News Quiz, Erdoğan Soma Edition

May 15, 2014 § 6 Comments

Since Prime Minister Erdoğan is once again in the news for all the wrong reasons and since my previous Erdoğan news quiz was one of my all-time favorite posts to write, it’s time for another news quiz centered around everyone’s favorite opinionated world leader. Unlike the last one, where readers were asked to identify which absurd story was in fact true, this one is a straight old-fashioned multiple question game.

Question 1: In defending his response to the Soma mining disaster, Erdoğan declared that he had gone back into British history and found plenty of deaths from mine accidents. In what year did the earliest British disaster that he cited take place?

A. 1838

B. 1866

C. 1894

D. 1907

Question 2: Following his speech in Soma, Erdoğan was confronted with a group of angry protestors and was forced to take shelter in a nearby supermarket. While there, what did he do?

A.  Replaced all of the rakı on the store shelves with ayran, which he has famously claimed is Turkey’s true national drink

B. Drank a beer to calm his nerves since he thought that he was shielded from the cameras by his security team

C. Spotted a poster of Fetullah Gülen and immediately called the store’s owner an agitator and told him to “run to your master in Pennsylvania”

D. Told a booing protestor to come closer and boo him to his face, and then punched him

Question 3: A picture of Erdoğan adviser Yusuf Yerkel kicking a protestor being held down by two special forces soldiers in Soma has sparked widespread outrage and calls for Yerkel’s immediate resignation. What prompted Yerkel to kick the protestor?

A. The protestor had kicked Yerkel

B. The protestor had kicked Yerkel’s car

C. The protestor had insulted Yerkel’s mother

D. Yerkel claimed that the protestor looked like “an Alevi terrorist working on behalf of the interest rate lobby”

Question 4: Yerkel was previously a doctoral student at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London before dropping out. While there, how did he describe his research?

A. Rather than employing traditional geopolitics, I will deploy a critical geopolitical discourse in a way that enables us to see how both states know, categorize and make sense of world politics which is primarily derived by interpretative cultural practice.

B. I will examine the ontological origins of the New Turkey and demonstrate how the era of military tutelage imposed an autocratic pathway that could only be disrupted by the synthesis of democracy and culture ushered in by the 2002 election that brought the AKP to power.

C. Instead of analyzing Turkish foreign policy as a particular entity, I will conceive of it as part of a global axiology that locates Turkey within a multicultural framework and reveals a tautological weltenschauung informing Turkey’s growing geopolitical influence.

D. I will demonstrate the most effective way to beat the shit out of defenseless protestors.

 

Question 5: This is not the first time that Erdoğan or people in his inner circle have been associated with violence, rhetorical or otherwise. Before the recent municipal elections, what did Erdoğan publicly urge voters to do?

A. He called on Kurdish voters to “cut off the heads” of Kurdish insurgents by voting for the AKP

B. He demanded that loyal Turks round up “foreign infiltrators” and “put them in their place”

C. He urged his supporters to vote for the AKP and deal the Gülenists “an Ottoman slap” at the ballot box

D. After criticizing and taunting a BBC journalist at a rally, he told the crowd to “show this foreign journalist what happens to those who insult the great nation of Turkey.”

Question 6: After which of the following events did Erdoğan publicly cry on television?

A. The Soma mine disaster

B. The Roboski, or Uludere, airstrike, in which the Turkish military killed 34 civilians in an airstrike whom it mistakenly believed to be PKK fighters

C. The August 2011 siege of Hama, during which the Syrian army killed around 200 civilians

D. Upon hearing the farewell letter that Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed El-Beltagy wrote to his daughter, who was killed by the Egyptian Army during a pro-Morsi protest.

Good luck to all those playing the quiz! I’ll post the answers in the comments.

