November 26, 2012 § 8 Comments
Like clockwork every 6-12 months, this weekend brought the now familiar news story informing us that Turkey and Israel are holding secret talks aimed at reconciling. As usual, this one has all of the elements that we’ve come to expect: backchannel negotiations between relatively powerless envoys, breathless claims that the two sides are not that far apart despite all evidence to the contrary, leaks from one side or the other that have everything to do with domestic politics and absolutely nothing to do with the two countries’ relationship, and a political situation at the top that leaves the talks destined to fail. My reaction is the same this time as it has been every other time, which is that the talks have as much chance of succeeding as Dick Morris does of getting a political prediction right. One of these times I am going to be wrong, but let me explain why I don’t think today is going to be that day.
First, the fundamentals of the situation have not changed. Turkey is still making three demands: an apology over the deaths of nine Turkish citizens aboard the Mavi Marmara, compensation for their families, and an end to the Gaza blockade. It is this last one that is the sticking point, since Israel has no intention of ending its enforcement of the Gaza blockade, particularly since the UN Palmer Commission ruled that the Israeli naval blockade of Gaza is legal under international law. Israel also feels that the blockade is none of Turkey’s business, anymore than it would be Israel’s business to insist that Turkey undertake a more lenient policy toward the PKK as a condition of resuming ties. Ahmet Davutoğlu reiterated on Sunday, however, that Turkey’s three demands are not subject to negotiation and thus unless a creative solution can be found to break this impasse (more on this below), these talks will meet the same fate as their forebears.
Second, when Feridun Sinirlioğlu and Yosef Chiechanover worked out language over an apology in the summer of 2011, it was ultimately scuttled when Bibi Netanyahu decided that Avigdor Lieberman’s hardline position against an apology presented too much of a political threat to him. Netanyahu was afraid that Lieberman would hammer him from the right if he apologized for the IDF’s actions, so the whole thing went nowhere. Fast forward to November 2012, and Lieberman is now even more powerful than he was two summers ago since Likud and his own Yisrael Beiteinu party are running in the January elections on a joint list. If Lieberman had the power to sabotage even a partial agreement over the language of an apology back when he was a much derided and often ignored foreign minister, his opposition this time will make the entire thing a non-starter.
Third, the January 22 election makes the timing of this almost impossible to pull off. The objections to issuing an apology and compensation for the Mavi Marmara come from Netanyahu’s right, and in the aftermath of Operation Pillar of Cloud, rightwing nationalist parties are polling much stronger than they were before. One of the latest polls has Jewish Home and National Union at 13 seats and Strong Israel at 4 seats, and while those parties can be expected to join a Likud-led coalition after the election, Netanyahu cannot afford to have them attacking him from the right before the election, even if their support wanes (which is likely). Making concessions to Turkey plays right into their hands, and it is something that the ever-cautious Netanyahu will be loathe to do.
Finally, and this last one cannot be stressed enough, Prime Minister Erdoğan’s rhetoric during the Gaza operation was so over the top and outside the lines of acceptable discourse and basic civility that no government would be able to just set that aside and continue along as if nothing happened, irrespective of what the status of the negotiations was before Israel launched Pillar of Cloud. Calling Israel a terrorist state of baby killers and denying that thousands of rockets being launched at civilians creates any right to self defense is the kind of thing that is tough to move past. If Erdoğan thinks that Israel is going to come and plead with Turkey to reconcile after his tirade, then his grasp of how governments operate is, to put it delicately, less than sound.
It’s pretty clear that the sudden leaking of these talks is coming from the Turkish side as part of Ankara’s effort to demonstrate its relevance in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. One cannot help but note the amateurish display of Erdoğan originally stating that there are zero contacts between Israel and Turkey to then have Davutoğlu claim a few days later that Turkey was “actively involved” in trying to broker a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas and that Ankara and Jerusalem were talking as part of that involvement. The fact that Turkey has essentially made itself irrelevant when it comes to anything involving Israel has been widely noted and the absurdity of Erdoğan’s positions is being criticized by Turks as well. Erdoğan and Davutoğlu are now furiously trying to spin the ceasefire as partly a Turkish achievement, but that is only believable insofar as it can be demonstrated that Turkey has any sway left at all with the Israelis. Hence the timing of this leak and Erdoğan letting it slip that Mossad head Tamir Pardo and MIT chief Hakan Fidan met in Cairo. All of a sudden, claiming that Turkey has absolutely no contacts with Israel has become a political loser and a source of criticism, and so the Turkish government is now trying to make it seem as if reconciliation is a possibility when the reality is that rapprochement between the two sides remains a distant dream given how things currently stand.
All this aside, there seems to me to be an obvious out here. As I mentioned above, the real long term sticking point here is the demand that Israel end the Gaza blockade, but the imprecise language makes this a point that can easily be massaged. Israel is not going to end its naval blockade, particularly given the renewed focus on Iranian missiles that are being shipped to Sudan rather than directly to Gaza in an effort to avoid the Israeli navy. There is also, however, the land blockade that is enforced by both Israel and Egypt, and if Israel and Egypt jointly loosen restrictions on the land crossings to allow more goods in and out of Gaza, then Israel and Turkey can both reasonably claim victory, and it might pave the way for the countries to make up. Unless something changes though, feel free to ignore any and all news reports about secret talks and back channel negotiations between Ankara and Jerusalem.
