Patrick Cockburn: The chronic failure of Israeli leadership

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President Obama was full of gushing goodwill towards Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during their summit in Washington this week. There was no mention of an extension to the moratorium on Israeli settlement building or the Israeli commandos' attack on the Turkish aid flotilla bound for Gaza. In private, the White House and even the Israeli delegation were quick to say that Mr Obama's climb-down had not been quite as humiliating as it looked, and assurances had been given that the moratorium would be quietly extended. But the President was at pains to reverse the cool reception Mr Netanyahu got during his visit to the White House in March when when he was not even allowed a photograph with Mr Obama, who kept him waiting while he had dinner with his family upstairs.

The reason for Mr Netanyahu's friendlier reception is obvious enough. Mr Obama needs every vote he can get in the mid-term Congressional elections in November when a third of the Senate and all the House face re-election. The Republicans have been seeking with some success to portray him as anti-Israel. Pro-Israeli lobby groups have been putting intense pressure on Democratic Senators and Congressmen to demand that the White House be more accommodating.

The outcome of the brief confrontation between Israel and the US is not surprising. With its collective mind focused on the upcoming elections, the White House is disregarding signs of disquiet from the US chiefs of staff and security policy establishment that Israeli ill-treatment of the Palestinians and excessive use of force in the region is turning Israel into a liability for the US. They warn that the US will not always give unstinting support to acts they see as irresponsible misjudgements, be it against the Turks on the high seas or Palestinians in Gaza and Lebanon.

As in the past, such protestations have got nowhere. Israeli leaders remain protected by an all-purpose American insurance shielding them from the results of their mistakes. In fact, they do not even view these as mistakes, since Israeli propaganda portray idiocies – such as the use of elite troops trained to kill to thwart the Turkish peace activists – as reasonable decisions.

Since no errors are admitted, there is no reason not to repeat them. Worse, the Israeli political and military leaders go on holding their jobs despite an Inspector Clouseau-like ability to blunder. Mr Netanyahu and his Defence Minister, Ehud Barak, both behave with the swaggering arrogance of successful warlords, though their careers are littered with failed operations. The Turkish aid boat fiasco is not difficult to understand when it is recalled that it was Mr Netanyahu, when Prime Minister in 1997, who allowed Mossad to try to assassinate a Hamas leader in Amman by injecting a slow-acting poison into his ear as he left his office. The plan went wrong; two Mossad agents were captured and Mr Netanyahu was forced by King Hussein to supply the antidote to the poison and release Palestinian prisoners.

Ever since the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, Israel has been ruled by one of the stupidest and least responsible leaderships in the world. Their failings have been masked by propaganda and by Israel's American insurance policy, but nothing else can explain Israel's record of repeated failure in military and security operations. So much of Israeli politics revolves around manipulating the sense of threat felt by Israeli voters, that the capacity to deal with real threats is stultified.

Contrary to Israel's reputation for military prowess, the last time it won a war was 37 years ago, against Egypt and Syria in 1973. Israel's long invasion of Lebanon in 1982 initiated an 18-year-long guerrilla war against Israeli occupation of the south of the country, which only ended with a precipitate Israeli withdrawal in 2000. All its military operations over the last 10 years have failed to achieve their aims.

Political leaders are so often accused of stupidity that it is worth asking if they behave more foolishly in Israel than elsewhere. The main explanation is that Israelis believe their own propaganda and their supporters abroad adopt a skewed view of events as if it was an article of faith. Israelis, leaders and followers alike, acquire a wholly distorted picture of the world around them. Hubris breeds self-righteousness and arrogance that robs Israel of friends and allies and repeatedly leads its leaders to underestimate their enemies.

Critics of Israeli actions, be they Israeli peace activists or members of the Turkish government, are demonised as supporters of terrorism. In this fantasy world sensible policies become difficult for leaders to devise and, if they do so, impossible to sell to voters. It is scarcely surprising that Israel's only victories these days are won on the sofas of the White House.

Deferred delight

Turkey's progress towards becoming a regional power in the Middle East moves nervously forward as it fends off allegations that it is "turning to the east". It is surprising that its increased influence is so late in coming, given Turkey is more powerful than any of its neighbours, including Iran. Divisions within Turkey are deepening, not evaporating. The long battle between the mildly Islamic but democratic AKP party and its secular but authoritarian opponents is, if anything, hotting up. So too is the struggle between Kurdish guerrillas and the central government in the south east of the country. "The Turkish government displays a taste for moderation and mediation abroad that it seldom shows at home," says one diplomat acidly.

With the European Union on its sickbed, it is surprising anybody still wants to join it. Turkish enthusiasm has been ebbing fast. Its economy is expanding faster than many EU members. But the main reason for Turkey joining the EU is political rather than economic. Seeking EU membership has been a potent antidote to military coups, torture, arbitrary arrests and censorship of the media in recent years. This could all go into reverse if Turkey's EU membership application is finally pronounced dead.

p.cockburn@independent.co.uk

Adrian Hamilton returns next week

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