Not All Unilateral Withdrawals Are Created Equal

May 31, 2012 § Leave a comment

There has been lots of buzz in Israel lately about the idea of a unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank. Ami Ayalon and his colleagues at Blue White Future wrote an op-ed in the New York Times in April arguing that a unilateral approach would lay the groundwork for a two state solution by allowing settlers to voluntarily relocate west of the Green Line and reducing tension on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides while establishing a preliminary border based on the security fence. Then yesterday at the annual Institute for National Security Studies conference, which draws nearly every important Israeli politician and defense heavyweight, Ehud Barak said that a unilateral withdrawal must be considered by the government if negotiations with the Palestinians remain at an impasse. Barak immediately came under fire from the Palestinian Authority, which said that a unilateral Israeli withdrawal would destroy any hopes for a negotiated two state solution, and from other Israeli government ministers such as Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar, who called Barak’s suggestion a dangerous idea and accused him of naivete. The prime minister’s office also distanced itself from Barak’s remarks and made it clear that Barak was speaking for himself rather than for the government.

There are two major objections to a unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank, one from the left and one from the right. The one from the left is that Israel has committed itself to negotiations with the Palestinians on the contours of a Palestinian state, and any moves to sidestep a negotiated solution are a violation of the Oslo Accords. I find this argument to be unpersuasive for two reasons. First, the Palestinian Authority has itself embraced unilateralism when it finds it to be convenient, such as its efforts to have the UN recognize an independent state of Palestine outside any negotiating framework with Israel. If unilateralism is ok for one side, then it is ok for the other. Second, and more importantly, the party that is currently refusing to return to the negotiating table is not the Israelis but the Palestinians. I have written before about the strategic foolishness of setting negotiating preconditions but the additional problem here is that whatever one may think of Bibi Netanyahu’s policy on settlements or his actual desires regarding an independent Palestinian state, he is not currently the obstacle to restarting negotiations. If the Palestinians were willing to sit down tomorrow, the Israelis would meet with them immediately, so the PA blasting unilateral moves as an unwillingness to negotiate when they themselves are refusing to hold talks smacks of hypocrisy of the highest order. There simply cannot be a negotiation when one side refuses to enter the room.

The objection to a unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank from the right is that the Gaza withdrawal was a terrible mistake that created a terrorist enclave, emboldened Hamas, and subjected Israel to a constant barrage of rockets raining down on southern Israeli towns. These are all valid concerns, but I think the comparison to the Gaza withdrawal is not the correct one to make since the circumstances are different in a few important ways. To begin with, Israel withdrew from Gaza completely and not entirely on its own terms. In contrast, an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank would still leave Israeli soldiers in the Jordan Valley and Israel has determined the precise spot to which it would withdraw by constructing the security fence. Furthermore, while Gaza was a Hamas stronghold before Israel pulled out, the West Bank is under the firm control of the Palestinian Authority and that control has only increased in recent months as Mahmoud Abbas has cracked down on dissenters. The Palestinian Authority is far from perfect, but no serious observer would suggest that there is not a large qualitative difference between the PA and Hamas, both in terms of temperament and willingness to coexist with Israel. In addition, while Hamas has been able to smuggle rocket parts and weapons into Gaza through the Rafah tunnels along the border with Egypt, a tunnel system in the West Bank would be impossible since it shares a border with Israel and the Jordan River. Even if Hamas were to come to power in the West Bank or the Palestinian Authority reversed course and decided to launch a rocket war, the means to do so would be extremely limited as any smuggling taking place would be above ground and far easier for Israel to detect and stop.

There is also an important difference between Gaza and the West Bank in terms of environment and incentives. Gaza has always been more crowded and impoverished than the West Bank, and when Israel withdrew there was an argument embraced by many that there was little left to lose by taking the fight to Israel. There was also the fact that Israel wasn’t holding any more cards; it had withdrawn completely and Hamas was not interested in any negotiating toward a state anyway, so until Israel carried out Operation Cast Lead, there was little incentive for Hamas not to shoot rockets over the border. The West Bank, however, is not Gaza. The economy is much better, the quality of life is much higher, and Palestinians in the West Bank have a lot more to lose by risking a large scale Israeli military incursion. In addition, a unilateral Israeli withdrawal does not mean that the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank has nothing left to gain through negotiations. There will still be an IDF presence in the Jordan Valley, and the Palestinians will still not have a state along the borders that they desire and certainly will not have any part of East Jerusalem as their capital  (and unlike Hamas, the PA’s stated goal is establishing a viable state). In short, the incentive structure for West Bank Palestinians following a hypothetical Israel withdrawal is vastly different than it was for Gazan Palestinians following the Israeli disengagement in 2005.

An Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank certainly is fraught with dangers both known and unknown. That does not, however, mean that it will automatically carry with it the same consequences as the Gaza withdrawal did. Barak is right in noting that Israel at some point is going to have to do something, since holding onto the West Bank indefinitely is not a real option and Palestinian intransigence in negotiating needs to be met with some sort of response. The immediate PA attack on the idea itself gives you a good idea of whether Palestinian officials think that a unilateral withdrawal is in their best interests, and perhaps the credible threat of withdrawal will give them the kick they need to resume negotiations. In any event, the idea of unilateral withdrawal should not be so casually dismissed with facile comparisons to Gaza.

