After Israel’s lethal attack in international waters on a civilian flotilla carrying relief supplies to Gaza, a troubling question arises: Have Israeli authorities, who possess a major nuclear arsenal, become dangerously erratic?
This question can't be posed publicly in the American mainstream news media nor in U.S. political circles, where fear of the pro-Israel lobby remains strong. But it is a concern that is being discussed quietly by foreign policy analysts around the world.
Even as America’s commentariat again generates the predictable excuses for Israeli latest actions, the political reality inside Israel is one that is shifting more and more toward a society dominated by Jewish fundamentalists, including an aggressive and racist settler bloc.
The ultra-Orthodox Shas Party is now in the Likud ruling coalition and holds important Cabinet posts such as housing. Shas leaders have made it clear that they favor a country segregated not just between Arab and Jew but between secular and ultra-Orthodox Jews.
If these fundamentalist elements continue to consolidate their political power, the world could soon be facing an isolated and paranoid religious state with some 200 to 400 nuclear warheads along with a sophisticated collection of chemical and biological weapons.
One Israeli émigré, who spent his young adulthood working for the Israeli government, told me that he fears Israel is becoming like North Korea, except qualitatively more dangerous because Israel has an advanced nuclear arsenal and sits in a more strategic part of the world.
The current government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also appears excessively confident that Israel’s sophisticated propaganda network and its American neoconservative allies can overwhelm any criticism of Israeli actions in Washington and ensure eventual U.S. backing for a military strike on Iran.
Netanyahu has been dismissive toward President Barack Obama’s peace initiatives, particularly Obama’s demand that Israel stop building Jewish housing in traditionally Arab areas.
Ignoring those wishes, Netanyahu’s Shas Party allies announced new Jewish construction in Arab East Jerusalem last March as Vice President Joe Biden arrived to reaffirm U.S. solidarity with Israel.
Though Obama let his annoyance be known, Netanyahu followed up by announcing that the Jewish housing construction would go forward.
Faced with this Israeli intransigence, Obama quieted his criticism. He was reportedly looking forward to a “kiss-and-make-up” session with Netanyahu on Tuesday before Israel’s lethal assault on the “Freedom Flotilla” caused Netanyahu to cancel the meeting and rush back to Israel.
Obama also has fallen in line behind Israeli insistence that a confrontation over Iran’s nuclear program be put at the top of the international agenda and that a new Iranian offer to ship about half its low-enriched uranium out of the country be rejected.
The President had privately urged the leaders of Brazil and Turkey to draw Iran into that agreement, which they did two weeks ago. But Israel and American neocons denounced and ridiculed the deal, demanding instead stiffer sanctions and stepped-up efforts for “regime change” in Iran.
Instead of admitting that he had backed the Iran-Brazil-Turkey deal, Obama stayed silent, as he has in the wake of Israel’s middle-of-the-night commando raid on the flotilla, which left nine peace activists dead early Monday.
In a P.R. blitz on Tuesday, Israeli officials made a point of showing off knives and other hand-made weapons that some of the activists allegedly used to defend the Turkish ship, the Mavi Marmara, when the Israeli commandos landed by ropes from helicopters.
According to Israeli accounts, the resistance from the people onboard led the commandos to open fire. The Israeli government and many U.S. commentators blamed the ship's resistance for the violence.
However, it would not be unusual – and certainly not illegal – for a ship’s crew and passengers in international waters to defend themselves from an armed assault, especially one launched in the dark of night. If the attackers were Somalis instead of Israelis, the ship’s defenders would be hailed as heroes.
In an e-mail to me, Marquette Professor of Moral Theology Daniel C. Maguire cited one important distinction between “Somali piracy and Israeli piracy – Israel kills during its piracy and then claims it does so in self-defense. That is [a] first in the history of piracy.
“Traditionally, pirates have been outlaws and admit it. It is very much like a rapist saying: ‘The victim I was raping resisted and so I killed her in self-defense.’ A defense like that would make even a mob lawyer blush.”
Craig Murray, a former British ambassador and Foreign Office specialist on maritime law, said the Israeli commando raid was a violation of international law and the Law of the Sea, since the ship under a Turkish flag was in international waters.
If “the Israeli commandoes were acting on behalf of the government of Israel in killing the activists in international waters, the applicable law is that of the flag state of the ship on which the incident occurred," in this case Turkey.
