresh elections.
This is perhaps the outcome Obama is praying for.
Patrick Seale is a leading British writer on the Middle East. His latest book is The Struggle for Arab Independence: Riad el-Solh and the Makers of the Modern Middle East (Cambridge University Press).