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The Problem With The Turkish Government In A Nutshell

May 14, 2014 § 10 Comments

Turkey is reeling over a tragic loss of human life following an explosion and fire at a coal mine in Soma, with the death toll up to 238 as of this writing and at least 120 miners still trapped. The government has declared three days of public mourning, and Turks are wearing coal mining outfits and spelunking helmets in the streets in solidarity with the families of those who perished. So what does the government have to do with any of this? As has so often been the case under the AKP and Prime Minister Erdoğan, the damage comes in the government’s response to events outside of its control and makes a bad situation that much worse.

Workplace disasters happen all the time, and this is particularly so when it comes to mining, which is an extremely dangerous profession that takes places under volatile conditions. This past Monday, two coal miners died in a mine in West Virginia, and 29 died at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia in 2010. As Erdoğan said in opening his press conference today, accidents happen. In this case, however, there is the extremely inconvenient fact that only two weeks ago, the AKP rejected a motion in the Grand National Assembly brought by the opposition CHP – and supported by the MHP and BDP – calling for an investigation into the legion of mine accidents in Soma. In 2013, for instance, 4500 workplace accidents were reported in Soma mines alone. There is also this picture making the rounds of two AKP ministers chatting away two weeks ago during an opposition parliamentary speech about safety concerns in Soma coal mines. In other words, serious concerns were raised within the last month about this particular mine, the government chose to ignore them, and now has a terrible public relations disaster on its hands on top of the fact that 238 Turkish citizens are dead after an accident that might have been avoided had the government taken the warnings about Soma more seriously.

A serious and responsible government would only have one logical response under these circumstances. It would acknowledge a terrible mistake, apologize, vow to get to the bottom of what went wrong, and generally act in a contrite fashion. But as we all know by now, the AKP under Erdoğan neither acknowledges mistakes nor apologizes, and is never contrite about anything. A preview of things to come began last night, when one of the pro-government TV channels started running a graphic putting things into “perspective” with death tolls from other mining disasters around the world, such as 1549 deaths in China in 1942, 1100 deaths in France in 1906, 687 deaths in Japan in 1914, 682 deaths in China in 1960…you can see where this is going. The messaging is that since there have been mining disasters throughout history – and really, throughout history is the operative term here given the dates used – the Turkish government should be absolved of all blame for anything related to Soma.

Then came Erdoğan’s press conference today, which began in typical fashion with Erdoğan berating a reporter for asking a question that he didn’t like, continued with Erdoğan pulling out the talking points that had clearly already been distributed to the pro-government press and citing mining accidents from around the world, including England in 1862 and the U.S. in 1907 and nothing later than 1970, and moved on to Erdoğan dismissing the motion brought by the CHP and subsequently rejected by the AKP as nothing more than a grandstanding effort to shut down the Assembly with procedural gridlock. In other words, what takes place in Turkey in 2014 should be judged by the standards of Victorian England, and the opposition’s oft-stated concerns about mine safety aren’t genuine but just a plot to bring down the government. In the meantime, police and water cannons are already confronting protesters in the streets who are upset about the government’s response, and no doubt we will soon hear from Erdoğan or one of his lackeys about foreign plots, terrorists, the insidious workplace safety lobby, and how elections confer upon him and the government the right to do anything they please.

This all emanates from the same place as Erdoğan’s response just yesterday to Freedom House ranking Turkey as not free in the realm of press freedom, during which he rolled out the tired argument that because some Turkish newspapers write bad things about the government, Turkey must by definition have perfect press freedom, and then went after Freedom House’s credibility for ranking Israel as the freest country in the Middle East, as if that fact isn’t glaringly obvious. He also brought up what he called Helen Thomas’s firing – but was in fact mass ostracization – following her comments that Israeli Jews should “get the hell out of Palestine” and go back home to Germany and Poland as evidence that the U.S. does not have a free press, so therefore nobody should criticize Turkey. The playbook is always the same – deny that the facts are the facts, blame someone else, and cite incorrect information or things that are laughably out of context in order to defend grossly objectionable behavior.

