Editorial: It’s Never Easy

As Israel prepares to mark its 64th anniversary as an independent Jewish State, which has prided itself from its inception as being “the only democracy in the Middle East,” matters of national security continue to erode some of its time-honored principles. As always, the question of whether and to what extent the tradeoff is worth it depends on one’s principles, interests and perspective.

A current case in point is the decision by Israel’s government to block the entry of as many as 1,500 pro-Palestinian campaigners from entering the country and traveling to the territories as part of a “Flytilla.” According to reporting by Isabel Kershner in Monday’s New York Times, organizers of the “pro-Palestinian campaign” said that more than 1,500 foreigners from at least 15 countries had planned to travel to Bethlehem in the West Bank for what they described as “a week of peaceful activities in solidarity with the Palestinians.”

Kershner reports that as of Sunday evening, only three of the pro-Palestinian activists had made it to Bethlehem, while “dozens had been refused entry and were either being flown back where they came from or were in detention awaiting deportation.” Israel had reportedly supplied the airlines with the names of hundreds of people who the government said would face immediate deportation, and that “once notified, the airlines would bear the responsibility and cost of flying the passengers back.” As a result, many never embarked on their flights, including at least several hundred who had no apparent history of illegality or violence.

The Israeli government’s insistence on heightened security is understandable given the countless episodes of violence and delegitimization launched against the country. Some have been as bloody as the Second Intifada, which resulted in thousands of Israeli and Palestinian deaths. Others, like the flotillas organized in recent years to ostensibly bring supplies to Gaza, have been constructed so as to paint a poor picture of Israel before the world’s eyes.

As with most governments, Israel hasn’t always acted in the most sage manner possible, and some of the most outspoken pundits about the administration’s tactics come from the mainstream Israeli press. Heavy-handedness in the wrong situations, they say, can give a public relations victory to those who would seek Israel’s destruction, while continuing to blemish the portrait of the Jewish State as a stronghold of democracy in the region.

Yet as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has pointed out, it’s rather disingenuous to be taking major swipes at Israel while Syria’s leader Bashar al-Assad continues to make a mockery of liberty and justice by slaughtering his own citizenry. Moreover, when an Israeli defense officer this week struck a Danish activist in the face with a rifle, the action was sharply criticized by both Netanyahu and others in leadership, showing deference to the rule of law that must guide the governments of democratic societies.

One of the toughest tasks for Israeli leadership is determining how best to distinguish those whose intentions are pacifistic and sound from those persistent voices advocating for Israel’s destruction. In the heat of the moment, such an exercise can be difficult if not impossible, and misjudgments are often likely to result. The closer an event gets to creating imminent peril, the higher the chance of invasive government action, and the less sensitive the military response is likely to be.

Sometimes the United States gets it wrong (the Patriot Act, enacted in the post-9/11 fervor, clearly has some overly broad provisions) and sometimes Israel does as well. What makes it so hard to second guess, notwithstanding our particular perspectives, is that we rarely have the intelligence information available to the government. The public probably doesn’t want to know all that scary stuff in morbid detail, but then again, one reason leadership is so tough in this era is that being privy to horrific plots and sinister cabals does not relieve government from treading lightly on the lives of law-abiding citizens.

For Israel, being physically surrounded and easily approachable by enemy nations, the challenge is particularly wicked. It would be easy to say that those who object to Israel’s policies do so at their own peril, but that would change the entire character and raison d’etre of the nation. Israel is stuck with an unenviable bargain, and the only answer is persistent and eternal diligence and discretion. We wish it were otherwise.