"In legal terms, the Turkish ship was Turkish territory. So,” Murray continued, “Israel is in a position of war with Turkey, and the attack by Israeli commandos falls under international jurisdiction as a war crime."
However, not surprisingly, the Israeli P.R. response to the intense international criticism worked wonders in winning over the U.S. news media.
After playing video of the Israeli assault and the efforts of some passengers to resist the attackers, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews came down decisively on the Israeli side, calling criticism of the lethal attack “an unfair shot at Israel.”
Matthews added that he agreed with the pro-Israeli position taken by the Washington Post's neoconservative editorial page, which faulted Israel for the sloppiness of its attack while siding with its purpose.
“We have no sympathy for the motives of the participants in the flotilla -- a motley collection that included European sympathizers with the Palestinian cause, Israeli Arab leaders and Turkish Islamic activists,” the Post wrote on Tuesday.
“Israel says that some of the organizers have ties to Hamas and al-Qaeda. What's plain is that the group's nominal purpose, delivering "humanitarian" supplies to Gaza, was secondary to the aim of provoking a confrontation.”
So, in the view of the mainstream U.S. news media, Israel is justified in maintaining a fierce embargo on the 1.5 million people crowded into the tiny Gaza Strip and any “motley collection” of activists that tries to run the blockade is at fault for whatever happens.
Plus, it seems, when Israel launches an attack on a ship in international waters, the people onboard must accept whatever treatment they receive at Israeli hands. They must not fight back.
By contrast, one can only imagine how the U.S. press corps would rise up in collective fury if, say, Iran sent its commandos into international waters to attack and seize vessels that were on a humanitarian mission.
What’s striking in all this is how far the U.S. news media has veered away from its supposed commitment to objectivity, even as it pretends to continue abiding by that journalistic principle.
The U.S. media also would drip with sarcasm over some of the post-facto rationales used to justify the attack, if the attacking nation wasn’t Israel.
For instance, there’s the Israeli accusation that the cargo on the ships wasn’t packed properly.
Shuki Sagis, chief executive of the Israel port at Ashdod, complained to the Jerusalem Post that the supplies – including scooters for the handicapped, wheelchairs, stretchers, hospital beds, boxes of medicine, food products and toys – weren’t neatly stacked.
“The cargo ships were loaded haphazardly, with all of the equipment mixed up in the large holds,” Sagis said. “Ships loaded in this way would not be accepted in any port. We are loading the equipment on the trucks far more carefully than it was loaded on to the ships.”
Other Israeli officials claimed that the humanitarian supplies on the ships were not items that were needed by the Gazans.
“I can say with great assurance,” said Colonel Moshe Levi, “that none of the equipment on board is needed in Gaza. The equipment that we found is all equipment that we have regularly allowed into the Strip over the past year.”
Levi said that fact “proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that the whole premise of the voyage was for propaganda and provocation and not for humanitarian purposes.”
However, the Israelis did concede that their searches of the vessels turned up no weapons being smuggled into Gaza. The only “contraband” was construction equipment, including sacks of concrete and metal rods, Levi said.
Levi explained that Israel won’t let construction equipment in to rebuild Gaza, which was devastated by a month-long Israeli offensive that ended in January 2009, because the material might be used to build fortifications for "terrorists."
The notion that bombed-out Gazans must be made to survive in makeshift shanties so some future Israeli assault won’t be complicated by the existence of buildings that might be used by Gaza’s defenders could be regarded in a different context as evidence of grotesque inhumanity.
That is, if the perpetrators were some nation or group that the U.S. media didn’t like.
The Israeli Navy also claimed that it had learned an important lesson from its assault on the Freedom Flotilla.
A top Navy commander told The Jerusalem Post that the next time, Israel will use much more military force to stop the ships.
"We boarded the ship and were attacked as if it was a war," said the officer, who wasn’t identified by name. "That will mean that we will have to come prepared in the future as if it was a war."
Combined with other recent incidents, like Israel's Jan. 20 assassination of Hamas leader Mahmoud Al-Mabhouh in a Dubai hotel room and its open threats about bombing Iran, Israel might be diagnosed as suffering from a violent form of paranoia if it were a patient in a psychiatric ward rather than a nuclear-armed state.
Yet, instead of addressing this growing threat to world peace -- that is, Israel's increasingly erratic behavior and deepening religious fervor -- the U.S. news media continues to give this favored country a free pass.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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This story was published on June 2, 2010.