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Abortion And The Americanization of Turkish Politics

May 30, 2012 § 2 Comments

A politician blasting the media for keeping alive a story that he believes should be put to bed, courting controversy in order to change the topic from one that is politically damaging to one that is potentially more favorable, curtailing women’s rights in order to appeal to more socially conservative voters, using abortion as a wedge issue…I’m pretty clearly describing American presidential politics in the 21st century, right? In this instance, the above events are taking place in Turkey and are being orchestrated by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as a way of changing the conversation away from the Uludere airstrike that killed 34 Kurdish civilians and for which the government has not apologized and has been dragging its heels to investigate. In fact, the Uludere airstrike has been such a thorn in Erdoğan’s side that he has decided instead to start a grand national debate on abortion, which he sees as being far less fraught with danger for him politically and which speaks volumes about the government’s resolve to sweep Uludere under the table.

Erodğan’s frustration at the way the Uludere strike has continued to dog him for months was clearly evident last week, when he said that the government has done all that it can do and that steps to compensate victims’ families amount to a de facto apology (incidentally, Erdoğan has not been willing to grant the same leeway to Israel that he is requesting for himself). He also accused the opposition, the PKK, “Jewish lobbies,” and the Turkish media of unnecessarily keeping the story alive and exploiting the issue, while complaining that the civilian deaths have taken the focus off the fact that smuggling is illegitimate activity (the airstrike victims were smuggling gasoline and cigarettes across the border and were mistaken for PKK terrorists). The day after making these comments to reporters, Erdoğan told those gathered at the AKP’s Women’s Congress that abortion was murder, and that those media members who “live and breathe Uludere” should take note that “every abortion is an Uludere.” Predictably, the controversy has moved  away from the Uludere strike itself and is now firmly ensconced on the fact that Erdoğan would compare abortion to civilian airstrike casualties, and Erdoğan ensured yesterday that the conversation would stay on abortion by announcing plans to pass legislation limiting abortion and and possibly prohibiting it altogether along with attacking c-section deliveries as part of a foreign plot to weaken Turkey by limiting its population. Needless to say, the media focus on Uludere is over for the moment.

This is all very smart domestic politics for Erdoğan. While abortion is not such a hot button issue in Turkey as it is in the U.S., taking the stance that he has is a win-win for the prime minister. On the one hand, it is not going to cost him any voters or support since nobody has ever voted for Erdoğan under the illusion that he is a social liberal. In fact, this plays well for his core base of supporters who are socially conservative and economically (neo)liberal; the abortion issue is not going to affect Turkish trade in any meaningful way and it reinforces Erdoğan’s commitment to “traditional” values. In addition, the abortion uproar has been a masterful way for Erdoğan to change the conversation and let him get back to controlling Turkey’s political discourse. Erdoğan’s domination of Turkish politics is no accident and people should not underestimate his political instincts. Using controversy to change the subject, demagoguing opponents, and adopting hardline positions on social issues will be familiar to anyone who follows American politics, and Erdoğan is in many ways an American-style politician. While the Uludere controversy is not dead and buried for good, the recent furor has subsided and it appears that Erdoğan has weathered the storm successfully.

In addition, this whole thing suggests a hardening stance on the Kurdish issue just as the constitutional drafting process is getting underway, which is disappointing to say the least. Erdoğan has held fast to his position that he will not issue an apology over Uludere, and he and members of his government continue to make insulting remarks about the victims and imply that they were connected to the PKK. I and others have noted the importance of dealing with the simmering resentments of Turkey’s Kurdish population in the new constitution by allowing them to become full members of the Turkish polity without forcing them to abandon their language or cultural heritage, and the treatment of Uludere does not inspire confidence that this will be the case. If Erdoğan and the AKP join hands with the MHP in an effort to ram through hardline provisions on the Kurds that do not have the consensus of the entire political spectrum, the new Turkish constitution will eventually come to be as much of an obstacle for Turkey’s further political maturation as the current one.

The Battle For Kadima Is Just Beginning

May 29, 2012 § 1 Comment

Remember how I’ve been saying for months that Shaul Mofaz is going to eventually join Likud and that Kadima as we know it is going to disappear? It appears as if the maneuvering by all of the affected parties – Mofaz loyalists, Tzipi Livni loyalist, Likud members, etc. –  is now starting in earnest. First though, a little background. Before 2009, if a faction of MKs wanted to break away from their party, they needed to have the votes of 1/3 of the party’s Knesset parliamentarians. In 2009, however, Bibi Netanyahu passed a bill through the Knesset that is known as the Mofaz Law, since its sole purpose was to entice Mofaz to leave Kadima, which at the time was controlled by Tzipi Livni. The Mofaz Law eliminated the 1/3 requirement and instead enabled a group of 7 MKs to leave a party, which was coincidentally the number of Kadima members who were reputedly unhappy under Livni’s stewardship and considering joining Mofaz and returning to Likud. Mofaz himself denounced the law and did not end up jumping ship, but the law is still in force.

Fast forward three years to the present day, and the situation in Kadima has been flipped. Mofaz is now in charge, and there is a group of Livni loyalists who are reportedly looking to leave Kadima. The Mofaz Law makes it easier for this group to do so since Kadima has 28 MKs in total, so they only need 7 dissenters rather than 10. In an effort to stop this from happening, Kadima MK Yuval Zellner, who is a Mofaz supporter, introduced what is being called the Confinement Bill, which would eliminate the Mofaz Law and restore the 1/3 requirement. The Kadima MKs who are upset with the party’s current direction have been pushing for the bill to be killed and at the moment its status is in limbo, although Mofaz himself has come out against the bill in an effort to keep the Kadima rebels placated and maintain party unity.

