The Black Sheep

Most every family has a black sheep – the crazy uncle you tell to stay in his room when you have guests over because, at best, he’s sure to say all sorts of puzzling things, and at worst, he’s sure to go off on one of his diatribes about Obama being gay and the antichrist, or, if you have the other sort, on how Sarah Palin is an idiot, and certainly not Esther – who told the king of that plan to massacre all the Jews – and will not our next president, because she has the self-awareness of a slab of wallboard, with a corresponding knowledge of the world. Or maybe he just gets drunk and tells dirty jokes, badly. It’s best he stays in his room. He may be angry about that, and resentful, but he gets it. Most families work something out. And he’s family. You love him anyway, because you’re supposed to. And you’d never let any harm come to him. That’s what families are for.

Tolstoy opens Anna Karenina by saying that happy families are all alike, but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. That may be no more that saying happy families are quite boring, actually, and not worth writing about, but there’s an implied corollary – happy families are quite rare, and there really might not be any of them anywhere. The novel goes on to prove that. Families teach us about shame and embarrassment, and how to deal with that, in a loving way, until late at night when you can drink heavily, alone, and stare at the sky.

And of course it’s the same with the family of nations. Nations have not only strategic allies – countries who are useful in advancing our national interests, where, for a time, their goals align with ours – but also countries you know will stick by you through thick and thin. You may decide to do something really stupid, but they’ll shrug and put on a good face, and then join in. There’s a special relationship – shared values, shared history, shared culture. They’re family.

We have long had that special relationship with Britain, and we thought we had it with France. And yes, we should have had it with France – we could not have won our independence and become a nation without their troops and the French fleet out in the Chesapeake Bay as things finally came to a head, and a hundred years later they gave us that cool Statue of Liberty thing as a gift for making it through our first hundred years, and we went and saved their butts in the two World Wars. We do go back. But there was Dominique Marie François René Galouzeau de Villepin (Dominique de Villepin) questioning Colin Powell at the UN back in February 2003 – all smooth and incisive and wryly skeptical, listening in ironic bemusement with his eyebrow arched, and letting the whole world know we were the crazy uncle, at best. A full-scale war to remove Saddam Hussein was not really necessary and would lead to no end of troubles. And to Americans this seemed like a family betrayal. Had Uruguay’s ambassador to the UN done this, or even Russia’s ambassador, we would have been bored – but we were white-hot angry. Your own family doesn’t do this to you. It was unforgivable.

But now the shoe is on the other foot, and the problem is Israel. And we go way back. The United States was instrumental in the creation of Israel – at a White House meeting on May 12, 1948, Secretary of State Marshall objected to quick recognition of a new Jewish homeland. It would look like Truman was angling for Jewish votes and endanger access to Arab oil, and if Truman went ahead and recognized the new state, Marshall would vote against him in the coming election. But Truman didn’t care. Two days later, May 14, 1948, Israel was born at the stroke of midnight, Jerusalem time, and the United States announced its recognition of the new nation eleven minutes later. And the rest is history. They were family. After all, as the evangelical right will tell you, Israel is Jesus Land. Israel is more sacred than anything, even the United States.

And now there’s this:

Israel faced intense international condemnation and growing domestic questions on Monday after a raid by naval commandos that killed nine people, many of them Turks, on an aid flotilla bound for Gaza.

Turkey, Israel’s most important friend in the Muslim world, recalled its ambassador and canceled planned military exercises with Israel as the countries’ already tense relations soured even further. The United Nations Security Council met in emergency session over the attack, which occurred in international waters north of Gaza, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel was flying home after canceling a Tuesday meeting with President Obama.

The raid was in international waters, and went badly:

With street protests erupting around the world, Mr. Netanyahu defended the Israeli military’s actions, saying the commandos, enforcing what Israel says is a legal blockade, were set upon by passengers on the Turkish ship that was raided, the Mavi Marmara, and fired only in self-defense. The military released a video of the early moments of the raid to support that claim.

Israel said the violence was instigated by pro-Palestinian activists who presented themselves as humanitarians but had come ready for a fight. Organizers of the flotilla accused the Israeli forces of opening fire as soon as they landed on the deck, and released videos to support their case.

