Hero or madman? Four hundred years ago Don Quixote, Cervantes’s cavalier clod, set out from La Mancha on a decrepit horse, Sancho Panza by his side, to win the heart of Dulcinea. Quixote was a dreamer with good intentions and his legend has endured, but for all the wrong reasons. We remember him for his misadventures, albeit chivalrous, but at the end of the day Quixote saved no one and made no difference except perhaps in the hearts of those he encountered. In truth, his righteous intentions and noble acts often led to grave consequences.
In a strange sort of way, it feels like we’re seeing these misadventures played out before our eyes, and as in Cervantes’s brilliant parody, with equally tragic results.
The quixotic endeavour known as the Freedom Flotilla is about to embark on its second act at the end of May 2011. The first flotilla, which reached its dramatic end on 31 May 2010, saw a tiny fleet of boats carrying peace activists – and according to Israel, a group of Turkish militants – face off against one of the most powerful armed forces in the world. Well, at least no one can accuse them of battling windmills but one must question the sanity and cynicism of organizers who deliberately sought acclaim through known adversity. Perhaps like Quixote, they truly believed they were “born to be an example of misfortune, and a target at which the arrows of adversary are aimed.”
So they got their headlines, but at such a cost. The incident, planned as a publicity-raising exercise more than anything else, set off a series of protests and diplomatic wrist-slaps around the world. Europeans very much want to see a negotiated end to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. But significantly, the flotilla disaster has failed to hurt Israel’s international standing. Indeed, within a few weeks of the raid, Israel’s proponents were lining up to affirm their support. “Israel’s basic right to self-defense should not be questioned,” wrote one group that included Jose Maria Aznar, a former prime minister of Spain, David Trimble, a former first minister of Northern Ireland, Alejandro Toledo, a former president of Peru, and Marcello Pera, a former president of the Italian Senate.
Since the demise of Israel’s relations with Turkey (which, admittedly, began before the flotilla incident), Israel’s Mediterranean neighbours have been practically tripping over themselves to improve ties to Israel. Last November Italy’s air force conducted a joint training exercise with the IAF. In February, Israeli President Shimon Peres visited Spain where he met with Spanish PM Jose Luis Zapatero and the King of Spain, Juan Carlos I who hosted Peres at a royal reception. Last week, Cyprus President Dimitris Christofias arrived in Israel for the first visit by a Cypriot head of state in over 10 years. While in Jerusalem Christofias, Cyprus’ first Communist president, became the first European leader to publicly denounce the flotilla project. “Terror activities in Gaza are unacceptable,” stated Christofias, “and therefore we have prevented the flotillas from leaving.” http://www.israelnationalnews.com/News/News.aspx/142898
No state is benefiting from Israel’s estrangement from Turkey more than Greece. Israel’s ties to Greece have been strengthening on an almost daily basis. It should be remembered that Greece initially withdrew from joint military exercises with Israel in protest at the raid. But within a few months, Greece was hosting senior members of the IDF, including navy head Eli Marom (who ordered the Mavi Marmara attack), and Israel’s PM and his wife.
“We see the (European) market expanding to the Mediterranean and certainly we would like to integrate Israel into this European market,” said Prime Minister George Papandreou. “I think this is vital for Israel’s economy but also for its strategic security. “Last month, Greek’s PM promised visiting Jewish American leaders that Athens would help Israel forge even CLOSER ties with the European Union, particularly through gaining access to European markets. Not a word about Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians or even the detention of 30 Greek activists on board Mavi Marmara. A non-issue!
Other European states have been equally nonchalant toward the tiny protest movement. Just a few weeks before the raid, on 10 May 2010, Israel had been invited by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries to become a member. One might have expected the deadly assault to affect the discussions. One would be wrong. The formal agreement was signed in Paris on 28 June 2010.
The love-fest has continued throughout the EU. Last month, the Dutch parliament passed a pro-Israel bill affirming Israel’s existence as a Jewish, democratic state and urging the EU not to recognize a unilaterally declared Palestinian state. The bill declared that the unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state would not bring closer a lasting peace, and therefore the Dutch government will advance a European (EU) policy that rejects the unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state and means a European call to the Palestinian leaders to resume direct negotiations with Israel. In other words, a complete dismissal of Palestinian rejection of Jewish self-determination and agreement with Israel’s position that it has been the PA and its refusal to negotiate that is the stumbling block, not Israeli actions. It’s also impossible not to notice tightening relations between Israel and Poland which includes several recent military deals. In Jerusalem last month for the first ever Polish-Israeli governmental forum, Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk declared, “You have a real friend in Europe and it is important that both countries will strengthen each other’s image.” (And again, not a mention of Israel’s treatment of Gaza’s population.) http://electronicintifada.net/v2/article11858.shtml
If that doesn’t seem significant consider this: in July 2011, Poland will assume the rotating presidency of the EU.
There’s more. Last month, a computer scientist at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University was appointed by the European Commission to its Scientific Council, the governing body of the European Research Council (ERC). A few days later, Israel was selected to host the 2011/13 Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) European Under-21 final tournament. Yes, international organizations are still planning events in Israel, business is up (4.1% in 2010) and tourists are flocking to the country in droves.
Other than some public admonishment from known critics of Israel, such as Catherine Ashton, the British government has all but forgotten last year’s raid. Prime Minister David Cameron, who last year condemned the attack, has now reversed his position saying that Israel was “within its rights to search vessels bringing cargo into Gaza.” And last week, George Galloway’s Viva Palestina announced that it can no longer fund-raise in behalf of any future flotilla as a result of suspected ties to Hamas. Although no links have been proven, Viva Palestina obviously believes the investigation is ongoing. Was this inquiry ordered from above? The timing is certainly suspicious.
The incident definitely didn’t affect Israel’s relationship with the US. In August 2010, the two countries signed a formal co-operation pact between NASA and the Israel Space Agency (ISA). The US has continued to shield Israel from legal action and has endorsed Israel’s Turkel Report, an examination of the details of the raid, as a “credible and impartial and transparent investigation.”
The issue at hand is not the cause, which is worthwhile and laudable, but the methods and motivation of some so-called peace-activists who, like Quixote, are “spurred on by the conviction that the world [needs their] immediate presence.”
If, then, the Freedom Flotilla’s hope was to embarrass Israel into lifting its blockade of the Gaza strip, it was a dismal failure. A second flotilla planned for May 2011, will also likely end in disaster, the boats stopped by force, activists detained and possibly killed. The movement will succeed at getting more headlines for a cause that’s barely been out of the news for 40 years. Will international condemnation follow? Probably. Will it make a difference? It hasn’t yet.
That’s not to say the plan is meaningless: it empowers and validates human rights activists trying to make a difference; more importantly, the global movement gives hope to Gaza’s entrapped population. That sort of gesture shouldn’t be dismissed. But there is a troubling flip-side that must be addressed, and that is the powerful influence of a small group of narcissistic, self-righteous Don Quixotes (and I put Turkey’s PM Erdogan, who is seeing re-election just weeks after the scheduled flotilla, in this group) who may be championing a failed strategy at the expense of putting the time and effort into developing realistic strategies for real peace. Before another flotilla sails, I think it’s time this prospect is considered.