It’s one thing to resort to these tactics with something like the Gezi protests or a corruption scandal, when a substantial percentage of Turks doesn’t sympathize with those protesting, or thinks that corruption doesn’t matter as long as the government is delivering economic improvements and that the inquiry is being driven by Gülenists. It’s quite another to do it with a mining disaster in which hundreds of people die, since this time there is no other side. The miners were not perceived enemies of the government, and no shadowy groups are driving any investigations. Concurrent with announcing three days of official mourning, Erdoğan essentially told the country to get over it and stop whining because lots of miners died at the dawn of the Industrial Age in countries halfway around the world. I don’t think the tried and true AKP playbook is going to be quite as effective this time around.

Why Does Anyone Care What Mahmoud Abbas Thinks About The Holocaust?

April 28, 2014 § 4 Comments

Today is Yom Hashoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day, a day fraught with the worst types of historical memory for many Jews around the world. In a reversal of Abba Eban’s famous witticism about the Palestinians never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas has seized the opportunity presented by the day to dub the Holocaust the most heinous crime in modern history, which is significant given his extensive history of Holocaust denial, most prominently in his doctoral dissertation. In the past, Abbas has written that fewer than one million Jews were killed by the Nazis and that the Holocaust was enabled by the Zionists, who plotted with the Nazis to exterminate European Jewry in order to encourage Jewish immigration to Palestine. The New York Times portrays Abbas’s new statement as a significant shift in his thinking, while Yair Rosenberg over at Tablet argues that Abbas has not actually said anything to indicate that his views have changed, as Abbas can simultaneously believe that the Holocaust is the most heinous crime in modern history and that Zionist Jews were themselves responsible for it.

Whatever one’s views are of Abbas’s latest statement and whether it is indeed an evolution or simply artful obfuscation, the big takeaway is that Abbas’s take on the Holocaust is being widely interpreted through the prism of the peace process. For optimists – in what can only be termed as the soft bigotry of low expectations – Abbas’s willingness to condemn the Holocaust is a signal that he is a true partner for peace. For pessimists – in what can only be termed as shifting the goalposts – Abbas’s condemnation of the Holocaust no longer matters because he has agreed to a reconciliation deal with Hamas, which certainly does not recognize or acknowledge the singular evil of the Holocaust. Bibi Netanyahu, for instance, yesterday explicitly used Abbas’s pact with Hamas to negate his Holocaust declaration, and dismissed the entire thing as a public relations stunt.

I myself fall somewhere in the middle here. On the one hand, I welcome any reversal – no matter how illusory, qualified, or legalistic – of previously stated odious views about the scope of the Holocaust and am not willing to be curtly dismissive just because of something else that Abbas has done. On the other hand, let’s not act as if this makes Abbas some great humanitarian or a candidate to be the next executive director of Yad Vashem. People can, and will, debate this until they have exhausted themselves, but the real question for me is, why does it matter? Who cares what Abbas thinks about the Holocaust? What practical effect does it have on anything?

Let’s assume Abbas actually has the willingness and capacity to eventually come to a fair deal with Israel. I don’t see how his views on the Holocaust affect that in any way. Those views don’t make him any more likely to agree to conditions that he views as unfair, or to endanger his own political situation and agree to a fair but unpopular deal. If he is willing to come to an agreement, then quite frankly I don’t care if he considers Mein Kampf to be light bedtime reading. Conversely, let’s assume that Abbas does not have the willingness and capacity to eventually come to a fair deal with Israel. Do his new acceptable views on the Holocaust somehow make up for the fact that he is not a true negotiating partner? Israelis do not need Abbas to be a moral leader or a paragon of virtue; they only need him to negotiate an agreement that is acceptable to them and one whose details he can execute. His importance for Israelis or Jews around the world is not as a moral philosopher or historian, but as a political leader, and all that should matter is his capacity for politics and not his personal views. It is a delusion to see Abbas’s views on the Holocaust as a stand-in for his propensity to make a deal; there are plenty of data points suggesting that he will and plenty that he won’t, but this is not one of them.

