Israeli mood: Support for attack is thin on the ground

Sole dissenting voice at security cabinet meeting before error-ridden operation
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The Independent Online

While they differed wildly in the tenor of their criticisms, there were few prominent figures in Israel yesterday outside the government, from the most hawkish to the most doveish, who wanted to defend the way the Mavi Marmara was stormed before dawn on Monday. Even among ministers, as Benjamin Netanyahu convened his security Cabinet for a preliminary post-mortem yesterday, there were signs that with the sudden benefit of morning-after hindsight, a few were beginning to question the wisdom of it.

The full spectrum of angst was apparent in the newspapers, with commentators queuing up to denounce what was described by several as a "fiasco", with one, Yediot Ahronot's Sever Plocker calling on the Defence Minister, Ehud Barak, to resign. Even those who most vigorously defended the decision to stop the flotilla by force denounced the tactics. The Deputy Prime Minister, Dan Meridor, one of the intellectually sharpest members of the Cabinet, acknowledged to Army Radio that the results of the naval operation were "very difficult". He went on to say that the responsibility was that of the "political echelon" not of the military.

For it is clear that whatever the retrospective misgivings of some who took part that they were not given "operational" details, the seven-strong security cabinet of senior ministers had indeed discussed the decision to stop the flotilla by force, most comprehensively, last Wednesday. At the meeting, an official confirmed yesterday, the only dissenting voice had been that of the Cabinet Secretary, Zvi Hauser, who had raised the question of whether it might be better simply let the flotilla sail on to Gaza. But he was overruled by what appears to have been a consensus - still strongly maintained by those aroundMr Netanyahu last night - that to do so would set a dangerous precedent, opening the way for further sailings of vessels that might be carrying arms.

On the Right, the argument was that not enough, rather than too much, force had been used. David Horowitz, the editor of the Jerusalem Post complained of "deeply flawed" military intelligence and that the "incorrectly prepared" commandos had come aboard "carrying paintball guns". The military commentator Alex Fishman said it was a "cardinal mistake" not to plan for the possibility some of those on board the Turkish vessel were prepared "to risk their lives".

Acknowledging that the picture was not yet clear, and presumably relying on military sources, Mr Fishman suggested that the commandos had overestimated the ease of the operation. He said the two helicopters, meant to drop 30 combatants, arrived above the upper deck and dropped ropes.

"One rope succeeded in quickly lowering a first wave of four combatants," he added. "But then the ship's passengers succeed in tying the rope to the antenna on deck. The helicopter was in trouble, the pilot decided to cut the rope and the helicopter moved away. Therefore, in the first few seconds, there were only four combatants on board." These, he said, later faced a "mass assault" in which knives were drawn and one soldier was thrown from the deck.

He went on: "The assault boats of the Naval Commando were supposed to approach the sides of the ship, to throw ladders and to put a few dozen more fighters on the lower decks. But this also went wrong: the ship's passengers had prepared for a fight... The ascent of the commando fighters from the sides of the ship was delayed."

In the light of such apparently strong opposition, a common complaint that Israel should have resorted to an old tactic of seeking to disable the vessels before they even reached the theatre of confrontation, drew hints from -among others - Deputy Defence Minister Matan Vilnai, that the country had done just that. While Meir Dagan, the boss of Mossad, said it had been decided not to sabotage the Mavi Marmara, with the risk of leaving almost 600 passengers stranded at sea, Colonel Itzik Turgeman implied in a briefing to a Knesset committee that other ships had indeed been tampered with.

One of the most surprising argumentswas from Giora Eiland, a former head of Israel's National Security Council, who suggested that it had surely been open to Israel to suggest to Turkey that instead of supporting an "anti-Israel" flotilla, Ankara should have been told Israel had no objection to a "maritime line" from Turkey to Gaza provided the government was sending its own cargo-only ships to Gaza rather than sanctioning a freelance operation, with a bankable guarantee that they contained nothing to threaten security.

One government official said he did not believe such an idea had been discussed. If accepted by Turkey the offer would have meant at the very least an easing of the three-year blockade on Gaza; but it would surely have been a great deal better for Israel's image abroad than what happened early on Monday.

What the Israeli papers say

"When a regular, well-armed, well-trained army goes to war against a 'freedom flotilla' of civilian vessels laden with civilians, food and medication, the outcome is foretold – and it doesn't matter whether the confrontation achieved its goal and prevented the flotilla from reaching Gaza."

Editorial, 'Haaretz'

"As expected, the provocation mounted by Muslim organisations in association with 'peace activists' was successful beyond their wildest dreams: There were casualties. They can now continue pointing the finger at Israel and blaming it for everything under the sun."

Zvi Mazel, 'The Jerusalem Post'

"During the 2006 war in Lebanon I concluded that my 15-year-old daughter could have conducted it more wisely than the Olmert-Peretz government. We've progressed. Today it's clear to me that my 6-year-old son could do much better than our current government."

Ari Shavit, 'Haaretz'

"The premeditated refusal of those aboard one of the ships to act peacefully when confronted by IDF troops was the trigger for the violence at sea. Confronted with such violence when they had been expecting non-violent protests, or at worst, low-level clashes, it is doubtful that the soldiers of any of the nations that rushed to criticise Israel would have acted any differently. Indeed, it is likely that the consequences would have been considerably worse."

Editorial, 'The Jerusalem Post'

"The Israeli image took a mortal blow. And all this happened deep in international waters and turned Israel into a pirate state."

Ben Caspit, 'Maariv'