This article was first published on the Stratfor website.
The author, George Friedman, is chairman and CEO of Stratfor, the
world’s leading online publisher of geopolitical intelligence.
On Sunday, Israeli naval forces intercepted
the ships of a Turkish nongovernmental organization (NGO)
delivering humanitarian supplies to Gaza. Israel had demanded that the
vessels not go directly to Gaza but instead dock in Israeli ports, where
the supplies would be offloaded and delivered to Gaza. The Turkish NGO
refused, insisting on going directly to Gaza. Gunfire ensued when
Israeli naval personnel boarded one of the vessels, and a significant
number of the passengers and crew on the ship were killed or wounded.
Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon charged that the mission
was simply an attempt to provoke
the Israelis. That was certainly the case. The mission was designed
to demonstrate that the Israelis were unreasonable and brutal. The hope
was that Israel would be provoked to extreme action, further alienating
Israel from the global community and possibly driving a wedge between
Israel and the United States. The operation’s planners also hoped this
would trigger a political crisis in Israel.
A logical Israeli response would have been avoiding falling into the
provocation trap and suffering the political repercussions the Turkish
NGO was trying to trigger. Instead, the Israelis decided to make a show
of force. The Israelis appear to have reasoned that backing down would
demonstrate weakness and encourage further flotillas to Gaza, unraveling
the Israeli position vis-à-vis Hamas. In this thinking, a violent
interception was a superior strategy to accommodation regardless of
political consequences. Thus, the Israelis accepted the bait and were
The ‘Exodus’ Scenario
In the 1950s, an author named Leon Uris published a book called
“Exodus.” Later made into a major motion picture, Exodus told the story
of a Zionist provocation against the British. In the wake of World War
II, the British — who controlled Palestine, as it was then known —
maintained limits on Jewish immigration there. Would-be immigrants
captured trying to run the blockade were detained in camps in Cyprus. In
the book and movie, Zionists planned a propaganda exercise involving a
breakout of Jews — mostly children — from the camp, who would then board
a ship renamed the Exodus. When the Royal Navy intercepted the ship,
the passengers would mount a hunger strike. The goal was to portray the
British as brutes finishing the work of the Nazis. The image of children
potentially dying of hunger would force the British to permit the ship
to go to Palestine, to reconsider British policy on immigration, and
ultimately to decide to abandon Palestine and turn the matter over to
the United Nations.
There was in fact a ship called Exodus, but the affair did not play
out precisely as portrayed by Uris, who used an amalgam of incidents to
display the propaganda war waged by the Jews. Those carrying out this
war had two goals. The first was to create sympathy in Britain and
throughout the world for Jews who, just a couple of years after German
concentration camps, were now being held in British camps. Second, they
sought to portray their struggle as being against the British. The
British were portrayed as continuing Nazi policies toward the Jews in
order to maintain their empire. The Jews were portrayed as
anti-imperialists, fighting the British much as the Americans had.
It was a brilliant strategy. By focusing on Jewish victimhood and on
the British, the Zionists defined the battle as being against the
British, with the Arabs playing the role of people trying to create the
second phase of the Holocaust. The British were portrayed as pro-Arab
for economic and imperial reasons, indifferent at best to the survivors
of the Holocaust. Rather than restraining the Arabs, the British were
arming them. The goal was not to vilify the Arabs but to villify the
British, and to position the Jews with other nationalist groups whether
in India or Egypt rising against the British.
The precise truth or falsehood of this portrayal didn’t particularly
matter. For most of the world, the Palestine issue was poorly understood
and not a matter of immediate concern. The Zionists intended to shape
the perceptions of a global public with limited interest in or
understanding of the issues, filling in the blanks with their own
narrative. And they succeeded.
The success was rooted in a political reality. Where knowledge is
limited, and the desire to learn the complex reality doesn’t exist,
public opinion can be shaped by whoever generates the most powerful
symbols. And on a matter of only tangential interest, governments tend
to follow their publics’ wishes, however they originate. There is little
to be gained for governments in resisting public opinion and much to be
gained by giving in. By shaping the battlefield of public perception,
it is thus possible to get governments to change positions.
In this way, the Zionists’ ability to shape global public perceptions
of what was happening in Palestine — to demonize the British and turn
the question of Palestine into a Jewish-British issue — shaped the
political decisions of a range of governments. It was not the truth or
falsehood of the narrative that mattered. What mattered was the ability
to identify the victim and victimizer such that global opinion caused
both London and governments not directly involved in the issue to adopt
political stances advantageous to the Zionists. It is in this context
that we need to view the Turkish flotilla.
The Turkish Flotilla to Gaza
The Palestinians have long argued that they are the victims of
Israel, an invention of British and American imperialism. Since 1967,
they have focused not so much on the existence of the state of Israel
(at least in messages geared toward the West) as on the oppression of
Palestinians in the occupied territories. Since the split between Hamas
and Fatah and the Gaza War, the focus has been on the plight of the
citizens of Gaza, who have been portrayed as the dispossessed victims of
The bid to shape global perceptions by portraying the Palestinians as
victims of Israel was the first prong of a longtime two-part campaign.