Yesterday, however, Israeli Channel 10 reported that a group of 7 has been formed and that they are looking for an opportunity to leave and form a new centrist party that will be headed by Livni and Haim Ramon, who was one of the original founders of Kadima and who quit the party earlier this month. Kadima has denied the report’s veracity but this move was pretty much preordained the day that Mofaz beat Livni in the Kadima leadership election. Kadima is a strange hybrid of clashing interests, having been founded by Ariel Sharon for the sole purpose of disengaging from Gaza and then morphing into a party concerned more with social issues under Livni’s tenure, and now led by a former Likud minister and general who is unconvincing as a champion of the lower rungs of society and who brought Kadima into a rightwing coalition. There is little chance that this party is able to hold together in the long term. Furthermore, Mofaz is going to have every incentive to rejoin Likud, either before the next election or immediately afterward when Kadima gets routed at the ballot box. Once the Livni faction breaks away and Kadima is comprised of more right leaning former Likud members, it won’t be long before Mofaz drops the charade. Joining the government was the first step, and I see no reason for the eventual reconciliation with Likud not to occur. Likud minister Dan Meridor recognized that fact this weekend in calling for Kadima to merge with Likud, noting that there is very little substantively separating the two parties at this point. So get ready for Kadima to split, with the larger group joining Likud and the smaller group forming a new party under Livni and Ramon. Kadima was doomed to eventually disappear the day after Israel pulled out of Gaza, and once it does it will make the Israeli political scene a bit more coherent.

PKK Pressure Both Internal and External

May 25, 2012 § 2 Comments

Turkey suffered a terrible bout of PKK terrorism today, with a bomb killing one policeman in central Turkey on top of the news that the PKK has abducted ten civilians in Diyarbakır. There are two primary reasons that there is a new round of PKK violence, one of which appears to be in Turkey’s power to control and one which is not. The first is a result of internal politics, namely the ongoing controversy over the Uludere drone strike that killed 34 civilians last year. The strike itself was bad enough as it stirred up enormous anger and resentment, but those feelings were magnified further this week after Interior Minister Idris Şahin referred to those killed as “PKK extras” and said that the government did not owe anyone an apology over the matter. This has prompted a furious backlash, including from AKP deputy chair Hüseyin Çelik who blasted Şahin’s remarks as inhumane and reiterated that his position was not shared by Prime Minister Erdoğan or the government. The damage has been done though, and the government’s continuing clumsy efforts to close the door on the episode are not going to alleviate things much, if at all. While Ankara paid the victims compensation, it has held the line on issuing an apology and has been unwilling to go further than expressing regret (which is ironically the same stance that Israel has taken on the Mavi Marmara deaths). This is, of course, not making the PKK any less popular in southeastern Turkey, and while there is absolutely zero justification for terrorist violence at all, the government is not making it easier to get that message to stick. Increased support for the PKK among Turkey’s Kurds leads to more terrorist attacks, and that is part of what is now going on.

The other set of pressures is external and has to do with Syria. The government in Damascus has been holding the threat of PKK support over Turkey’s head if it does not back off its tough stance against Assad, and by some accounts this seems to be working. Soner Çağaptay argues that Turkey’s fear of a Syrian Kurdistan with a strong PKK presence has led Ankara to take a wait and see attitude when it comes to Assad after its earlier aggressive position. The Syrian support for the PKK is also driving the new PKK attacks in Turkey since they have a new base for training, logistics, and safe haven that they have been lacking since the Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq cracked down on them after repeated Turkish entreaties to do so. It also does not help things that the removal of Syria as a massive trading partner is leading to renewed economic depression in Diyarbakır, since increased trade and economic activity in southeastern Turkey was designed to make Turkey’s Kurdish population happier and thus less likely to support separatism or autonomy. Neither Syrian support for the PKK nor the drop-off in trade is in Turkey’s power to alter, but  these factors are starting to give rise to a slow burn underneath the Kurdish issue that is making the government’s life a lot more difficult.

What all of this means is that PKK terrorism, which has dwindled in recent years, is probably making a comeback. Turkey can do some things to alleviate it, such as actually resolving the Uludere issue to Kurds’ satisfaction rather than letting it linger and endless live on, but the situation in Syria is largely out of Turkey’s hands and certainly no longer a problem of its own making. The PKK violence against civilians this week is unfortunately a bad sign that this is going to be an unstable and bloody summer.

A Tragic Irony

May 24, 2012 § 8 Comments

Tel Aviv saw an ugly scene yesterday when an anti-immigrant protest turned violent and demonstrators went hunting for African migrants to attack. The background to this is that Israel has a growing problem of illegal immigrants, many of whom are Sudanese refugees, crossing the border from Egypt, which has stirred up a hornets nest of problems both real and perceived. The Interior Ministry estimates that there are 60,000 African illegal immigrants in the country, and Israel does not quite know how to deal with them given that this is a relatively new phenomenon. Yesterday’s demonstration featured a number of speeches by rightwing MKs, including Danny Danon (who always seems to be in the thick of things whenever there is controversy) and Miri Regev, who called the Sudanese immigrants a cancer on the Israeli host.

I think that precision in language is vitally important, since throwing around terms with reckless abandon strips them of any type of meaningful power. You will not find me calling people fascists, resorting to Holocaust analogies, or playing the anti-Semitism card at the drop of a hat. Yesterday a mob marched through the Hatikva section of Tel Aviv pulling people out of cars to check their ethnicity, smashing windows of African-owned businesses, and chanting for “infiltrators” to leave. Israeli Army Radio called this a pogrom, and I don’t know of any other noun that is a better descriptor.

