Can Israel Learn How to Make Its Case?

With the incident of the Mavi Marmara flotilla, the armed forces blundered their way into yet another international fiasco

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Uriel Sinai / Getty Images

After the Mavi Marmara incident, Israelis demonstrate in front of the Turkish embassy in Tel Aviv.

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Goldstein, in Gush Etzion, has no doubts. "We really feel that the world is hunting us," he says. "It touches the deepest things in the Israeli narrative." That narrative has always been the story of an underdog, resilient but surrounded by enemies and endlessly vulnerable. It is a story much of the world followed avidly until 1982, when perceptions of Israel began to shift, notes Nachman Shai, a centrist lawmaker. That was the year Israel invaded Lebanon in pursuit of Palestine Liberation Organization guerrillas and ended up standing by as a Lebanese ally murdered Palestinians in refugee camps. Until then, Israel had fought conventional wars — crushing three Arab armies in six days in 1967, a David slaying Goliath. But in the 1982 Lebanon war — and every operation since — the quarry was indigenous militants, virtually impossible to separate from civilian populations. By 1987 and the first intifadeh, David and Goliath had swapped roles; the iconic image of the time became a Palestinian youth facing an Israeli tank with a slingshot.

The occupation of the West Bank — now 43 years old — has corroded everything it touches, not least Israel's image. Indie rockers the Pixies canceled their Tel Aviv show after the Mavi Marmara incident, following earlier cancellations by rocker Elvis Costello and soul-jazz musician Gil Scott-Heron, a veteran of the cultural boycott against apartheid South Africa. In global liberal circles, the sense that there is a moral equivalency between the apartheid regime and Israel is gaining ground.

Time to Be Nimble
For the engineer Arad, as for most Israelis, the occupation is a source of distress, but so is the memory of the intifadehs: "Buses going boom in Tel Aviv." The experience does not travel, however. "People just remember one thing: you have the army, and they have the stones and sticks," he says. "This is the whole problem."

The wonder is that in the space of two generations, Israel, of all countries, has not figured out a way to shed the role of heavy. From its founding, the place was synonymous with ingenuity — from the perfection of drip irrigation, which made the desert bloom, to the Uzi, only the best-known innovation of a defense sector that planted the seeds of Israel's booming high-tech economy, which, ironically, may be part of the problem. If Israel today boasts a phenomenal number of start-ups, it's been at the comparative expense of the country's public sector. Pollster Dahlia Scheindlin observes that the young Israel nurtured a collectivist society more likely to channel bright ideas to government than to the entrepreneurial class. Not so today. That may be one reason for an Israeli officialdom less nimble and savvy than, say, the Palestinian protesters who turned out after the Marmara incident carrying flags of a dozen nations. So the footage depicted, once again, Israel against the world.

"The dichotomy within Israeli society is this explosion of new ideas and cutting-edge arts and convergence with the West on the one hand," says Ron Pundak, director of the Peres Center for Peace. "And parallel to this you have the occupation, the ship, the siege. From my point of view, it's the fight over what will be the face of Israel in the future — this rightist, unity face or the face that built the state. And it did build the state."

Of course, some Israeli officials are as smart as the smartest Tel Aviv software engineer. In the West Bank village of An-Nabi Salih, during a June 4 demonstration, a savvy lieutenant colonel kept his troops on a tight leash. "He's paralyzing my activism!" wailed an Israeli leftist heading back to Tel Aviv with no bloody snapshots to upload to Facebook. But the coalition government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu still seems ham-fisted in the way it presents Israel's case to the world. Last month the only Western-style democracy in the Middle East denied entry to Noam Chomsky, the left-wing MIT professor. Ejected a few days earlier: Ivan Prado, the most famous clown in Spain. Human-rights organizations, paying a price for their reporting on the Gaza war, are battling legislation they say will impose onerous new rules intended to stifle dissent.

The stuttering official response to the flotilla fiasco flowed from the same well of misgiving. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) at one point claimed al-Qaeda was on board. Among the many videos featuring radio traffic that the IDF posted online, the most obviously inflammatory — in which a voice, allegedly from a flotilla radio transmission, can be heard snarling, "Go back to Auschwitz" — was no less obviously edited. "PR amateurs," sneered a Yedioth columnist lambasting a message effort in disarray.

And Zoabi, whose presence on the vessel so confounded Arab journalists accustomed to portraying Israel as evil incarnate? Might anyone in authority be thinking of offering her as evidence that the "despised Zionist entity" is no monolith? That 20% of Israelis are — a little-known fact in most of the world — Palestinians, descended from Arab residents who stayed put when the Jewish army made the final armed push that created Israel? That the Israeli parliament seats elected officials who are not Zionists?

Perhaps another time. Interior Minister Eli Yishai is moving to revoke Zoabi's citizenship. His Cabinet colleague, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, wants Arab Israelis to lose the right to vote unless they sign loyalty oaths.

All of which might seem to make the Knesset Speaker's wise caution about the future of Israel's democracy just more timely and relevant. "Yeah, but he didn't let me finish," Zoabi says. "I was supposed to speak five minutes, and after one and a half minutes he interrupted me. He said, 'That's enough.'" —With reporting by Aaron J. Klein / Jerusalem

The original version of this article misidentified Recep Tayyip Erdogan as the president of Turkey. He is in fact the prime minister.

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