So now we have to defend Israel, as Israel did that they-started-it thing. It seems they started it by steaming round in international waters, planning something suspiciously humanitarian. They had to be dealt with. But that may not fly:

The Israeli public seemed largely to support the navy, but policy experts questioned preparations for the military operation; whether there had been an intelligence failure; and whether the Israeli insistence on stopping the flotilla had been counterproductive. Some commentators were calling for the resignation of Ehud Barak, the defense minister.

“The government failed the test of results; blaming the organizers of the flotilla for causing the deaths by ignoring Israel’s orders to turn back is inadequate,” wrote Aluf Benn, a columnist for Haaretz, on the newspaper’s Web site on Monday, calling for a national committee of inquiry. “Decisions taken by the responsible authorities must be probed.”

This flotilla of cargo ships and passenger boats was carrying many tons of aid for Gaza, and it was an attempt to challenge Israel’s military blockade of Gaza. But the response was so brutal that this is a bit of a disaster:

The raid and its deadly consequences have thrown Israel’s policy of blockading Gaza into the international limelight; at the Security Council on Monday voices were raised against the blockade, and the pressure to abandon it is bound to intensify.

Well, no wonder:

The confrontation began shortly before midnight on Sunday when Israeli warships intercepted the aid flotilla, according to a person on one vessel. The Israeli military warned the vessels that they were entering a hostile area and that the Gaza shore was under blockade. The vessels refused the military’s request to dock at the Israeli port of Ashdod, north of Gaza, and continued toward their destination.

Around 4 a.m. on Monday, naval commandos came aboard the Mavi Marmara, having been lowered by ropes from helicopters onto the decks. At that point, the operation seems to have gone badly wrong.

Israeli officials say that the soldiers were dropped into an ambush and were attacked with clubs, metal rods and knives.

An Israeli official said that the navy was planning to stop five of the six vessels of the flotilla with large nets that interfere with propellers, but that the sixth was too large for that. The official said there was clearly an intelligence failure in that the commandos were expecting to face passive resistance, and not an angry, violent reaction.

If you drop out of the sky in the middle of the night, guns blazing, in international waters, just what would you expect? And this may have not been a very good idea:

Einat Wilf, a Labor Party Member of Parliament who sits on the influential Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, said that she had warned Mr. Barak and others well in advance that the flotilla was a public relations issue and should not be dealt with by military means.

“This had nothing to do with security,” she said in an interview. “The armaments for Hamas were not coming from this flotilla.”

What did it have to do with?

See Glenn Greenwald:

The Israeli Defense Forces is claiming that its soldiers were attacked with clubs, knives and “handguns” when they boarded the ship without permission, but none of the Israeli soldiers were killed while two are reported injured. Those on the ships emphatically state that the IDF came on board shooting…

The six-ship flotilla was carrying 10,000 tons of humanitarian aid along with 600 people, all civilians, which included 1976 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mairead Corrigan Maguire of Northern Ireland and European legislators; an elderly Holocaust survivor, Hedy Epstein, 85, was scheduled to be among those on the ship but remained in Cyprus.

And the threat was odd:

In December, 2008, Israel, citing rocket attacks from Hamas, launched a 22-day, barbaric attack on Gaza, bombarding a trapped population, killing hundreds of innocent civilians (1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed), and devastating Gazan society. A U.N. report released earlier this month documented that, as a result of the blockade imposed on Gaza by Israel and Egypt (the two largest recipients of U.S. aid), “most of the property and infrastructure damaged… was still unrepaired 12 months later.”

The flotilla attacked by Israel last night was carrying materials such as cement, water purifiers, and other building materials, much of which Israel refuses to let pass into Gaza. At the end of 2009, a U.N. report found that “insufficient food and medicine is reaching Gazans, producing a further deterioration of the mental and physical health of the entire civilian population since Israel launched Operation Cast Lead against the territory,” and also “blamed the blockade for continued breakdowns of the electricity and sanitation systems due to the Israeli refusal to let spare parts needed for repair get through the crossings.”

And Matthew Yglesias comments:

I can’t keep up with the claims and counterclaims about the Gaza relief flotilla and the attack on it, but obviously the idea behind the flotilla was not just to deliver supplies but to try to elevate the level of attention being given to the actual situation in the Strip. As this recent human interest piece on Gaza’s surfers reminded us in early May before this particular controversy “under an economic embargo enforced by the Israeli government, only basic foodstuffs and humanitarian supplies are allowed into Gaza.” The intention of this is to make economic conditions unbearably bad and it’s been a big success!