This hardly needs to be noted because it is so glaringly obvious, but there is a terrible irony in Israelis, whose state was founded as a beacon for immigrants and refugees fleeing persecution, creating a climate of fear for immigrants and refugees fleeing persecution. If anything, Israel should be proud that Africans are seeking sanctuary within its borders, as it speaks volumes about Israeli state and society in comparison to all of its neighbors. Stop and reflect for a moment on the fact that non-Jewish black Africans are coming in droves to settle in a Jewish largely white state that has no cultural or historical significance for them. Isn’t this something that Israelis should be proud of? For all of the constant talk from Foreign Ministry spokesmen about Israeli democracy and respect for human rights, this simple fact is the best hasbarah that exists, as it demonstrates that Israel genuinely is a free and tolerant place no matter how many outsiders seek to demonize it. Unlike in Egypt, Israeli police have never massacred unarmed refugees fleeing persecution and Israel provides immigrants with plenty of economic opportunities. Undoubtedly illegal immigration presents an enormous problem, but Israel’s history, democratic status, and Jewish identity should point the way toward compassion rather than scorn. While Ovadia Yosef may think that saving lives on the Sabbath only applies to Jewish ones, even he would have a difficult time parsing the biblical injunction of ger lo tilhatz…ki geirim heyitem b’eretz Mitzraim (don’t oppress the stranger…for you were yourselves strangers in the land of Egypt). I am pretty confident that this clashes with calls to “expedite the construction of temporary detention facilities and remove Africans from population centers.”

The other point to make here is that those who are looking to use yesterday’s violence to indict Israel as a bastion of racist intolerance are missing the bigger picture entirely. The demonstration yesterday was comprised of only 1000 people, and ginning up far larger crowds for racist or illiberal causes is easily done in any liberal democracy on the planet, ours included. Furthermore, the presence of a number of Likud MKs yesterday is deceiving; they were not there speaking in support of the government, but rather were opposing the government for not taking more forceful action. In fact, the reason the government’s promises to deport illegal immigrants have not yet been fulfilled is because it is complying with standard international law on asylum seekers and refugees and ensuring that it does not deport any of them back to their home countries if their lives will be endangered. Yesterday’s race riot was precipitated by a group of people angry that the state is not taking a harder line against illegal immigration, and the preceding demonstration was comparably small as far as these things go. It is vital to call out the criminals who rioted in the streets and the thuggish politicians who whipped them up into a frenzy, but Israel is generally trying to develop an illegal immigration policy that balances the legitimate right of the state to control population inflows against humanitarian concerns. Let’s confine the criticism here to those who deserve it rather than tarring all of Israel with the same brush.

In Which I Sound Like A Broken Record

May 23, 2012 § 1 Comment

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago the news that Turkish indictments were forthcoming against Israeli soldiers over the Mavi Marmara flotilla. Apparently, Turkey has decided to set its sights very high by returning indictments against the top Israeli military leadership – former IDF chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi, Navy head Eliezer Marom, and military and air force intelligence chiefs Amos Yadlin and Avishai Levi. This is not only an exercise in futility, as none of these people stand any chance of ever appearing before a Turkish court, but a symbolic demonstration that makes Turkey look like it is not serious about justice and is rather seeking to prolong its feud with Israel. I have written before that I understand the anger felt by Turks and realize why they do not want to give Israel a free pass over the flotilla incident, but at the same time there is holding people accountable and then there is pure posturing. This falls squarely into the latter category. If Turkey had made a good faith effort to identify the actual IDF soldiers on board the ship it would be one thing, as those are the people with whom they have an actual beef. But to indict Israel’s top military and intelligence leadership? That is not a serious effort but a publicity shot across the bow. It is not designed to accomplish anything tangible or substantive, and in fact makes it that much harder for Turkey and Israel to come to an agreement acceptable to both sides that will amicably settle their differences.

As I wrote just yesterday, I am convinced that there is a power struggle of sorts going on behind the scenes at the upper echelons of Turkish government, with some pushing hard to maintain a muscular Turkish nationalism that widens the rift with Israel and with others looking to dial things back. There are too many conflicting signals being issued at the same time, and I think that there must be back channel efforts to reconcile with the Israelis while other attempts are being made to sabotage any progress that is made. There must be some high ranking Turkish officials beginning to wonder how the constant feuding with Israel is actually benefitting Turkey at this point, and it is obviously a good question for them to ask themselves. As I view things from my limited vantage point, the possible domestic politics advantage is being far outpaced by foreign policy problems that Turkey is creating for itself. Whether it is Davutoğlu or someone else who is continuing to push for a hard and unrelenting line against Israel, it is now crossing over into the absurd. Turkey is no closer to getting an Israeli apology or compensation, and wasn’t that the whole stated point to begin with?

Egyptian Elections and the Turkish Model

May 23, 2012 § 3 Comments

For anyone who spends their time thinking and writing about the Middle East, today’s big news item is the Egyptian presidential election. While I spend most of my (non-dissertation) time on Turkey and Israel these days, my original academic interest was in the Arab world and I follow it generally, and Egypt specifically, very closely. Lots has been written over the past year about the “Turkish model” and whether it is applicable to Egypt, and indeed a recent Brookings poll indicates a preference among Egyptians to emulate Turkey. There is no need for me to rehash the specific reasons that Egypt may or may not be a good place to replicate the Turkish model, since plenty of smart people who know Egypt far better than I have already done so. I would only quickly note that based on the Brookings poll, Egyptians don’t actually know how Turkey is governed, as 54% of the respondents listed Turkey as the country that best reflected their aspirations for the role of Islam in politics while 66% of Egyptians support basing their laws on sharia. Even allowing for the 83% that say sharia should be adopted to modern times, a majority of Egyptians appear to believe that Turkish law is based in some loose way on sharia, which is not the case.

