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Why the Gaza boat deaths are a huge deal

While we don't yet know all the facts, the apparent killing of at least 10 people aboard a ship bound for Gaza with humanitarian aid already has all the hallmarks of a massive public-relations disaster.

It does sound like there might have been some kind of violent response from the activists on the boat, and the Israeli military is claiming its forces encountered “live fire and light weaponry including knives and clubs."

But the international response has been swift. Turkey has recalled its ambassador and warned of "consequences," U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has called for an investigation, European governments have expressed shock, and I imagine thousands of outside observers like me are wondering just what possessed the Israeli government to risk such an outcome when it sent naval commandoes to board the vessel.

As Haaretz's Amos Harel puts it, "The damage that Israel has caused itself internationally can hardly be exaggerated." Harel warns that the rumored presence of an Israeli Arab activist among the victims could lead to riots and perhaps even "a third intifada."

Another liberal Haaretz commentator, Bradley Burston, comments, "We are no longer defending Israel. We are now defending the siege. The siege itself is becoming Israel's Vietnam."

Israeli officials appear to be circling the wagons; the question now becomes what the White House will say and do. So far the Obama administration has said little, but with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu currently in Canada and scheduled to visit Washington Tuesday, it can't stay silent for long. There is talk in Israel that Netanyahu will cancel his trip, which would probably be the smart thing to do. There will be heavy international pressure on Obama to condemn the incident, and he will probably make some kind of mild statement. But a White House visit would quickly make the United States the focal point of world attention in a way that is, as White House officials like to put it, "not helpful."

It already has the makings of a huge international fracas that will make the Goldstone Report look like small potatoes by comparison. But to what end? Israelis on the right end of the political spectrum -- and that is most of them these days -- are convinced there is a "propaganda war" against their country, that most if not all of the criticism is unfair, and that the real issue is the radicalism of groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, which openly call for Israel's destruction. That's certainly the perspective of hard-line government officials like Deputy Foreign Minister Daniel Ayalon, who has already called the ships an "armada of hate and violence" and accused the activists of links to al Qaeda.

In other words, there's a huge unwillingness on the Israeli right to face reality -- that Israel is fast losing friends and allies in the world, and that this government in Jerusalem has only accelerated the shift. It's not hard to imagine boycott campaigns gaining momentum, damaging the Israeli economy and isolating the country diplomatically, especially in Europe.

The one thing that might extrictate Israel from this mess is a violent response from the Palestinian side -- which never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity. Stay tuned.

AFP/Getty Image

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