Once again Israel has hit the news spectacularly, and yet again many Christians have simply aped the bitterly polarised and heated debate concerning the Jewish state which rages across the secular world. Thus, many on the religious left once again shout loud and indignantly, rather idealogically and unrealistically condemning an entire nation (pity we rarely hear the condemnation quite so vociferously when the other side fire rockets or blow themselves up in crowded streets), while some extreme Christian Zionists, as always, slavishly defend Israel no matter what she does, almost as if the secular Israeli government is somehow inerrant. The result of such hysteria is that the strategic ramifications of the wider issues and conflict are lost on those Christians who seem quite incapable of exploring events objectively and disappassionately. Yet it is worth for a moment taking stock of the bigger picture and how this might have a bearing on the region, and indeed upon the rest of us, regardless of our theological view of Israel.
It seems to me one of the gravest aspects of this issue for the region is the breakdown of the once-famous Israeli-Turkish alliance. But make no mistake, this has been coming for some time. Turkey previously guarded its secular constitution jealously, perhaps aware that even the slightest weakening towards religion would eventually let the Islamist genie well and truly out of the bottle. But things began to change with the election of the conservative AKP, a political party consisting of several blocs, including mildly Islamist factions. The AKP came to power in 2002 and was reelected in 2007, and for a while the Turkish military was uneasy with this new religious focus, ready to intervene militarily if necessary. The country's increasing division along secular-religious lines is typified by the government's attempt to lift the headscarf ban for women and gthe reversal of other strict secularist laws, together with strong opposition to such efforts.
What is clear is that Turkish relations with Israel have cooled considerably throughout the noughties, culminating in yesterday's events and most undiplomatic language emanating from the highest political echelons (including referring to the flotilla raid as an "act of piracy" and "state terrorism"). Politicians and diplomats rarely use such language unless they have no intention whatsoever of rebuilding relations any time soon with the other country. Famously, too, the Turkish PM Erdogan stormed out of a meeting of the World Economic Forum held in Davos in January 2009 after a very public argument in front of the world's media with Israeli president Shimon Peres over Gaza. He returned home to a heroes' welcome, and arguably his actions were not entirely coincidental. Neither is Turkey's undiplomatic language yesterday. Importantly, many of those involved in this week's events were Turkish nationals, some of them well-known militants, yet it appears Turkey did very little to dissuade the flotilla from heading for Gaza. Indeed, I've heard it postulated that Turkish involvement in the flotilla by well known militants wielding iron bars is somehow a trick (a kind of Turkish maskirova, the Russian name for a military deception) to provoke Israel and distance itself further from the Jewish state. Whether or not this is the case, the erosion of Israeli-Turkish relations reached a critical stage yesterday, leading Turkey to cancel joint manouvers with the Israeli military. (Ironically, Turkey - at least for now - plans to go through with an arms deal with Israel, purchasing drones worth about $180m.) Thus, yesterday's events represent the culmination of Turkey's shift away from a military alliance with Israel over the best part of a decade. This has been accompanied over time - significantly - with Turkey's gradual warming of relations with some of its Muslim neighbours and its efforts to ditch some of its secular constitution, which together arguably mark a perceptible strategic shift in the region which further isolates Israel. Given Turkey's membership of NATO and its continued efforts to seek EU membership, here is a player which, albeit indirectly, may drag other parts of Europe and the West into a protracted diplomatic, economic and who knows, maybe a military conflict in the Middle East, not so much where Europe gets involved but has little choice but to lend some support to Turkey. We'll see how the bigger strategic picture develops over the long term.
Having considered the Turkish aspect, what bearing do this week's events have on Israel? My support for Israel is well-know, but neither is it slavish. Yes, Israel warned the convoy not to sail to Gaza, but it did so anyway. She also warned the convoy to divert away from Gaza, but of course it refused to do so. Israel then advised she would be boarding the ships and to stand by (five did, the sixth did not). And Israeli troops were met by militants ("peace" activists) with iron bars and other weapons so that soldiers were beaten (footage from both the Israeli military and taken from on board by others demonstrate clearly this is the case). I sincerely hope we won't be hearing justification for such actions from those on the religious left who love to quote Jesus' words "Blessed are the peacemakers". Neither was Israel's boarding of the ships illegal (not that international law is always right or moral). On BBC Radio 4's The World Tonight last night the presenter interviewed Dr Douglas Gilfoyle, an expert on international law at University College London, who explained why boarding ships seeking to break a blockade is perfectly legal, even according to rules set down by the Red Cross (fast forward to about 18 minutes 45 seconds... the link will probably expire tonight). The presenter didn't seem best pleased to hear this unequivocal opinion.
Yet all this said, the Israeli attack on the flotilla was a complete disaster. It was not only a PR disaster, as we have seen in the past 36 hours (and a PR coup for Hamas), but a military embarassment. Immediately before the interview with the international law academic on The World Tonight, the programme spoke with the former SAS veteran and author Andy McNabb, whose view was that Israel should have got far more troops on board quickly and armed them properly, pointing out how it seemed some of the Israeli soldiers were even armed with paintball guns! Today The Times also reports something similar, which all suggests Israel was more keen on seeking not to appear heavy-handed than acting in a coherent military manner. Consequently, ill-prepared and equipped troops were set upon by iron bars, apparently a gun was snatched by a militant and fired, and Israeli troops panicked and drew handguns, leading to the tragic situation of people dying. Christian Zionists can claim foul all they like, and I agree all is not as it seems. That five ships with protestors obeyed the authorities, while the sixth did not, demonstrates this to be the case. But after the 2006 Lebanon war, during which the IDF to all intents and purposes won, Israel's military pride was nonetheless severely dented. Then we had the fiasco of the botched Mossad operation in the Gulf (not that they failed to get their target but rather they were all caught on film doing so). And now Israel sends crack troops armed with paintball guns into an operation which, although the facts are not yet all out, at this moment in time looks like something from the Keystone Kops. We'll see what transpires, but so far it adds to a growing narrative in the Middle East of Israeli military incompetence, a narrative which is dangerous for the region, and indeed Israel's existence. There's a very real danger Iran, Hizbollah and others will begin to believe their own lie.
Defending Israel uncritically and slavishly does little good. It is quite one thing to believe passionately God has not finished with the Jewish people, quite another to suggest Israel is somehow inerrant and defend her on that basis. Yet neither do I have much time for some on the religious left who constantly denounce Israel no matter what she does. Clearly, such people will never be happy unless the Jewish state ceases to exist. I also get rather tired of the absence of indignation when it is Jewish lives and security at stake. After all, Israel's heavy-handedness did not arise in a vacuum, but rather in the midst of a very real security threat that existed even before 1948. One thing is sure: Israel remains the centre of world attention millennia after the Bible was written. And it seems very little has changed even since then. When one hears the constant genocidal rhetoric of the likes of Iran's President Ahmadinejad, Hizbollah or Hamas, one is reminded acutely of those words by the Psalmist penned some three thousand years ago:
O God, do not keep silence;
do not hold your peace or be still, O God!
For behold, your enemies make an uproar;
those who hate you have raised their heads.
They lay crafty plans against your people;
they consult together against your treasured ones.
They say, “Come, let us wipe them out as a nation;
let the name of Israel be remembered no more!”
(Psalm 83:1-4 ESV)
Further Comment and Links
eChurch Christian Blog with various links.
Stephanie Gutmann on the PR disaster which is a win-win for Hamas and Con Coughlin on why Israel needs to up its PR game.
The Times on how this might have a bearing on the Con-Lib Coalition