Instead of getting into the weeds on Egypt, I’d like to discuss why no country, Egypt included, should be looking to replicate the Turkish model. To be clear, when I talk about the Turkish model I don’t mean the military being the arbiter of secular politics or guardian of the state, but an ostensibly Islamic party governing through secular state institutions without imposing any religious dictates. To begin with, the synthesis of Islam and democracy in Turkey has taken a very long time. The fact is that the Turkish model has only emerged in the past ten years after decades of instability, military coups, varying degrees of authoritarianism, and a complete lack of vertical accountability. When Mustafa Kemal Atatürk founded Turkey out of the remnants of the Ottoman Empire, he did so with clearly thought out ideas about how his new state should be organized and what goals it should seek to attain. Furthermore, unlike in other states where an ideology may be adopted after the institutions of the state are already in place, Atatürk built Turkey’s political and social institutions at the same time that he was installing Kemalism as the state’s official ideology. This enabled him to create structures and rules that were explicitly designed to strengthen and enable Kemalism, meaning that any challenge to the state would unmistakably be a challenge to Kemalism as well.

Since ideology was so wrapped up and intertwined with the state itself, it meant that Turkey was unable to convert first order battles over ideology into a lower grade conflict even after the first successful transition to democracy after WWII.  Any ideological wobble away from Kemalism precipitated a crisis, particularly given the fact that the most important and powerful state institution, the military, saw itself as the ultimate guardian of Kemalism irrespective of which party was in power. That the AKP was finally able to emerge out of the ashes of the Refah Party, win multiple elections, and govern without completely dismantling the state is the culmination of a long process of ideological softening on both sides. The overarching point here is that this process took 75 years to play out, and took 50 years after Turkey’s first democratic election. Democracy does not happen overnight under the best of circumstances, and Egypt is far from being an ideal staging ground. There are many things to contend with: a strong authoritarian legacy, social cleavages, a pending economic crisis, disputes over religion and what the state should look like, just to name a few of the big ones. Aiming for a synthesis of Islamic politics and secular government is a fool’s errand in the short run, and while Egypt may be able to eventually pull it off successfully, it will be years before that happens.

Another primary reason why the Turkish model cannot be replicated is that, as Steven Cook points out in Ruling But Not Governing, Turkey adapted for a specific purpose, which was joining the EU. The EU process made future military interventions more unlikely while also forcing the state to become more democratic, but at the same time it made the non-secular AKP soften any tendencies it might have had to weaken state secularism. When joining the EU is the ultimate goal, there is zero chance of adopting any type of sharia law or religious compulsion, and while I do not fall in the camp of those who think that the AKP actually desires to do this anyway, it would never happen while the EU negotiating process is underway. Egypt, and all other majority Muslim countries, do not have this structural constraint to contend with. If the Muslim Brotherhood is in power in Egypt and decides that it wants to legislate according to religious dictates, there is no comparable outside incentive to slow that down. The Turkish model did not emerge in a vacuum, but out of a highly specific context that does not exist elsewhere.

Finally, the specific electoral rules used in Turkey contribute to a unique situation in which extremist views on the poles of political thought are kept at bay. One need only look at the op-ed on Indonesia in the New York Times yesterday to get a sense of how this works. In Indonesia, the government coalition includes a number of extremely conservative Islamist parties, which in turn leads to restrictions on religious minorities and religiously motivated violence that the state ignores. In Turkey, however, the vote threshold for parliament is 10% of the vote, which means that smaller and more extremist parties get left out. This in turn has made the AKP a big tent that includes religious conservatives, merchants, the middle class, and some of the new urban elite. Such a party cannot afford to alienate religious minorities or condone any Islamist-led violence, and thus the AKP largely keeps its religious piety confined to personal behavior and governs over a secular state. Erdoğan’s lecture to the Muslim Brotherhood on his trip to Egypt about the vital need for secular governance was not an act; say what you will about him, but he practices what he preaches.

If Egypt is able to get to a place down the road where it embodies Alfred Stepan’s twin tolerations of the state being free from the yoke of religion and religion being free from the yoke of the state, it will be an amazing accomplishment. If it is able to replicate the Turkish model, it would be a positive development for its citizens and governing institutions. Nobody should fool themselves, however, on the likelihood of this happening. The Turkish model emerged out of a confluence of events playing out over decades with some unique structural constraints weighing on the entire process, and it is folly to imagine that this might happen elsewhere in what is in historical terms the blink of an eye.

Distinguishing Fact From Fiction

May 22, 2012 § 3 Comments

Over the past few weeks, and then again even more intensely over the past few days, there has been a flood of stories surrounding Turkey and Israel, some of which ring truer than others. The various reports also paint a muddled picture as to what is going on between the two countries; on the one hand, Israel and Turkey are on the verge of reconciling, and on the other they are just as far away as ever. I thought I’d run down the list of what has been reported to try and cut through the fog a bit and figure out what is actually going on.

NATO Summit

This is the story that got the most attention after it was reported that Turkey, and specifically Foreign Minister Davutoğlu, had vetoed Israeli participation in the NATO summit that took place in Chicago over the past two days. On the face of it, there is no reason to doubt this report’s veracity. Turkey has been consistently ratcheting up the pressure on Israel in order to force an apology and compensation for the Mavi Marmara, and blocking Israel from the NATO summit would certainly be consistent with this pattern. On the other hand, the State Department said that Israel was never going to be invited to the summit in the first place and Israel confirmed that it had no plans to go anyway. This makes sense in light of the fact that Israel is not a part of NATO and to the best of my knowledge has never attended a NATO summit before, not to mention the fact that this particular meeting focused on the security situation in Afghanistan, which is not an issue that involves Israel in any way. I have also heard rumors that Davutoğlu did not actually veto Israel’s participation and that the story was leaked as misinformation. It’s hard to know what to make of all this, but the sum total of the evidence suggests to me that Israel was never going to be invited to the NATO summit having nothing to do with Turkey.

