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UN Report on Flotilla Incident Exonerates Israel

Author: Elliott Abrams, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies
September 3, 2011
Weekly Standard


The United Nations report on the Mavi Marmara incident, entitled "Report of the Secretary-General's Panel of Inquiry on the 31 May 2010 Flotilla Incident," is now public and largely exculpates Israel.  All the facts are as Israel contended and as the Commission notes "Israel faces a real threat to its security from militant groups in Gaza. The naval blockade was imposed as a legitimate security measure" and "Israeli Defense Forces personnel faced significant, organized and violent resistance from a group of passengers when they boarded the Mavi Marmara requiring them to use force for their own protection. Three soldiers were captured, mistreated, and placed at risk by those passengers. Several others were wounded."

The Commission makes the judgment that the use of force by the Israelis was "excessive and unreasonable," but the real verdict is evident in the way the Israeli and Turkish governments have reacted.  Israel has accepted the report and its findings of fact while of course disagreeing with that judgment about its soldiers; Turkey has rejected the report entirely.

First, the panel challenges the motives of the flotilla:

[T]he Panel seriously questions the true nature and objectives of the flotilla organizers....If the flotilla had been a purely humanitarian mission it is hard to see why so many passengers were embarked and with what purpose. Furthermore, the quality and value of many of the humanitarian goods on board the vessels is questionable....Although people are entitled to express their political views, the flotilla acted recklessly in attempting to breach the naval blockade. The majority of the flotilla participants had no violent intentions, but there exist serious questions about the conduct, true nature and objectives of the flotilla organizers, particularly IHH. The actions of the flotilla needlessly carried the potential for escalation....

More seriously, the panel concludes that the “humanitarians” on the Mavi Marmara came armed for a fight:

It is clear to the Panel that preparations were made by some of the passengers on the Mavi Marmara well in advance to violently resist any boarding attempt....The Panel accepts, therefore, that soldiers landing from the first helicopter faced significant, organized and violent resistance from a group of passengers when they descended onto the Mavi Marmara. Material before the Panel confirms that this group was armed with iron bars, staves, chains, and slingshots and there is some indication that they also used knives.389 Firearms were taken from IDF personnel and passengers disabled at least one by removing the ammunition from it. Two soldiers received gunshot wounds. There is some reason to believe that they may have been shot by passengers, although the Panel is not able to conclusively establish how the gunshot wounds were caused. Nevertheless, seven other soldiers were wounded by passengers, some seriously.

It is not startling that in the face of this Turkey rejected the report. Nor is it surprising that Israel rejected Turkey's astonishing demands for an apology. Israelis from left to right rejected that demand, knowing that an abject apology in such a situation would weaken their country's reputation for strength and resolve in the entire Middle East. And in Israel's situation, such a weakening in front of enemies and potential enemies would be dangerous. Moreover, Israel survives with an unspoken but critical understanding between its army and its populace: we defend you, and you defend us. Throwing the young commandos to the wolves, opening them to prosecution, calling their heroic acts unlawful, would have broken that pact.

It is with all of this in mind that the actions of the Obama administration must be seen as miserable. For instead of defending Israel, the White House has for weeks been pressuring Israel for an abject apology to Turkey. Why? The obvious reasons were given: Gee, we need Erdogan on Syria and Egypt, we needed him on Libya, come on, patch things up, it's just words.

According to Israel's largest circulation daily, this was the situation in mid August:

Washington wants to bring to the table an Israeli agreement to apologize over the flotilla incident.

The American demand was also voiced by Clinton during talks she held with Defense Minister Ehud Barak during the latter's visit to the US three weeks ago. In their meeting, she urged Barak that Israel do all that it can to end the crisis, including apologizing to the Turks.

Three days before the submission of the Palmer Report on events surrounding the flotilla to Gaza, the American pressure is growing.

According to Israeli diplomats in Washington, US officials had even implied that it would be difficult for the US to persuade other nations to reject the Palestinians' UN statehood bid in September if Jerusalem refuses to apologize to Turkey.

There are many other such stories, and it is clear that the U.S. government was pushing Israel to apologize. Of course, administration spokesmen will largely deny this and say they were seeking a  middle ground. Probably so: that has been administration policy toward Israel for two and a half years now. The policy is not to offer strong support, but to seek a compromise between Israel and her enemies.  In this case such a position was both morally wrong and dumb, if the idea was to get Erdogan off his anti-Israel kick and restore the good old days of warm Turkish-Israeli relations. One of the reasons Israel refused an apology was its clear and correct understanding that having a cold and hostile relationship with Israel is Erdogan's goal. He will move toward that goal with whatever tools lie at hand, and an Israeli apology over the Mavi Marmara would have gained next to nothing—while weakening Israel's self-respect and its position in the region.

So this is another example of the Obama Administration refusing the strong support Israel needs and looking instead to find compromises—tawdry, damaging, dangerous.  After 31 months of this, no one should be surprised.  But when a UN commission takes what is in many ways a stronger moral stance in defiance of the UN's automatic anti-Israel majority than does our own government, we have a right to be disgusted.

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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