Joshua Mitnick
The Christian Science Monitor
July 16, 2010 - 12:00am

Israel ducked a sea clash with a Libyan-backed aid ship bound for Gaza with a combination of diplomacy and deterrence, applying some lessons from the fatal intercept of a Turkish ship that left nine pro-Palestinian activists dead and increased Israel's international isolation.

The Libyan sponsors of the Amalthea ship, after meeting Israeli navy ships and establishing radio contact with Israeli officers on Tuesday, decided to sail to the port of Al Arish in Egypt rather than confronting the Israeli navy. Analysts said that Israel's stepped-up use of intermediaries helped convince Libya to change course of the aid ship, which was backed by a charity headed by the son of ruler Muammar Qaddafi.

"It wasn’t the Israeli knee-jerk response of using force to solve every problem, says Gershon Baskin, codirector of the Israeli Palestinian Center for Research and Information. "They finally used their brains instead of muscles.''

Israeli naval escort, intensive diplomacy

To be sure, the Libyan ship was flanked by several Israeli naval vessels in international waters to prevent the Amalthea from turning toward Gaza – a reminder of the force used in the May 31 clashes on the Mavi Marmara that left nine pro-Palestinian activists dead.

However, the threat of force was accompanied by intensive diplomacy. Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman reportedly used his counterpart in Italy to forward an appeal to change course to Libya, a country viewed as hostile in Israel. A reporter for Israel radio said that Austrian Jewish businessman Martin Schlaff also served as a go-between.

Finally, the London-based Al Sharq Al Awsat reported, Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman mediated a deal whereby Israel would allow in Libyan aid money for Gaza's rehabilitation in return for diverting the ship.

Saif Qaddafi, the son of Libya's longtime head of state, told the newspaper that "the affair was successfully concluded.''

Ahmed Tibi, an Arab member of the Israeli parliament who had been in contact with the Libyan ship organizers says that the decision to change course was a result of "navy pressure and diplomatic success.''

'We understand force will not work against us'

The Libyan ship approached Gaza just as an Israeli military panel made public its inquiry into the Mavi Marmara clashes. The inquiry found, among other things, that in the weeks leading up to the confrontation Israeli Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi said a military confrontation should be made the lowest priority because of the risk of a confrontation. Israel should instead focus on diplomacy, he said.

The international storm succeeded in forcing Israel to drop a boycott on allowing civilian goods into Gaza. But the naval blockade is still in place, and restrictions remain on exports and the movement of people.

Alon Liel, a former director general of Israel's foreign ministry, says the Libyan boat didn't pose the same threat as the Turkish ship because it was much smaller and the activists were less determined to confront Israel. But he adds that the previous clash has deterred Israel from using force.

"It was entirely different,'' he says. "Obviously, there is more caution than before on acting in international water. And the fact that we understand that any use of force will work against us, no matter what the case.''


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