In many ways, I view this as an unhelpful distraction similar to the debate over whether the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state. If the Palestinians come to an agreement with Israel that both sides can live with and that makes a final determination on borders, security, Jerusalem, and refugees, then it doesn’t matter whether the Palestinians call Israel a Jewish state or not. Israel is a Jewish state and will remain so in the aftermath of any deal agreed to by any Israeli government, and so the official opinions of the Palestinian Authority, Palestine Liberation Organization, and average Palestinians have no bearing on the equation. All that matters in this case are the actual facts, and what is important is the world as it is rather than the world as we want it to be. Would it be nice if the Palestinians recognized an obviously Jewish state for what it is? Sure. Would it be nice if the Palestinian president acknowledged a terribly calamitous atrocity for what is is? Of course. Do either of these things matter in the context of a lasting solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Not a whit. On this Yom Hashoah, let’s focus on things that matter rather than those that don’t.

Leave Pollard Where He Is

April 1, 2014 § 19 Comments

The last time I wrote about Jonathan Pollard was two years ago after Shimon Peres made a personal appeal to President Obama for Pollard’s release, an appeal that was thankfully turned down. I had hoped to never have to waste even a minute of my time on the subject again, but the U.S. is now reportedly considering releasing Pollard in exchange for Israel agreeing to extend the current peace talks through 2015 and to enact a partial settlement freeze. Pollard’s release would also be accompanied by Israel releasing an additional 400 Palestinian prisoners on top of the ones whom they already agreed to release.

Let’s start with Pollard himself. What directly prompted my blog post last time was Gilad Shalit’s father publicly offering his support for Pollard’s cause to Pollard’s wife, and now Gilad Shalit himself has sent a letter to Obama requesting clemency for the unrepentant spy. While I understand Shalit’s personal sympathy for someone who has spent an extended period under lock and key, the comparison between Pollard and Shalit is odious. What I wrote two years ago has not changed one iota, and so I am going to reproduce it once again in the next paragraph as a handy reminder of why Pollard and Shalit do not belong in the same universe, let alone the same sentence.

Shalit was a 19 year old conscript captured by a terrorist organization that illegally breached the border fence and abducted him on Israeli territory. Pollard was a 31 year old civilian analyst who committed espionage in exchange for cash and jewelry and pled guilty to spying against his own country. Shalit’s actions were in no way responsible for his abduction (and please, spare me the noxious theory that all Israeli soldiers everywhere are legitimate targets no matter the circumstance) and he was not engaged in any hostilities against his captors at the time of his being taken hostage. Pollard’s actions are directly responsible for his imprisonment, as he stole classified information and passed on thousands of documents to a foreign government. Shalit was held in terrible conditions in violation of the Geneva Conventions and despite calls from the U.N., the Red Cross, the G-8, and individual countries for his immediate and unconditional release. Pollard is a legitimate prisoner under the laws of the United States and in accordance with international norms, is housed in safe and sanitary conditions in a medium security federal prison, and no international governmental organizations or human rights groups have called for his release. Shalit was illegally held by Hamas as a hostage for the sole purpose of extorting Israel into complying with Hamas demands and not because Shalit had any information or intelligence that would be of value to his abductors. Pollard is alleged by the U.S. to have an unacknowledged accomplice (according to former Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon) and the precise details of everything that Pollard passed on are still unclear. Shalit did not have to express remorse for his actions because he took no actions at all. Pollard remains unrepentant for spying against his own country. Shalit has been an Israeli citizen from birth, embraced both de facto and de jure by his country by virtue of being unambiguously and openly sent by Israel to serve in the military. Pollard did not become an Israeli citizen until 1995 after he had been arrested, convicted, and imprisoned, and Israel did not admit until 1998 that he was working on Israel’s behalf with its full knowledge and authorization. Shalit’s abduction did not subject any of his fellow citizens to additional danger or peril, nor did it damage Israel’s relations with any other country. Pollard’s spying cast serious aspersions on every Jewish citizen of the United States and created a backlash against Israel in the U.S. intelligence community. Shalit is an innocent kid who was held hostage by terrorists. Pollard is a traitorous spy who is wholly deserving of remaining in jail.

