Roger Cohen
The New York Times (Opinion)
September 5, 2011 - 12:00am

LONDON — Here’s what the United Nations report on Israel’s raid last year on the Turkish-flagged Mavi Marmara had to say about the killing of a 19-year-old U.S. citizen on board:

“At least one of those killed, Furkan Dogan, was shot at extremely close range. Mr. Dogan sustained wounds to the face, back of the skull, back and left leg. That suggests he may already have been lying wounded when the fatal shot was delivered, as suggested by witness accounts to that effect.”

The four-member panel, led by Sir Geoffrey Palmer, a former prime minister of New Zealand, appears with these words to raise the possibility of an execution or something close.

Dogan, born in upstate New York, was an aspiring doctor. Little interested in politics, he’d won a lottery to travel on the Gaza-bound vessel. The report says of him and the other eight people killed that, “No evidence has been provided to establish that any of the deceased were armed with lethal weapons.”

I met Dogan’s father, Ahmet, a professor at Erciyes University in Kayseri, last year in Ankara: His grief was as deep as his dismay at U.S. evasiveness. It’s hard to imagine any other circumstances in which the slaying in international waters, at point-blank range, of a U.S. citizen by forces of a foreign power would prompt such a singular American silence.

Senior Turkish officials told me Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had raised Dogan’s fate with President Obama. But of course no U.S. president, and certainly no first-term U.S. president, would say what Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain said: “The Israeli attack on the Gaza flotilla was completely unacceptable.” Even if there’s an American citizen killed, raising such questions about Israel is a political no-no. So it goes in the taboo-littered cul-de-sac of U.S. foreign policy toward Israel, a foreign policy that is in large measure a domestic policy.

The Palmer report, leaked to The New York Times last week, is a split-the-difference document, with the Israeli and Turkish members of the panel including notes of dissent. My rough translation of its conclusion would be this message to Israel: You had the right to do it but what you did was way over the top and just plain dumb.

It found that Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza is legal and appropriate — “a legitimate security measure” — given Hamas’s persistent firing of thousands of rockets from the territory into Israel; that the flotilla acted recklessly in trying to breach the blockade; that the motives of the flotillas organizers raised serious questions; and that the Israeli commandos faced “organized and violent resistance.”

But it also called the raid — 72 nautical miles from land — “too heavy a response too quickly.” The flotilla, it says, was far from representing any immediate military threat to Israel. Clear prior warning should have been given. The decision to board “was excessive and unreasonable.” It criticizes Israel for providing “no adequate explanation” for the nine deaths or explaining “why force was used to the extent that it produced such high levels of injury.” The panel is left dismayed by Israel’s inability to give details on the killings. It calls Israel’s policy on land access to Gaza “unsustainable.”

Overall, the panel finds that Israel should issue “an appropriate statement of regret” and “make payment for the benefit of the deceased and injured victims and their families.”

Yes, Israel, increasingly isolated, should do just that. An apology is the right course and the smart course. What’s good for Egypt — an apology over lost lives — is good for Turkey, too.

Israel and Turkey have been talking for more than a year. Feridun Sinirlioglu, a senior Turkish foreign ministry official, has met with numerous Israeli officials. At times agreement has been close. Ehud Barak and Dan Meridor, Israel’s defense and intelligence ministers, have argued the case for an apology; Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has led the hawks saying Israel never bends; Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has had his finger to the wind. In the end, Lieberman and the far right have won, as they tend to with this abject Israeli government.

“It’s a typical case where coalition considerations trumped strategic thinking, and that’s the tragedy,” Shlomo Avineri, an Israeli political scientist, told me. “Given the Palestinian issue at the U.N., and relations with the new Egypt, we could use strategic wisdom.”

That’s right. Instead, locked in its siege mentality, led by the nose by Lieberman and his ilk — unable to grasp the change in the Middle East driven by the Arab demand for dignity and freedom, inflexible on expanding settlements, ignoring U.S. prodding that it apologize — Israel is losing one of its best friends in the Muslim world, Turkey. The expulsion last week of the Israeli ambassador was a debacle foretold.

Israeli society, as it has shown through civic protest, deserves much better.

“We need not apologize,” Netanyahu thundered Sunday — and repeated the phrase three times. He’s opted for a needless road to an isolation that weakens Israel and undermines the strategic interests of its closest ally, the United States. Not that I expect Obama to raise his voice about this any more than he has over Dogan.


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