And Yglesias is not big on the whole blockade thing:

Gaza doesn’t contain nearly enough arable land to support the Strip’s population as subsistence farmers – which of course is true of many other places on earth. But the effect of the embargo is to make meaningful commercial activity in Gaza nearly impossible, pushing living standards down to what would be a below-subsistence level were it not for the trickle of aid that flows in. The Hamas authorities exercise some fairly rough justice over the area, extremist groups burn down summer camps and Israel launches airstrikes periodically sometimes injuring dozens sometimes hurting no one. The overall situation is incredibly bleak. Construction supplies aren’t allowed into the area, so it’s been impossible to rebuild since the war there from a couple of years back, and all the physical infrastructure is just degrading over time. Israel is attempting to defend itself from the sporadic rocket fire that’s emanated from the area since the IDF abandoned trying to directly administer it during Ariel Sharon’s administration, but the level of human suffering – we’re talking about a place where 1.5 million people live – being inflicted is just staggering.

Do we stand with Israel now, because they’re family? Greenwald doesn’t think so:

It hardly seemed possible for Israel – after its brutal devastation of Gaza and its ongoing blockade – to engage in more heinous and repugnant crimes. But by attacking a flotilla in international waters carrying humanitarian aid, and slaughtering at least ten people, Israel has managed to do exactly that. If Israel’s goal were to provoke as much disgust and contempt for it as possible, it’s hard to imagine how it could be doing a better job.

We have family problems, and Greenwald contends that is because it is only American protection of Israel that permits the Israelis to engage in conduct like this:

…there would be something quite symbolically appropriate about having the U.S. stand at the side of Israel in the aftermath of this latest massacre, because it is only the massive amounts of U.S. financial and military aid, and endless diplomatic protection, that enables Israel to act with impunity as a rogue and inhumane state. So complete is the devotion of the U.S. Congress to the mission of serving and protecting Israel that it even overwhelmingly condemned the Goldstone report, which found that Israel and Hamas had both committed war crimes and possibly crimes against humanity during the Israeli attack on Gaza (the U.S. Congress, of course, never condemned the Israeli war crimes themselves – only the report which documented those crimes). Israeli actions are a direction reflection on, and by-product of, the U.S. Government, because it is the U.S. which enables and protects the behavior.

But it’s not all bad:

The one silver lining from these incidents is that the real face of Israel becomes increasingly revealed and undeniable. Not even the most intense propaganda systems can prettify a lethal military attack on ships carrying civilians and humanitarian aid to people living in some of the most wretched and tragic conditions anywhere in the world. It is crystal clear to anyone who looks what Israel has become, and the only question left is how will the rest of the world – beginning with their American patrons – will react.

As Americans suffer extreme cuts in education for their own children and a further deterioration in basic economic security (including Social Security), will they continue to acquiesce to the transfer of billions of dollars every year to the Israelis, who – unlike Americans – enjoy full, universal health care coverage? How is the revulsion justifiably provoked by this latest Israeli crime going to impact American efforts in the Muslim world (as but one of many examples to come, Al Jazeera reports that “Moqtada al-Sadr has called for a large anti-Israel rally across from the Green Zone in Baghdad”)? How much longer will Americans be willing to pay the extreme prices for its endlessly entangled “alliance” with its prime Middle Eastern client state, whose capacity for criminal and inhumane acts appears limitless?

Is that over the top? Greenwald cites this – an adviser to the Israeli Prime Minister saying, when the blockade was first imposed, “The idea is to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger” – but that didn’t work out – as in since the intensification of the siege in June 2007 “the formal economy in Gaza has collapsed” – and “61% of people in the Gaza Strip are … food insecure” of which “65% are children under 18 years” – and since June 2007, “the number of Palestine refugees unable to access food and lacking the means to purchase even the most basic items, such as soap, school stationery and safe drinking water, has tripled” – and “in February 2009, the level of anemia in babies (9-12 months) was as high as 65.5%”

Greenwald has all the links if you want to drill down and read the details, and adds this – “Just ponder what we’d be hearing if Iran had raided a humanitarian ship in international waters and killed 15 or so civilians aboard.” 