Even all of this aside, which should be more than enough reason to leave Pollard exactly where he is, releasing Pollard in the context of current negotiations is a terrible mistake. Pollard himself has nothing to do with an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. He is not being held by the Palestinian Authority or Hamas, his actions were in no way related to the conflict, and his status should be completely unrelated to the talks. That the Israeli government would link his release to its own willingness to resolving a wholly separate issue is shameful. If Israel does not think that it is in its own best interests to continue negotiating or if it genuinely believes that it has no reliable partner across the table, then it should end the negotiations irrespective of what the U.S. offers since to do otherwise would be to take a concession in bad faith. Conversely, if the Israeli government believes that negotiations stand a good chance of success and that a deal with the Palestinians would be in Israel’s best interests, then it is monstrously dumb to link the willingness to keep on talking to Pollard’s release. Pollard is a factor that has no impact at all on the substance of a deal. His remaining in prison or his walking out a free man will not make Israel any safer or any more trustful of the Palestinians, and so using him as a reason to either keep negotiating or cease negotiating makes absolutely no sense at all from a substantive perspective. Were I the U.S., I would call this bluff without blinking.

Furthermore, if the negotiations are going so poorly that Israel will only agree to keep them going if Pollard is let out, then the two sides stand very little chance of coming to an agreement. That being the case, why release Pollard for such an ephemeral concession? Were the talks in their end stages and Israel needed a small push to get over the finish line, then the logic would make more sense, but Israel agreeing to extend the talks for another nine months and not issuing any new housing tenders in the West Bank in return for Pollard more likely than not means that the two sides will waste another nine months and then return to the status quo ante. This is a move that absolutely reeks of desperation on the Obama administration’s part, and it shows. John Kerry pretty clearly wants this to succeed more badly than either of the two actual parties to the conflict, and he is willing to do anything to advance the ball inches down the field. That is admirable tenacity, but in this case his tactic is a mistake that is not going to lead to any long term success.

I have no inside information as to how close Pollard’s release is to actually happening, but my best guess is that the administration leaked this as a trial balloon to gauge the reaction from the national security community and from the American Jewish community. I hope that the people at the Pentagon, CIA, and other agencies freak out over the news, make a big public stink, and Pollard remains locked up. His release will only cause problems for the American Jewish community, will not advance the cause of peace, and will create a terrible set of incentives for both the Israelis and the Palestinians that as long as they commit to a process, irrespective of any real progress, they can ask for any outrageous concession they want and will likely get it.

What’s Going To Happen After Turkish Elections?

March 27, 2014 § 9 Comments

The short answer is, nothing good. No matter how things shake out on Sunday when Turks go to vote in municipal elections, I don’t thing the results are going to alleviate Turkey’s current instability but will only exacerbate it. The reason for this is that whether the AKP does well or the AKP underperforms relative to expectations, it is going to take away the wrong lesson from the whole process.

Let’s assume that the AKP does well and hangs on to Istanbul and Ankara, more or less sweeps the interior of the country, and limits its losses to the CHP to Izmir and a couple of other cities along the southeastern coast, along with losing Diyarbakır and Van to the BDP. Should this happen, Prime Minister Erdoğan and the AKP are going to seize upon this as a vindication of everything they have done – the harsh rhetoric against demonstrators, the purges of Gülenists, the cowing of the media, blocking Twitter, etc. – and assume that the only opposition they have comes from unruly and anarchist “Gezi people” or terrorist sympathizers; in other words, nobody whom Erdoğan views as legitimate. This is the story that Erdoğan has essentially been repeating over and over again ad nauseum for months, and I don’t think it is just campaign rhetoric. Erdoğan and his inner circle genuinely think that everything they have done is for Turkey’s benefit, don’t see how anyone can  believe otherwise, and view all opposition as a Kemalist or Gülenist or leftist or military or Zionist or foreign plot to humiliate them and bring the “new Turkey” to its knees. A perceived electoral victory will convince Erdoğan that his version of events is the correct one, and he will only double down on the over the top rhetoric and the polarizing policies that are designed to appeal to his base of supporters, who at this point are not prepared to believe anything that is reported about corruption, graft, illicit business dealings, personal failings, or anything else.

