By Uri Avnery
So, finally, our Prime Minister has apologized to Turkey for “operational mistakes” that “might have” led to the death of nine Turks during the attack on MV Mavi Marmara, the ship which tried to break the Israeli blockade on Gaza.
It took him two years and ten months to do so.
But the real apology should not have been addressed to the Turks, but to the Israelis. And not just for the mistakes committed by the soldiers.
The entire affair was an act of pure idiocy, from beginning to end. Right from its inception.
It is easy to say so with hindsight. But my friends and I pointed to the stupidity of the action publicly, before it all started.
As we said at the time, the damage inherent in stopping the Turkish ship was much more serious than the damage – if any – that would have been caused by letting it sail to its destination.
After all, what is the worst that could have happened? The ship would have anchored opposite the shore of Gaza, the international activists on board would have received a tumultuous welcome, Hamas would have celebrated a small victory, and that’s that. A week later, nobody would have cared or remembered.
Officially, the blockade was imposed by the Israeli navy for the sole purpose of preventing arms reaching the Hamas-governed Gaza Strip. If this had been a serious concern, the Mavi Marmara could have been stopped on the high seas, searched for arms and released. This was not even considered.
From then on, it became solely a matter of prestige. Of childish political or personal ego. In short, of idiocy.
In a military action, one never knows what can happen. Things never proceed as planned. Casualties must be expected. And, as has been said, the plan itself is the first casualty in any war.
So the plan went awry. Instead of meekly submitting to the attack in international waters, the Turks had the incredible impudence of attacking the soldiers with sticks and such. The poor soldiers had no choice but to shoot them dead.
The reasonable thing would have been to apologize immediately to the victims’ families, pay generous compensation and let the whole affair simmer down.
But no, not we Israelis. Because We Were In The Right. We always are. It’s in our nature. We can’t help it.
(I remember a driving school of the British army in Palestine. In the center there stood the remnants of a crashed car with the inscription: “But He Was In The Right!”)
So we mistreated the passengers, stole their cameras and other belongings, and let them go only after a thorough humiliation. We accused them of being dangerous terrorists. We came near to demanding indemnities for our soldiers, who were, after all, the real victims.
The sheer stupidity of all this was illustrated by the fact that Turkey was our closest ally in the region.
The two militaries had established very close relations. The intelligence services of the two countries were Siamese twins. We sold them huge amounts of military equipment and services. We held joint military maneuvers.
Between the two peoples, relations were even more cordial. Every year, half a million Israelis spent their vacation on the Turkish Riviera. The Turkish terms for tourists, “everything included”, became a byword in Israel.
The Turkish-Israeli honeymoon started right from the beginning, when David Ben-Gurion created the “strategy of the periphery” – alliances with non-Arab countries surrounding the Arab world. Turkey was to play an important role in it, together with the Shah’s Iran, Ethiopia, Chad and others.
What went wrong? Apologists of the idiocrats assert that relations would have deteriorated even without the Mavi Marmara. Having been rebuffed and humiliated by the European Union, Turkey was turning towards the Arab world. Also, a religious party had taken power from the secular heirs of the great Ataturk, and especially from the army. But in view of these developments, would it not have been wise to be even more careful than before in our dealings with Turkey?
Instead, our Deputy Foreign Minister, one Danny Ayalon, did something so colossally idiotic that it should be taught in diplomacy school. He summoned the Turkish ambassador to deliver a rebuke, offered him a seat markedly lower than his own and publicized the humiliation.
What actually happened was that Ayalon held the meeting in his Knesset room. In all these rooms – including mine, long ago – there is one standard chair, and a low sofa. The Turkish diplomat felt quite comfortable and did not feel insulted. But when Ayalon asked the journalists in and told them to notice the humiliation, they published it and caused the Turkish public to explode in anger.
The text of the apology was already formulated more than two years ago. The Israeli army begged the government to accept it. But our then Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, put all his considerable weight on the scales and vetoed the move. We are a proud nation with a proud army, consisting of proud soldiers.
Israelis don’t apologize. Ever.
Fearing Lieberman, Binyamin Netanyahu had to be very circumspect.
Lieberman is now a minister-on-hold. He cannot regain his ministerial office until after – and if – he is acquitted of the bribery charges for which he has been indicted. But he is still the chief of a party on which Netanyahu has to depend for parliamentary support.
So an elaborate maneuver had to be enacted. The apology was agreed upon with the Turks long ago. President Obama’s visit to Israel was to be the occasion, giving the president the aura of a successful mediator. But the deal was to be announced only during the very last minutes of the visit.
Why? Simply to allow Netanyahu to pretend that it was all done on the spur of the moment, in a telephone conversation initiated by Obama. This being so, he could not possibly have consulted with his cabinet and with Lieberman, could he?
Childish? Infantile? Indeed.
Only in Israel? I doubt it. I am afraid that in most countries, large and small, that’s how crucial affairs of state are managed. And not only nowadays.
It is a frightening thought, and therefore unacceptable to most people. They like to believe that their fate rests in the hands of responsible leaders endowed with superior intelligence. Much as they refuse to believe that the sky is empty, and no almighty Super-Father with unlimited compassion is waiting there to answer their prayers.
The first historical example of utter incompetence that springs to my mind is the outbreak of World War I. A group of nationalist Serbs killed the Austrian heir to the throne. A deplorable incident, but certainly no reason for a war in which several million human beings perish miserably.
But the nincompoops surrounding the 84-year old emperor in Vienna thought that this was an opportunity to win an easy victory, and delivered an ultimatum to the Serbs. The Russian Czar, surrounded by dukes and archdukes, wanted to help his fellow Slavs and mobilized his army. They probably did not know that according to a military plan prepared long in advance, in this case the German army had to attack and conquer France, before the cumbersome Russian army could complete its mobilization and reach the German border. The German Kaiser, a disturbed child who never grew up, acted accordingly. The British, who never liked to be governed by people who were too clever, rushed to the aid of poor France. And so it went.
Could all these leaders have been complete fools? Was Europe governed by an all-pervading idiocracy? Perhaps. But perhaps there were reasonably intelligent people among them. Is it just that power not only corrupts, as Lord Acton famously pronounced, but also stupefies (in the sense of making people stupid)?
In any case, I have known in my life so many normal people who, upon assuming power, did so many utterly stupid things, that the latter must be the case.
I wish I had the will-power to resist telling again the classic Jewish joke about the Turks, which I quoted immediately after the Mavi Marmara incident.
It’s about the Jewish mother in 19th century Russia, whose son was called up to serve in the Czar’s army in the war against Ottoman Turkey. “Don’t overdo things’” she entreats him, “Kill a Turk and rest. Kill another Turk and rest again, kill…”
“But what if the Turk kills me?” the boy interjects.
“Kill you?” responds the mother in horrified surprise, “But Why? What have you done to him?!”
Kill a Turk and apologize…
About the author: Uri Avnery
Uri Avnery is an Israeli writer and peace activist with Gush Shalom. Avnery sat in the Knesset from 1965-74 and 1979-81 and was the owner of HaOlam HaZeh, an Israeli news magazine, from 1950 until it closed in 1993. He is famous for crossing the lines during the Battle of Beirut to meet Yassir Arafat on 3 July 1982, the first time the Palestinian leader ever met with an Israeli. Avnery is the author of several books about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including 1948: A Soldier’s Tale, the Bloody Road to Jerusalem (2008); Israel’s Vicious Circle (2008); and My Friend, the Enemy (1986).