Critics who accused President Obama of leading an “apology tour” during his early foreign trips might claim some vindication from this week’s presidential visit to Israel, which culminated in a spectacular apology that took place in a trailer at the airport as the president was about to depart for Jordan. But it wasn’t President Obama who was apologizing. The president instead acted as a mediator in brokering a restoration of diplomatic relations between Israel and Turkey. In order for that to occur, it was necessary for Israel to apologize to Turkey for mistakes that occurred during the 2010 Israeli raid on a Turkish ship trying to run the blockade of Gaza. Clearly, both Israel and Turkey will greatly benefit from the restoration of normal relations. Improved relations will bolster the security of both countries in the face of violence in Syria and elsewhere. Israel also gains some international respect, as Turkey has already tempered some harsh criticism of Zionism, which may have laid the groundwork for this week’s action. But some Israeli hard-liners are already criticizing the apology. Are there any costs to Netanyahu and Israel in expressing regret and sorrow for the Israeli military action in 2010?
Those who resist making apologies rely on a couple of arguments. One is that the party being asked to apologize has nothing to apologize for. This view is often expressed by American conservatives, who seem to argue for a doctrine of American infallibility. Thus, no matter how much other countries might perceive us as a bully, no matter if we sometimes make strategic military mistakes, we should never apologize because we are always in the right and always a force for good in the world. That is an argument based on pure arrogance. Countries that do not acknowledge their mistakes only lend further support to negative perceptions. Israeli hard liners can argue that their country had every right to enforce a naval blockade, an action that every sovereign nation has the right to engage in when permitted under international law. But these same defenders of Israeli prerogatives should also take enough pride in the Israeli military to be able to claim that Israel tries to use force sparingly and to minimize unnecessary casualties. And no matter how precise and well-planned a military operation may be, it probably could have been even more well-planned and precise. That means there is almost always something to apologize for.
Another argument is that apologies make nations appear weak. That means that even if leaders recognize that they made some mistakes, they should still never acknowledge those mistakes, because that will cost them respect. Those who make this argument should have the burden of proving it. They must demonstrate that if Israel covers up or refuses to acknowledge any operational errors in its military missions, that will cause the country’s enemies to respect it more. Even if they could make that case, which seems doubtful, it would be an odd position to take for a country that prides itself on democratic institutions, an independent judicial system, and the freedom of Israeli citizens to criticize their own government. That means that no matter how much leaders may wish to refuse to acknowledge their mistakes, other institutions are going to ferret them out anyway.
In private disputes, parties often resist apologizing for similar reasons. They are reluctant to admit they did anything wrong, and they are afraid of some potential adverse consequences in admitting fault. But so long as an apology is crafted in a way that it cannot be used in court as an admission of liability–which is usually the case if an apology instead becomes a tool to obtain a legally binding settlement which implies a discharge of liability–the costs of apologizing usually pale in comparison to the gains that can come from resolving the dispute.
The arguments against making apologies thus seem remarkably weak. They are mostly based on pride and a miscalculation of the party’s real interests. When weighed against the remarkable gains that can come from openly acknowledging a mistake to a party that feels wronged by one’s actions, the costs of apologizing seem trivial in comparison. Prime Minister Netanyahu acted wisely in recognizing that the benefits of restoring good relations with Turkey far outweighed any risks in making an apology for Israel’s attack on a Turkish ship.