The other factor here is that Erdoğan fetishizes elections in the sense that he views them as conferring the right to do absolutely anything he pleases. He is a true republican (small r) theorist in that once the people have voted and empowered their representatives, the representatives are not encumbered by any type of public opinion or populist will until they are turned out of office. This is the reason he has been hyping these elections so heavily and talking about them as a demonstration of the AKP’s power. Should the AKP do well, Erdoğan will point to the election results as an ex post facto legitimation of anything and everything that he has done, and it will only spur him to make sure that the party does even better during the presidential election this summer and the parliamentary elections next year. He will not view this as a bullet dodged, but as an exhortation to keep up the pressure on his opponents. In short, a victory will magnify all of his worst instincts and inclinations and convince him that his vision for the country is the right one and that it must be enforced at any cost.

Should Erdoğan and the AKP do worse than expected, and somehow lose Istanbul – which to them is the worst possible thing that could happen given its symbolic importance to the AKP, its role as a political bellwether for the rest of the country, and Erdoğan’s view of the city as his own personal fiefdom – they will not take it as a humbling warning. They will go into panic mode, and lash out at everything and anything. Expect to hear claims of election fraud, efforts to obstruct AKP voters, and Gülenist plots. Social media will become an even bigger target, protestors will be dealt with even more harshly, and Turkish cities will become even more frequent sites of confrontations between police and civilians. The hyper nationalist rhetoric will get turned up, and I wouldn’t even put it past the realm of possibility that Erdoğan would seek to create a distraction, such as military escalation with Syria, to change the subject and try to regain his footing.

If I had to make a prediction, I think that there is a good chance that the CHP takes Ankara, but the AKP will hold on to Istanbul. In Ankara, Mad Melih Gökçek seems to have jumped the shark – all you need to know is that part of his election platform is his pledge to build a Las Vegas hotel-type canal, replete with gondolas and everything, in landlocked Ankara – and the polls there (to the extent they are in any way reliable) are as tight as I’ve seen anywhere. When you add in the recent scenes of teargas and bludgeoning of protestors, I have a feeling that the CHP will pull out a victory. In Istanbul, however, Erdoğan is not going to allow any other party to win. I say that in the sense that Istanbullu friends tell me that the mismatch in money and campaign organizing between the AKP and CHP is evident all over the city, and I say it in the sense that the APK will do anything to win Istanbul, legal or not. Istanbul has huge symbolic importance given its status as the imperial Ottoman capital during Turkey’s glory days, to which Erdoğan and the AKP constantly harken back, and the AKP sees it as its headquarters. Erdoğan micromanages everything in the city, which is what led to the Gezi Park crisis and protests in the first place, and I don’t see him giving it up willingly.

To all my Turkish friends and readers, please make sure to go out and vote on Sunday, and let’s hope that the aftermath is not quite so dire as I predict.

If You Ban Twitter And Everyone Ignores It, Does It Have An Effect?

March 21, 2014 § 5 Comments

Governments that ban social media platforms under the flimsy justification of them being national security threats are not democracies. Prime ministers who say things like, “I don’t care what the international community says, everyone will witness the power of the Republic of Turkey” sound more like Emperor Palpatine or Bond villains and not like democratic leaders. Cabinet officials who received Fulbright scholarships to study in the U.S. and have MBAs from schools like Northwestern and call shutting off access to Twitter the better of a series of bad options are nothing but toadies of an autocratic prime minister who has ceased functioning in a rational manner.