The second part of this campaign involved armed resistance against the
Israelis. The way this resistance was carried out, from airplane
hijackings to stone-throwing children to suicide bombers, interfered
with the first part of the campaign, however. The Israelis could point
to suicide bombings or the use of children against soldiers as symbols
of Palestinian inhumanity. This in turn was used to justify conditions
in Gaza. While the Palestinians had made significant inroads in placing
Israel on the defensive in global public opinion, they thus consistently
gave the Israelis the opportunity to turn the tables. And this is where
the flotilla comes in.
The Turkish flotilla aimed to replicate the Exodus story or, more
precisely, to define the global image of Israel in the same way the
Zionists defined the image that they wanted to project. As with the
Zionist portrayal of the situation in 1947, the Gaza situation is far
more complicated than as portrayed by the Palestinians. The moral
question is also far more ambiguous. But as in 1947, when the Zionist
portrayal was not intended to be a scholarly analysis of the situation
but a political weapon designed to define perceptions, the Turkish
flotilla was not designed to carry out a moral inquest.
Instead, the flotilla was designed to achieve two ends. The first is
to divide Israel and Western governments by shifting public opinion
against Israel. The second is to create a political crisis inside Israel
between those who feel that Israel’s increasing isolation over the Gaza
issue is dangerous versus those who think any weakening of resolve is
The Geopolitical Fallout for Israel
It is vital that the Israelis succeed in portraying the flotilla as
an extremist plot. Whether extremist
or not, the plot has generated an image of Israel quite damaging to
Israeli political interests. Israel is increasingly isolated
internationally, with heavy pressure on its relationship with Europe and
the United States.
In all of these countries, politicians are extremely sensitive to
public opinion. It is difficult to imagine circumstances under which
public opinion will see Israel as the victim. The general response in
the Western public is likely to be that the Israelis probably should
have allowed the ships to go to Gaza and offload rather than to
precipitate bloodshed. Israel’s enemies will fan these flames by arguing
that the Israelis prefer bloodshed to reasonable accommodation. And as
Western public opinion shifts against Israel, Western political leaders
will track with this shift.
The incident also wrecks Israeli relations with Turkey, historically
an Israeli ally in the Muslim world with longstanding military
cooperation with Israel. The Turkish government undoubtedly has wanted
away from this relationship, but it faced resistance within the
Turkish military and among secularists. The new Israeli action makes a
break with Israel easy, and indeed almost necessary for Ankara.
With roughly the population of Houston, Texas, Israel is just not
large enough to withstand extended isolation, meaning this event has
Public opinion matters where issues are not of fundamental interest
to a nation. Israel is not a fundamental interest to other nations. The
ability to generate public antipathy to Israel can therefore reshape
Israeli relations with countries critical to Israel. For example, a redefinition
of U.S.-Israeli relations will have much less effect on the United
States than on Israel. The Obama administration, already irritated by
the Israelis, might now see a shift in U.S. public opinion that will
open the way to a new U.S.-Israeli relationship disadvantageous to
The Israelis will argue that this is all unfair, as they were
provoked. Like the British, they seem to think that the issue is whose
logic is correct. But the issue actually is, whose logic will be heard?
As with a tank battle or an airstrike, this sort of warfare has nothing
to do with fairness. It has to do with controlling public perception and
using that public perception to shape foreign policy around the world.
In this case, the issue will be whether the deaths were necessary. The
Israeli argument of provocation will have limited traction.
Internationally, there is little doubt that the incident will
generate a firestorm. Certainly, Turkey will break cooperation with
Israel. Opinion in Europe will likely harden. And public opinion in the
United States — by far the most important in the equation — might shift
to a “plague-on-both-your-houses” position.
While the international
reaction is predictable, the interesting question is whether this
evolution will cause
a political crisis in Israel. Those in Israel who feel that
international isolation is preferable to accommodation with the
Palestinians are in control now. Many in the opposition see Israel’s
isolation as a strategic threat. Economically and militarily, they
argue, Israel cannot survive in isolation. The current regime will
respond that there will be no isolation. The flotilla aimed to generate
what the government has said would not happen.
The tougher Israel is, the more the flotilla’s narrative takes hold.
As the Zionists knew in 1947 and the Palestinians are learning,
controlling public opinion requires subtlety, a selective narrative and
cynicism. As they also knew, losing the battle can be catastrophic. It
cost Britain the Mandate and allowed Israel to survive. Israel’s enemies
are now turning the tables. This maneuver was far more effective than
suicide bombings or the Intifada in challenging Israel’s public
perception and therefore its geopolitical position (though if the
Palestinians return to some of their more distasteful tactics like
suicide bombing, the Turkish strategy of portraying Israel as the
instigator of violence will be undermined).
Israel is now in uncharted
waters. It does not know how to respond. It is not clear that the
Palestinians know how to take full advantage of the situation, either.
But even so, this places the battle on a new field, far more fluid and
uncontrollable than what went before. The next steps will involve calls
for sanctions against Israel. The Israeli threats against Iran will be
seen in a different context, and Israeli portrayal of Iran will hold
less sway over the world.
And this will cause a political crisis in Israel. If this government
survives, then Israel is locked into a course that gives it freedom of
action but international isolation. If the government falls, then Israel
enters a period of domestic uncertainty. In either case, the flotilla
achieved its strategic mission. It got Israel to take violent action
against it. In doing so, Israel ran into its own fist.