And he also offers this:

What’s so odd about that is that the U.S. has been spending a fair amount of time recently condemning exactly such acts as “piracy” and demanding “that those who commit acts of piracy are held accountable for their crimes.” When exactly did Israel acquire the right not only to rule over Gaza and the West Bank, but international waters as well? Their rights as sovereign are expanding faster than the BP oil spill. 

And this:

Israel’s foreign minister is now actually claiming that attempts to deliver humanitarian aid to Gaza are “an attack on Israel’s sovereignty.” Is that supposed to be some kind of a joke? The only claim that I can recall that’s remotely comparable is when the U.S. General serving as Commander of Guantanamo condemned suicides by three detainees there as an “act of asymmetric warfare waged against us.” The U.S. and Israel are very adept at claiming victimhood: even when they’re killing large numbers of civilians and locking people up in cages with no charges, they’re the ones who are the suffering, wronged parties.

But there is the claim that it was the passengers who were somehow the aggressors here. And Andrew Sullivan handles that:

A simple point. The violence by the activists is pretty abhorrent. These are not followers of Gandhi or MLK Jr. But the violence is not fatal to anyone and it is in response to a dawn commando raid by armed soldiers. They are engaging in self-defense. More to the point: they are civilians confronting one of the best militaries in the world. They killed no soldiers; their weapons were improvised; the death toll in the fight is now deemed to be up to 19 – all civilians.

It staggers me to read defenses of what the Israelis have done. They attacked a civilian flotilla in international waters breaking no law. When they met fierce if asymmetric resistance, they opened fire. And we are now being asked to regard the Israelis as the victims.


This is like a mini-Gaza all over again. The Israelis don’t seem to grasp that Western militaries don’t get to murder large numbers of civilians because they don’t like them, or because they could, on a far tinier scale, hurt Israelis. And you sure don’t have a right to kill them because they resist having their ship commandeered, in international waters. The Israelis seem to be making decisions as if they can get away with anything. It’s time the US reminded them in ways they cannot mistake that they cannot.

Yeah, but they’re family. Can we do that? Countries condemning Israel for the attack include Russia, Turkey, India, China, Brazil, France, Spain and others – but they’re not family. Then the White House issued a statement which refused to condemn the Israelis – Obama “expressed deep regret at the loss of life in today’s incident, and concern for the wounded.” And the State Department did kind of defend Israel – condemning the civilians delivering the aid saying “we support expanding the flow of goods to the people of Gaza. But this must be done in a spirit of cooperation, not confrontation.”


Obama’s call for “learning all the facts and circumstances” is reasonable enough, but all these other countries made clear that this attack could never be justified based on what is already indisputably known: namely, that the ship attacked by Israel was in international waters and it resulted in the deaths and injuries to dozens of civilians, but no Israeli soldiers were killed and a tiny handful injured. …

And it’s extraordinary that we refuse to condemn a blockade that, as classic “collective punishment,” is a clear violation of the Geneva Conventions, and even refuse to condemn today’s violent seizure of ships in international water. But, of course, the central rule of American politics is that Israel cannot be criticized, even as the rest of the world condemns it. How do you think the rest of the world will perceive the U.S.’s extreme, out-of-step protection of the Israelis, while subtly (or not-so-subtly) heaping the blame on the victims of its aggression?

But they’re family. And you never let any harm come to family. That’s what families are for.

Richard Z. Chesnoff knows that. He’s a former foreign correspondent for Newsweek and executive editor of Newsweek International, and was senior correspondent of US News and World Report from 1985 to 2003, and has been an op-ed columnist for the NY Daily News since 1994. The NY Daily News is owned and run by Mort Zuckerman:

In their 2006 paper The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, John Mearsheimer, political science professor at the University of Chicago, and Stephen Walt, academic dean of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, named Zuckerman as a member of the media wing of the “Israeli lobby” in the United States. Zuckerman replied: “I would just say this. The allegations, of this disproportionate influence of the Jewish community, remind me of the 92-year-old man sued in a paternity suit. He said he was so proud, he pleaded guilty.” President George W. Bush appointed Zuckerman to serve on the Honorary Delegation to accompany him to Jerusalem for the celebration of the 60th anniversary of the State of Israel in May 2008.