Israeli Violations of Northern Cyprus’s Airspace

Last week, Turkey accused Israel of flying into Northern Cypriot airspace after it scrambled jets to intercept the Israeli plane. This is part of the ongoing tension between Turkey on one side and Cyprus and Israel on the other regarding the natural gas reserves in the eastern Mediterranean, and it is a thorny situation that is unlikely to be resolved anytime soon. Israel and Turkey were certainly never in danger of exchanging fire over the Israeli plane, and it would take a huge screw up of massive proportions for that to ever occur. Chalk this one up to the omnipresent tensions that exist between Israel and Turkey at the moment, although I can’t help but note the oddity of Turkey scrambling jets and accusing Israel of violating the airspace of a country that nobody else recognizes but Turkey and that Turkey claims is its own sovereign state.

Israeli Troops in Cyprus

This one wins the prize for stretching all bounds of credulity. It has been reported that Israel is planning to station 20,000 troops in Cyprus in order to protect a gas terminal that it will build. First, it seems a bit out of proportion to deploy 20,000 soldiers to protect 10,000 construction workers, particularly given that this gas terminal is being built in Cyrpus, not in Afghanistan or Somalia. Second, the notion that Cyprus or the EU would allow Israel to base 20,000 troops in Cyprus (for comparison’s sake, the Cypriot military has only 10,000 active duty soldiers in total) is so laughable that it is barely even worth discussing. Suffice it to say that the Israeli Foreign Ministry must have thought that the reporter asking for a comment on this worked for the Onion.

Heron Drones

It was reported a couple of days ago that Israel, which sold Heron drones to Turkey and under the terms of the sale was responsible for repairs to the aircraft, has fixed the drones and returned them to the Turkish military. This is a good development by all accounts, particularly since I am of the view that good relations between the two militaries is much more important than a full restoration of amicable political ties. Obviously this was a political decision too, so it’s an encouraging sign that cooperation between Ankara and Jerusalem is still possible. The news did, however, make we wonder what Davutoğlu has to say about the issue now after denying in January that any Herons were sent to Israel for repairs.

Erdoğan’s Emissary to Netanyahu

Finally, there was the news reported by Israeli Channel 10 that Prime Minister Erdoğan sent a personal envoy to meet with Prime Minister Netanyahu in an effort to mend relations, but that Turkey will not be able to move forward absent an official apology. I have no way of knowing whether this report is accurate or not, although given everything that I know about Turkish domestic politics and Erdoğan himself, I am highly skeptical. The account has not been confirmed by any other source aside from Channel 10, and while Turkey would have plenty of incentive to keep such a thing quiet, Israel does not. The only thing that gives me pause is that Turkey desperately wants to buy U.S. drones (so much for Turkey’s own Anka drone, which is scheduled to be delivered in 2014) which Congress will never agree to sell until Turkey’s relations with Israel improve, so perhaps Erdoğan is starting to think a little more strategically for the long term. In any event, I’d still be surprised if a meeting between his emissary and Netanyahu actually occurred.

So what’s with all the misinformation and bogus reports? Assuming that the NATO story was actually inaccurate and combined with the ridiculous report about troops in Cyprus, it says to me that there is a group of government officials in Turkey that do not want to see any progress made on an Israeli-Turkish reconciliation, and are doing whatever they can to keep the pressure on. There is clearly value in this tactic from a domestic politics standpoint, as Turkish nationalism is always popular and Israel is considered by some to be a true enemy of the Turkish state. Leaking stories about Turkish efforts to punish Israel – whether true or not – and concocting up scare stories involving Israeli actions in Cyprus (another convenient Turkish bogeyman) makes it more difficult for any progress on rapprochement to be made behind the scenes, as it risks making it appear as if Turkey is selling itself short and gins up public pressure to maintain a hardline position. Let’s hope that if Israel and Turkey are indeed any closer to settling their differences, misinformation in the press won’t throw a wrench into those plans.

Guest Post: A Failure Of Reason

May 21, 2012 § 3 Comments

After a Twitter exchange a couple of weeks ago in which he schooled Ali Abunimah on Zionism and social cleavages within Israeli society, I asked Dov Friedman if he would be willing to turn his thoughts into a guest post and he graciously agreed. Aside from being an early booster of O&Z, Dov is a preternaturally astute analyst, and when he decides to use his prodigious talents to write something longer than 140 characters, you don’t want to miss it. You should also all be following his Twitter feed @DovSFriedman since I guarantee that it will make you think on a daily basis. Without further ado, I give you Dov’s thoughts on the shortcomings of the anti-Zionist movement.

Were the anti-Zionist movement wiser—and less unmoored—it might recognize that it could make common cause with the left wing of the Zionist movement.  In many respects, leftist Zionists have far more in common with pro-Palestinian voices than they do with Zionism’s far-right wing.  The Zionist left awaits an Israel that abandons the settlement enterprise, that disaggregates Orthodox Judaism and the state, and that increases equality of rights among its citizens.  Some in the pro-Palestinian movement have recognized that much progress can be made promoting liberal values and human rights before the groups philosophically diverge; however, the anti-Zionist wing of the movement has not joined them.

