The first panel debate at the "Democracy and its Challenges'" conference sponsored by the French Embassy in cooperation with Haaretz got off to a stormy start Monday morning, as the focus turned to the storming of a flotilla heading for Gaza, when at least 10 people were killed and dozens wounded.
French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy opened the panel by expressing shock at the events, saying that he was "curious to hear" the comments of his co-panelist, Sports Minister Limor Livnat, on the issue.
"I think the Israel I love, which I praised last night, the Israel I love so much, the Zionist and humane Israel that I love with all my heart, had other means to operate with regard to these boats," Levy said. "I saw the IDF in action several times in my life. It is a unique army in its ideal of purity of arms. Until proven otherwise, I believe there were other ways of preventing them from entering Israeli territory, there were other ways of preventing what was clearly a provocation."
Levy said that inasmuch as Israel "deals with terrible enemies on a military level," including Iran, it is losing the public relations battle to present its case.
"…in the war of images, in the war of pictures and propaganda, it seems to me that the Israeli government that you represent is just losing this war," Levy told Livnat. "They are destructive not only for the image of the government of Israel - this is of no importance; when democratic governments fail, they are replaced. The damage that concerns me is to the country to which I'm bound unconditionally. This seems more dangerous than a military failure."
"Yes, the images are difficult and unpleasant," Livnat responded. "It is still too early to know exactly what took place on the boats. What we do know right now is that there 10 Israeli soldiers were stabbed, and that there was fierce opposition from those who call themselves peace activists. I agree that these difficult images will be very detrimental to Israel at the explanatory level. The flotilla began as a provocation intended to promote the false impression that Israel is preventing humanitarian aid. We offered to transfer what the boats were carrying to Gaza, but the organizers declined, because that was not their true intent. This does not, however, prevent the difficult feelings that I, like everyone else, has this morning."
Regarding the peace process with the Palestinians, Levy said that Israel seemed to be waiting for a political leader who could guide it off the path on which it finds itself.
"…it is a dangerous gestation of 42 years of a reality where year after year, there is a strong majority of people who wait without knowing how to formulate their aspirations. They wait for vision, great gestures, decisive action of great political men and that will help us out of the impasse. We wait for a new [Menachem] Begin, a new [Ariel] Sharon, who took the surprising decision that went against all of his previous convictions with this heroic gesture of leaving Gaza. We wait for a new Ben-Gurion to transcend ourselves, and give the Israeli people a grand political gesture."