So Chesnoff shows how you treat family:

No one likes to see needless death and injury. But let’s not mistake it. While I’m sure there were some well meaning souls aboard the ship, the so-called “humanitarian flotilla” to Gaza was primarily a deliberate Islamist political provocation aimed at breaking the Israeli-Egyptian security blockade of Gaza and embarrassing Israel – no matter what the cost.

Cypriot authorities had wisely refused to allow the flotilla to set sail from its shores. Israeli authorities had clearly warned the flotilla days ago that it would not allow any of its ships to land anywhere in Gaza – which is sealed to make sure that arms do not arrive for the Hamas and other terrorist groups that rule there to use against Israel and its population – something that Gazans have been doing since Israel withdrew from that wretched stretch of land in 2005.

In fact the Israelis had announced several times last week that if the convoy of six ships would divert to the Israeli port of Ashdod, Israel would allow it to offload its aid shipments and then after inspection (to insure they didn’t include military contraband) would facilitate their direct delivery to Gaza and its people – just as Israel allows 10 to 15,000 tons of humanitarian aid to be delivered to Gaza each week.

Five of the six ships agreed. But the sixth, the Mavi Marmara, ignored Israeli warnings. It was clearly looking for a fight. Small wonder. Like much of the flotilla, the Turkish ship was controlled by militants of IHH, a Turkish relief fund with a radical Islamic anti-Western orientation. In addition to legitimate philanthropic activities, IHH supports radical Islamic networks, including Hamas. It also has had ties to global jihad groups.

So back off. Global jihad groups, you know. Al Qaeda. That’s it. No need to say more. Sure, it may look like collective punishment, forbidden by international law. Maybe it is. Al Qaeda. Al Qaeda. Al Qaeda. Al Qaeda. Case closed.

Well, all families have a crazy uncle. But as Helene Cooper and Ethan Bronner report in the New York Times, they do cause trouble:

While the administration’s public response was restrained, American officials expressed dismay in private over not only the flotilla raid, with its attendant deepening of Israel’s isolation around the world, but also over the timing of the crisis, which comes just as long-delayed American-mediated indirect talks between Israelis and Palestinians were getting under way.

Some foreign policy experts said the episode highlighted the difficulty of trying to negotiate peace with the Palestinian Authority without taking into account an element often relegated to the background: how to deal with Hamas-ruled Gaza. Hamas, the Islamist organization that refuses to recognize Israel’s existence, operates independently of the Palestinian Authority and has rejected any peace talks. Gaza has repeatedly complicated Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.

“This regrettable incident underscores that the international blockade of Gaza is not sustainable,” Martin S. Indyk, the former United States ambassador to Israel, said Monday. “It helps to stop Hamas attacks on Israelis, but seriously damages Israel’s international reputation. Our responsibility to Israel is to help them find a way out of this situation.”

You love the crazy uncle. You do want to help him out.

But that collective punishment thing is a problem:

The Obama administration officially supports the Gaza blockade, as the Bush administration did before it. But Mr. Obama, some aides say, has expressed strong frustration privately with the humanitarian situation in Gaza.

But you must move on:

No matter what happens, foreign policy experts who advise the administration agreed that if Mr. Obama wanted to move ahead with the peace talks, preceded by the so-called proximity or indirect talks, the flotilla raid demonstrated that he may have to tackle the thornier issue of the Gaza blockade, which has largely been in effect since the takeover of Gaza by Hamas in 2007.

Since then, Israel, the United States and Europe have plowed ahead with a strategy of dealing with the Palestinian Authority, which has control over the West Bank, while largely ignoring Gaza, home to some 1.5 million Palestinians.

For the Obama administration, the first order of business may be figuring out a way to hammer out a cease-fire agreement between Israel and Hamas that will end the blockade of Gaza.

Good luck with that. Families are just damned difficult.

But it is odd we think of international relationships that way, even if inevitable. That’s how we think. Nixon’s secretary of state, Kissinger, tried to break us of that, with his realpolitik, but we found that cynical, and perhaps it was. The convenient assassinations had a bit to do with that. We’d rather think by analogy, and family will do. And thus we have to deal with the crazy uncle now and then, because you don’t betray family. It’s an odd rule. And Tolstoy was right.


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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