When you shut down Twitter and yet the president of your country, your deputy prime minister, and other elected officials in your party nevertheless circumvent your attempted ban, it not only shows how out of touch you are with reality, but what a laughingstock you are becoming. It also shows you to be sadly incompetent. When you shut down Twitter ten days before elections in a transparent effort to control the flow of information, you are a menace to your own citizens and the principles of free speech, liberalism, and democracy.

The worst part of all of this is that it will likely have zero measurable effect on the upcoming local elections, as AKP supporters at this point have gone into hear no evil, see no evil mode, and have genuinely convinced themselves that everything Tayyip Erdoğan and his government are doing is in the service of fighting for Turkish democracy. Even if the Twitter shutdown did convince people to cast their votes elsewhere, a government that does this sort of thing is unlikely to be reluctant to take other more insidious measures when it comes to ensuring that the vote goes their way.

The best part of all of this is that Turks are not taking this lying down, and are tweeting, mocking their dear leader, and defacing AKP elections posters with Erdoğan’s visage by painting on them the numbers for the DNS server that allows Turkish Twitters users to bypass the ban. Many Turks are not willing to let Erdoğan dictate to them what they can or cannot do, and that is a very heartening thing to see. If there is another silver lining to this, it is that any remaining reticence in Western capitals to see Erdoğan for what he has become should be gone for good. The prime minister’s decade-old comment about democracy being a train that you ride until you are ready to disembark has never seemed more salient.

The final point to note here is that Erdoğan, whose political instincts used to be top notch, appears to have badly miscalculated this time. The courts are denying that they issued any shutdown orders, other countries and NGOs are criticizing him left and right, and the economy has taken yet another dip in response to his latest move. Even if the local elections at the end of the month go the AKP’s way, Erdoğan’s own political viability has never been more in question. He may have some more tricks up his sleeve, but it is difficult to envision how Erdoğan ever recovers the colossal stature he had only a couple of short years ago.

What Is Bogie Ya’alon Up To?

March 19, 2014 § 3 Comments

Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon gave a speech yesterday at Tel Aviv University during which he said some things that have got the White House pretty annoyed. Ya’alon inferred that President Obama wants to play out the clock and punt dealing with the Iranian nuclear issue to the next president, fingered the U.S. for demonstrating weakness in a variety of areas including in its response to the Crimean crisis, pointed out that U.S. military aid to Israel is not entirely altruistic but operates to American benefit as well in the areas of intelligence and technology, and finally predicted that U.S. weakness will come back to haunt it in the form of terrorism and direct challenges from revisionist powers. All in all, it was quite the rhetorical broadside. I will refrain from extensively commenting on Ya’alon’s last point except to note that by the standards of many of Ya’alon’s ideological compatriots and Likud fellow travelers who excoriated John Kerry when he predicted that the failure of the peace process will lead to greater international isolation of Israel and accused him of advocating for Israel to be treated as a pariah, Ya’alon has now done something far more serious than offer a prediction that the U.S. will suffer future attacks.

In response, an unnamed senior Obama administration official hit back at Ya’alon for undermining security ties between the U.S. and Israel and calling the entire relationship into question. To quote, “We were shocked by Moshe Ya’alon’s comments, which seriously call into question his commitment to Israel’s relationship with the United States. Moreover, this is part of a disturbing pattern in which the defense minister disparages the U.S. administration, and insults its most senior officials. Given the unprecedented commitment that this administration has made to Israel’s security, we are mystified why the defense minister seems intent on undermining the relationship.” This is not the first time this year that the White House has responded to comments from Ya’alon that it deemed to be over the line, as in January it was leaked that Ya’alon had disparaged John Kerry, which drew a disappointed, albeit less harsh, American response.