In theory, the potential for common cause explains why J Street has—shortsightedly—downplayed its Zionism in an attempt to create a “big tent.”  Yet, with much to gain through joint action, the anti-Zionist wing perpetually radicalizes the debate, precluding any meaningful consensus on forcing accountability from a recalcitrant Israel.  Organizations like J Street jeopardize potential constituencies to accommodate a movement that lacks a shred of interest in fruitful dialogue aimed to carve out common ground.

Last week, I exchanged messages with Ali Abunimah, the founder of Electronic Intifada and a prominent anti-Zionist writer who authored a book advocating a one-state solution.  On the surface, the topic was a bizarre op-ed by Yaron London in Yediot Ahronot that Israel should deal with its Haredi issue by seeking to reduce—not integrate—the population.  The piece is troubling and weakly argued—even among Israelis who harbor bitterness toward Haredim, it is not clear London’s argument would draw sympathy.  Yet, Mr. Abunimah saw an opportunity and pounced.  The op-ed was proof, he claimed, of “Zionist anti-Semitism” that dates back to “Herzl’s vile Jew-hatred.”  In Mr. Abunimah’s view, London’s piece encapsulates societal feelings that Haredi, Ethiopian, and Palestinian populations are all threats to the Zionist vision.

I replied to Mr. Abunimah that his understanding was impoverished, partly because he derives a societal feeling from a singular op-ed, and partly because he conflates three issues with different historical origins and different societal discourses.

The Haredi issue is one of civic participation, national economic health, and the welfare state.  Historically, the republican equation dictated that secular, educated Ashkenazi Jews traded military service for political and economic power.  This began to change as Mizrahi and religious Israelis achieved military and societal status.  The only non-Arab group that escapes national service is the Haredi community.  Deepening the societal rift, the state devotes major resources to support this community that contributes neither to the nation’s defense nor to its coffers.  The predominant discourse surrounding the Haredim is not London’s proposal to thin their ranks; rather, it is how to increase their participation in society—in terms of both national service and economic contribution.  The Haredim are essentially a national issue.

The Ethiopian issue stems from racism, parochialism, and fierce protection of communal interests.  Thus, Ethiopians, in essence, are the new Mizrahim.  They are the new “marked” Israeli group.  Particular social classes fear the pressures these new Israelis have placed on their economic prospects and communal interests—spurring some of the racism that can accompany class resentment.  Certainly, Israel’s affluent, educated residents are less concerned with Ethiopian immigration than are Israel’s blue-collar families.  If any critique is valid in this case it is a Marxist one.  A rudimentary understanding of Israeli history and contemporary society would reveal the incongruity of the Haredi and Ethiopian issues.

This is all before we arrive at the Palestinians—who for Mr. Abunimah are the heart of the matter.  Defining the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is beyond the scope of this post.  Suffice it to say, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may be well understood within the history of nationalism as an idea and within the development of 20th century international order on the basis of nation-states.  To tie Israel-Palestine in with Israel’s Haredi and Ethiopian issues goes beyond poor analysis—it constitutes willful misrepresentation.

When evaluated closely, this misrepresentation is only the initial sleight of hand.  If all three issues are one and the same, as Mr. Abunimah suggests, then not only has Zionism begat hatred of Palestinians—it provokes deep anti-Semitism as well!  I wonder if Mr. Abunimah esteems his readers so lightly that he believes he can pose as the premier anti-Semitism watchdog.  This from someone who advocates a solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict which—as Gershom Gorenberg notes in his most recent book—solves the borders issue, shifts every other issue from an international to a national one, and risks civil war.  Mr. Abunimah warps history and obfuscates the issues at hand to score a political point.

Yet Mr. Abunimah’s ahistorical misrepresentation was not the most mindless note I received that day; Palestinian activist Susan Abulhawa seized on my call for nuance in evaluating Israel’s societal issues by ignoring the debate over Haredim and Zionism completely. She simply posted pictures of IDF soldiers with crying Palestinian children.  No context, no opening for discussion—Abulhawa was “justsayin.” What is there to say back to such deliberate non-argument?

And therein lies the tragedy.  The anti-Zionist wing of the pro-Palestinian movement is so consumed with frustration—so aggressive in trying to “win” arguments—that it willfully distorts reality and proves immune to reasoned debate.  In so doing, it fails—day after day—to recognize a true partner in achieving Israeli retrenchment and Palestinian self-determination in a better Middle East.

Dov Friedman is a research fellow in foreign policy at the SETA Foundation in Ankara.

Why It’s Good To Know About A Topic Before Writing On It

May 21, 2012 § Leave a comment

Paul Alster had a column yesterday in the Times of Israel predicting a reconciliation between Israel and Turkey. Seems like a reasonable enough proposition, particularly in light of the news that Israel has repaired and returned four Heron drones belonging to Turkey after agreeing to fix them over a year ago. Sure, there are other factors to weigh, such as the Turkish warning to Israel just last week not to violate Northern Cyprus’s airspace or the reports of Turkey vetoing Israel’s participation in this weekend’s NATO summit, but let’s assume that Paul Alster is a glass half full kind of guy. Reasonable people can differ on this issue, and for every sign that the freeze between the two countries is only getting deeper, there are signs of thawing in the relationship.

On the other hand, the specific arguments made by Alster in support of the proposition that Turkey and Israel are going to mend their relationship border on the patently ridiculous, and his command of the facts is, to put it charitably, a bit suspect. Let’s look at some representative examples.

Erdogan (who went out of his way to antagonize and inflame relations with Israel at every possible opportunity) seems to have realized what a grave misjudgement he made in allying himself to two of the most despotic leaders on the planet, and by association being tarnished with the very dirty brush that has seen them gain pariah status across the globe.

