A hechsher for a blood libel

They came with hatred in their hearts and knives in their hands.

The Turkish flotilla that laid siege to Israel’s embargo on Gaza on 31 May 2010 did so with full knowledge that the Israeli and Egyptian blockade was in place to prevent the import by Hamas of weapons from Iran. The “humanitarian activists” on board ignored offers from Egypt and Israel to collect the goods on board and transfer them to Gaza. They took no interest in Israel’s weekly transfer of food, medicine and other goods to Gaza, even as its leaders rain rockets down upon Israeli civilians and promise to “obliterate” the Jewish homeland.

Five of the vessels in the sextet of ships that attempted to run the blockade were peacefully halted by the Israeli navy. The sixth, the MV Mavi Marmara, was not. The terror trawler was sponsored by the IHH, a Turkish group banned in Israel and Germany for its financial ties to Hamas, and its passengers counted among their number agents of that radical organisation.

The Marmara mob, since immortalised as defenceless peace activists brutally cut down by Israeli commandos, consciously sailed into the eye of the storm. Their cargo was provocation, not aid, and their mission was less the alleviation of Palestinian suffering than the CNN-savvy dramatics of staged self-endangerment. Their politics was the familiar Russian doll of crude pro-Palestinianism: A shell of humanitarian empathy surrounding a radical anti-Zionist substructure concealing the same old antisemitism. Passengers sang openly for Al-Jazeera’s cameras about the killing of Jews and one told the Israeli soldiers to “go back to Auschwitz”.

The thugs – “activists” the BBC calls them, as if they were working mothers campaigning for better childcare provision — armed themselves, according to the independent commission which investigated the incident, “with weapons such as iron bars, clubs, axes, slingshots, knives and, in some cases, firearms”. They shot one soldier in the abdomen and another in the knee, stabbed another in the stomach, left two more with “significant head injuries” after beating them with iron bars, and broke the arms and hands of other soldiers as they fast-roped onto the vessel. Three soldiers were beaten, seized, and thrown overboard onto the lower deck, where they were beaten again.

The Israeli commandos, whose primary weapons were paintball guns, were forced to switch to their live-fire sidearms to save themselves from this high-seas lynching, killing nine of their attackers in the process. Turkey reacted with outrage and suspended its diplomatic relations with Israel, braying and bawling at lung-burning volume about the deaths, calculating correctly that in the cacophony no one would stop to ask why Ankara had allowed its citizens to mount an assault on a neighbouring country.

Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision, almost three years later, to apologise to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is an inexplicable act of self-flagellation and his pledge to compensate the families of the dead only compounds the outrage. (Erdogan wants $1m for each Turkish national killed.) Death should always be accorded the solemn respect it deserves but to pretend the Mavi Marmara provocateurs were innocent victims is to throw solemnity overboard and set sail for Fantasy Island.

The Israeli government insists reconciliation with Turkey was essential with the bloody upheavals in the Arab world ranging on Israel’s borders, and occasionally spilling over. That would be a canny, if far from noble, reason to cut a deal with Erdogan if there was any hope of Turkey working with Israel to defend democracy and liberalism in the Middle East. Anyone who thinks that the Turkish prime minister, a man who calls Zionism “a crime against humanity”, who is running scared of his Islamist right flank and running daily into their arms to keep himself in position, is going to buddy up with Israel to stabilise the region is fooling no one but themselves.

Those who lay the blame with Obama are not wholly wrong. He chose to give Turkey free rein to lambaste Israel in the aftermath of the Marmara incident and has shown scant alarm at the once proudly secular nation’s Islamist turn. Obama doesn’t much like Israel but, worse, he doesn’t get it. His is not a mind attuned to the history and subtleties of the Middle East. When he pressures Israel to concede to its enemies, even to the point of apologising for being attacked, like a Bizarro World take on restorative justice, he cannot grasp the long-term impact on Israel and her adversaries. Obama sees all the pieces on the chessboard but he doesn’t understand how they move.

But, whatever pressure he came under from Obama, Netanyahu’s decision to beg forgiveness of Turkey is his own doing. And it is more than a strategic misstep. It is a concession born of weakness, a lie to appease liars, a hechsher for a blood libel. The Prime Minister of Israel has said it’s kosher to attack and attempt to murder Israeli soldiers and to lie about it; to distort an assault on the Jewish state as a rampage by blood-thirsty Israeli commandos. When antagonists of Israel come to include in their endless charge sheet against Jewish national rights the “Marmara massacre”, they will be able to footnote an Israeli Prime Minister, and a Likudnik no less, as a source.

This makes for an inauspicious start to Netanyahu’s new government and will leave even some of his most loyal supporters wondering whether his third term should be his last.

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