What is driving Ya’alon here? Ultimately, causing a rift with the U.S. is not going to benefit Israel in any way, and Ya’alon is presumably smart enough to know that trying to rhetorically peer pressure the U.S. into taking a more confrontational approach with Iran is not going to work. Furthermore, Ya’alon knows from intimate firsthand experience, first as IDF chief of staff and now as defense minister, just how close security cooperation between the two countries is, and so pretending that it’s not such a big deal rings hollow. In addition, the timing of going after Obama personally just as the U.S. is actively involved in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and figuring out the security parameters of a longterm presence for IDF troops in the Jordan Valley is an awful strategy. If Ya’alon wants to ensure that the White House becomes more sympathetic to Palestinians complaints about Israeli intransigence, this would be one good way to go about it.

Certainly some of Ya’alon’s frustration is real. It is no secret that Israeli officials are worried about the direction of events in the Middle East, particularly with regard to Iran, and fear the U.S. stepping back from the region. What looks like cautious realism in the West Wing is viewed by Israelis as weak-kneed appeasement and wavering, whether it be negotiations with Tehran, an unwillingness to intervene in Syria despite repeated threats to do so, not bolstering Hosni Mubarak or dealing more harshly with the Muslim Brotherhood, etc. In addition, as Jonathan Schanzer points out, Ya’alon is upset about the U.S. not giving Israel weapons systems that would help in an Iran strike. Perhaps all of this boiled over at once and Ya’alon just couldn’t contain himself.

Or, perhaps there is more at work here, and Ya’alon’s outburst was a bit more politically strategic. Bibi Netanyahu has long had a real problem within his own party, and it is only compounded by the current peace negotiations. The younger and more hardline Likud members don’t trust him, and they have sought to embarrass him countless times, whether it be at Likud conventions, Likud primaries, or looking to amend the party’s constitution. Some of these efforts have been more successful than others, but if Netanyahu makes any real concessions with regard to the West Bank, the party is fated to split apart and there are no two ways about it. All of that is assuming that Netanyahu does not do the deed himself at some point and go the route of Arik Sharon, forming a new party and leaving a rump Likud behind (which would be deeply ironic since Netanyahu was the one who took the helm of the badly weakened Likud when Sharon formed Kadima). Ya’alon has been doing a good job of courting the Danny Danons, Yariv Levins, and Miri Regevs of the world, and they trust him a lot more than they trust the prime minister. Should it come down to needing a replacement for Netanyahu, Ya’alon seems like an obvious choice, and he can keep it that way by consistently espousing hawkish views such as the ones he did yesterday.

On top of this, the mood among Israel’s rightwing is no longer as uniformly pro-U.S. as it has been. There is a deep distrust of the Obama administration of course, but also a sense that the U.S. is moving in a very different direction than Israel. Netanyahu and his circle were genuinely surprised by the outcome of the 2012 presidential election, and simply did not grasp the internal American political dynamics, the changing demographics, or the war weariness of the American public. Throw on top of this the pressure coming from the White House on the peace process, and it just compounds the notion for some that the U.S. is harming more than it is helping. Many Israelis are for the first time in awhile openly questioning whether the U.S. can be reliably counted on, and nowhere is this more prevalent than among the younger Likud ideological vanguard who are the party’s future. Ya’alon recognizes this, and has been subtly playing into it for some time, which is why I think his comments about Kerry in January and his speech yesterday were more coldly calculating than he may want to let on. The other component to this is that Avigdor Lieberman, who wants to be prime minister one day and can only do so through Likud and is thus engaging in some jockeying for position of his own, has been criticizing the anti-American tone since his acquittal of fraud charges and his return to politics and publicly reminding Israelis that they should be wary of ruining the relationship with Washington. To the extent that Ya’alon views Lieberman – a hawkish nationalist who is very at home among the younger Likud folks – as a potential future rival, setting himself apart from Lieberman in a way that the Likud base favors is only smart politics.

At first glance, Ya’alon’s comments certainly seem puzzling, and they will not do any good for Israel itself. The question is whether Ya’alon was directing them toward Israel’s future or his own, and as usual, I think there is a heavy dose of internal domestic politics that is being overlooked. Yes, the frustration is real and is not entirely manufactured, but there is a method to the madness inasmuch as Ya’alon is thinking instrumentally about his political prospects down the line.

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