Moshe Dayan, Israel’s most celebrated general, famously outlined the strategy he believed would keep Israel’s enemies at bay: "Israel must be a like a mad dog, too dangerous to bother."
Until now, most observers had assumed Dayan was referring to Israeli military or possibly nuclear strategy, an expression in his typically blunt fashion of the country’s familiar doctrine of deterrence.
But the Israeli commando attack on Monday on the Gaza-bound flotilla, in which nine activists have so far been confirmed killed and dozens were wounded as they tried to break Israel’s blockade of the enclave, proves beyond doubt that this is now a diplomatic strategy too. Israel is feeling cornered on every front it considers important – and like Dayan’s "mad dog," it is likely to strike out in unpredictable ways.
Domestically, Israeli human rights activists have regrouped after the Zionist left’s dissolution in the wake of the outbreak of the second intifada. Now they are presenting clear-eyed – and extremely ugly – assessments of the occupation that are grabbing headlines around the world.
That move has been supported by the leadership of Israel’s large Palestinian minority, which has additionally started questioning the legitimacy of a Jewish state in ways that would have been unthinkable only a few years ago.
Regionally, Hezbollah has progressively eroded Israel’s deterrence doctrine. It forced the Israeli army to exit south Lebanon in 2000 after a two-decade occupation; it stood firm in the face of both aerial bombardment and a ground invasion during the 2006 war; and now it is reported to have accumulated an even larger arsenal of rockets than it had four years ago.
Iran, too, has refused to be intimidated and is leaving Israel with an uncomfortable choice between conceding to Tehran the room to develop a nuclear bomb, thereby ending Israel’s regional nuclear monopoly, and launching an attack that could unleash a global conflagration.
And internationally, nearly 18 months on from its attack on Gaza, Israel’s standing is at an all-time low. Boycott campaigns are gaining traction, reluctant support for Israel from European governments has set them in opposition to home-grown sentiment, and even traditional allies such as Turkey cannot hide their anger.
In the US, Israel’s most resolute ally, young American Jews are starting to question their unthinking loyalty to the Jewish state. Blogs and new kinds of Jewish groups are bypassing their elders and the American media to widen the scope of debate about Israel.
Israel has responded by characterizing these "threats" all as falling within its ever-expanding definition of "support for terrorism."
It was therefore hardly surprising that the first reaction from the Israeli government to the fact that its commandoes had opened fire on civilians in the flotilla of aid ships was to accuse the solidarity activists of being armed.
Similarly, Danny Ayalon, the deputy foreign minister, accused the organizers of having "connections to international terrorism," including al-Qaeda. Turkey, which assisted the flotilla, is widely being accused in Israel of supporting Hamas and trying to topple Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.
Palestinians are familiar with such tactics. Gaza’s entire population of 1.5 million is now regularly presented in the Israeli media in collective terms, as supporters of terror – for having voted in Hamas – and therefore legitimate targets for Israeli "retaliation." Even the largely docile Palestinian Authority in the West Bank has rapidly been tarred with the same brush for its belated campaign to boycott the settlements and their products.
The leaders of Israel’s Palestinian citizens too are being cast in the role of abettors of terror. The minority is still reeling from the latest assault: the arrest and torture of two community leaders charged with spying for Hezbollah In its wake, new laws are being drafted to require that Palestinian citizens prove their "loyalty" or have their citizenship revoked.
When false rumors briefly circulated on Monday that Sheikh Raed Salah, a leader of Israel’s Islamic Movement who was in the flotilla, had been gravely wounded, Israeli officials offered a depressingly predictable, and unfounded, response: commandoes had shot him after they came under fire from his cabin.
Israel’s Jewish human rights community is also under attack to a degree never before seen. Their leaders are now presented as traitors, and new legislation is designed to make their work much harder.
The few brave souls in the Israeli media who try to hold the system to account have been given a warning shot with the exile of Haaretz’s investigative journalist Uri Blau, who is threatened with trial on spying charges if he returns.
Finally, Israel’s treatment of those onboard the flotilla has demonstrated that the net against human rights activism is being cast much wider, to encompass the international community.
Foreigners, even high-profile figures such as Noam Chomsky, are now routinely refused entry to Israel and the occupied territories. Many foreign human rights workers face severe restrictions on their movement and efforts to deport them or ban their organizations. The Israeli government is agreed that Europe should be banned from "interfering" in the region by supporting local human rights organizations.
The epitome of this process was Israel’s reception of the UN report last year into the attack on Gaza by Richard Goldstone, a respected judge and international law expert who suggested Israel had committed many war crimes during its three-week operation. Goldstone has faced savage personal attacks ever since.
But more significantly, Israel’s supporters have characterized the Goldstone report and the related legal campaigns against Israel as examples of "lawfare," implying that those who uphold international law are waging a new kind of war of attrition on behalf of terror groups like Hamas and Hezbollah.
These trends are likely only to deepen in the coming months and years, making Israel an ever greater pariah in the eyes of much of the world. The mad dog is baring his teeth, and it is high time the international community decided how to deal with him.
A version of this article originally appeared in The National, published in Abu Dhabi.