I hardly think that Turkey has been tarnished with any brush that puts it at risk of becoming a pariah. At the moment, Turkey is being touted as a model by all sorts of Islamist political parties across the Arab world, is increasingly relied upon by the United States as a vital ally in the Middle East, has the second largest military of all NATO members, is once again making some progress on its EU bid, and is universally viewed as one of the most important actors of the coming decades. Does this sound to you like Turkey’s international status has been put at risk in any way? Undoubtedly Turkey waited too long to give up on Assad, but after that initial stumble Turkey’s reputation does not seem very much worse for the wear.

Exactly what was truly behind Erdogan’s posturing is hard to figure, as he had long been pushing for membership in the EU, and his cozying up to Iran and Syria was hardly likely to endear him to Turkey‘s potential European partners. This ill-conceived strategic gamble has clearly backfired and quickly blown up in Erdogan’s face. The prospect of the EU admitting a new member-state that is joined at the hip with two of the world’s most corrupt and authoritarian regimes was never going to prove a vote winner in Brussels; the tactic seeming to reveal a significant flaw in the political maneuvering of a man who has gradually been losing his way, only three years after he appeared to be a major player with growing influence on the international scene.

Hard as it may be to figure out for Alster, let’s see if we can come up with some reason for Erdoğan’s “posturing” in which he tried to develop closer ties with his neighbors. Might it be Turkey’s stated policy of zero problems with neighbors? Guess it wasn’t that hard to figure out after all.

As for this argument with regard to the EU, Turkey was not exactly sailing effortlessly toward EU membership before it consciously improved its relations with Syria and Iran. More saliently, there are a number of reasons why Turkey is having problems with its accession bid, from European cultural bias to worrying government suppression of the press to discredited witch hunts of military officers. Being “joined at the hip” with Iran and Syria is so far down the list of things that EU member states are worried about that to mention it betrays a staggering lack of knowledge about the real issues surrounding Turkey’s EU bid.

A PLAY IN ONE ACT

Herman van Rompuy: Nice to see you again Tayyip. I must say, you have made amazing progress in your efforts to join the EU. Who would have thought that just months after Sarkozy was out of office you would have made your peace with Cyprus and successfully negotiated all 35 chapters needed to gain accession to our club? We have never before seen such singleminded devotion by an EU applicant.

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan: Thank you Herman. My fellow countrymen and I are most excited to take our spots in the European Commission, the European Council, the Council of Europe, and your various other bodies that have such wonderfully differentiated names. So when do I get my official EU membership badge?

Herman van Rompuy: Unfortunately, you made the grave mistake of being joined at the hip with Syria and Iran, which is the single greatest flaw we have ever encountered from a prospective EU member and is the subject of the double secret 36th chapter which you have now violated. As such, you are no longer considered to be a “major player with growing influence” – after all, your credibility with Iran, Pakistan, and Sunni Arab states is worthless to us, as is your rapidly expanding economy and military strength. Please confine yourself to Kadıköy and all points east from now on, as we have voted in Brussels to revoke your Europe visitation privileges.

CURTAIN

In recent months, with Iran becoming increasingly isolated by the international community as a result of its alleged development of nuclear weapons, and the Syrian government continuing to massacre large numbers of its own people while driving many more to seek refuge in Turkey — causing a growing humanitarian crisis within Turkey’s own borders — Erdogan’s government, amid rumors that Ankara is keen to re-establish relations with Jerusalem, has been noticeably short on its previously stinging anti-Israel rhetoric.

Right, I forgot about how popular Israel is among the international community. That BBC poll released just last week revealing Israel to be ranked above only Iran and Pakistan in favorability, and in which majorities in Spain, France, Germany, and Britain viewed Israel negatively, didn’t accurately capture the public relations value in Europe for Turkey of cozying up to Israel following Iran’s isolation and Syria’s horrific massacre of civilians (both of which everyone knows are Turkey’s fault, of course). That is precisely why Turkey’s top officials have in the past six months ceased berating reporters for not focusing on Israel’s nuclear weapons or accusing Israel of not wanting peace with the Palestinians or bragging about isolating Israel and bringing it to its knees. Isn’t it great how that previously stinging rhetoric has just disappeared?

This easing of the tensions in the eastern Mediterranean is surely more down to necessity on the part of the Turks than to a sea change in the attitude of their leader. With the door to Europe slammed in their face, Syria and Iran remaining on the international blacklist, no improvement in their relationship with Greece, and problems on their eastern front with Syrian refugees and Kurdish separatists, Turkey is surely keen to find friends in the region.

Yes, Turkey’s isolation is really terrible. Granted, the P5+1 talks were held in Istanbul last month, and Turkey is fresh off the NATO summit in Chicago, and Turkey’s approval rating in the Arab world is 78%, but Turkey is still desperate for a friend, and that is why it is going to make up with Israel. Not because the world’s superpower is pushing for it, not because it benefits Turkey’s tourism industry and export markets, not because the two countries have a long history of military cooperation, but because Turkey is feeling terribly isolated and lonely. I mean, everyone knows that Turkey is just another term for Iranian/Syrian province, right? And oh, let’s not forget about Alster’s reference to Turkey’s “majority secular population” in which 83% of Turks identify themselves as religious and 55% self-identify as either “extremely” or “highly” religious.

I could go on, but I think you get the point. I do not know what your expertise is, Mr. Alster, but it is clearly not this. Israel and Turkey may very well reconcile, but just as a broken clock showing the right time twice a day is not evidence that it is working, an Israeli-Turkish rapprochement will not be a testament to your analytical skills in the realm of foreign affairs.

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