November 21, 2012 § 9 Comments
When Israel launched Operation Pillar of Cloud, Prime Minister Erdoğan initially kept silent. This lasted for a couple of days, and when he finally opened his mouth, what came out was not pretty. First he deemed what Israel was doing to be a “massacre” and then he accused the Israeli government of shooting Palestinians for the sole purpose of winning an election, and finally moved on to calling Israel a terrorist state and denying that Israel is in any way acting in self defense. The real piece de resistance came yesterday, when Erdoğan accused Israel of ethnic cleansing, reiterated his view that Israel has no right to self defense against Hamas rockets, and stated that Hamas firing rockets at civilians is legitimate resistance. In the process, he made sure to question the UN’s legitimacy and insult the U.S. as well. All in all, a banner performance.
I was all set to write a post about what this stance has cost Turkey in terms of its influence as a regional actor, and as I sat down to write it last night, I saw that the New York Times had already said what I was going to say (not to mention they gave a big shout out to friend of O&Z Aaron Stein, whose excellent new blog can be found here). The relevant quotes from the Times:
But by Tuesday, Turkey seemed to indicate that while its strident anti-Israel posture has been popular on the Arab street, it has been at its own expense, undermining its ability to play the role of regional power broker by leaving it with little leverage to intercede in the Gaza conflict…
Turkey’s stature in the Middle East has soared in recent years as it became a vocal defender of Palestinian rights and an outspoken critic of Israel and pursued a foreign policy whose intent was to become a decisive power in regional affairs. But as Gaza and Israel were once again shooting at each other, Turkey found that it had to take a back seat to Egypt on the stage of high diplomacy. The heavy lifting unfolded in Cairo under the inexperienced hand of Egypt’s new president, Mohamed Morsi, whose political roots lie in the Muslim Brotherhood, the Sunni Islamist movement that helped found Hamas.
“Egypt can talk with both Hamas and Israel,” said Ersin Kalaycioglu, a professor of international politics at Istanbul’s Sabanci University. “Turkey, therefore, is pretty much left with a position to support what Egypt foresees, but nothing more.”
Turkey finds itself largely shut out of the central and defining Arab-Israeli conflict. On Monday, Mr. Erdogan helped seal that reality speaking at an Islamic conference in Istanbul when he called Israel a “terrorist state.” At a parliamentary meeting on Tuesday that was broadcast on Turkish television, he said Israel was guilty of “ethnic cleansing.” Moreover, Mr. Erdogan’s stance continues to play well with his domestic constituency of conservative Muslims, making a rapprochement with Israel even more difficult, even if he were interested in winning back Turkey’s seat at the negotiation table, said Paul Sullivan, a Middle East security expert at Georgetown University.
Let me add two points to what is a very good analysis. First, it’s not just that Turkey has cost itself when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but that Erdoğan and Ahmet Davutoğlu’s head over heels rush to damn Israel at every juncture has actually contributed to Turkey losing its foreign policy direction more generally. Whereas Turkey under the AKP initially aspired to the role of being a mediator in all sorts of areas, whether it was between Israel and Arab states, the U.S. and Iran, or the Europe and the wider Middle East, at some point Turkey decided that it would rather try and throw its weight around on a host of issues. While this might have enhanced Turkey’s influence had it worked out, it quite obviously didn’t, and so now not only does Turkey appear impotent when it comes to Israel or pressuring the Assad regime in Syria, it has also lost its credibility as a valuable interlocutor. Turkey no longer can be the party that facilitates back channel negotiations between Israel and Hamas, or the state that attempt to negotiate an end to the Syrian civil war. Erdoğan’s bile toward Israel is only one manifestation of this, and Turkey’s casting aside the role that it had once claimed has led to a loss of influence, rather than greater influence, on larger regional issues. One look at Davutoğlu telling reporters today that a ceasefire was about to be announced while Israel and Hamas continued to exchange blows and no ceasefire materialized provided a microcosm for how the Turkish Foreign Ministry’s power to get things done has waned.
Second, it’s not just Israel that Erdoğan went off on, but on the U.S. as well, and on that front Erdoğan is truly playing a dangerous game. The mood in Congress right now is not terribly hospitable to Turkey, and Ankara has been banking on the close relationship between President Obama and Erdoğan and the influence that Turkey wields with the White House and the State Department. Instead of recognizing that Turkey’s high profile right now is entirely dependent on the executive branch and laying off, Erdoğan decided to direct his ire at the U.S. despite conversations with Obama in recent days about how Turkey can play a productive role in ending the fighting in Gaza, implicitly criticizing the U.S. by blasting the anonymous “they” who claim Israel is acting in self defense. In employing increasingly unhinged rhetoric about Israel, Erdoğan also forced the State Department to publicly chastise Turkey and to reveal that the U.S. has done so in private as well. Anyone who thinks that all this is not harming Turkey’s status here in the U.S. is either being willfully delusional or is too block headed to see what is glaringly obvious.
It might be good domestic politics in Turkey to foam at the mouth whenever the subject of Israel comes up, and Erdoğan clearly relishes the opportunity to bash Israel whenever he can for a combination of some principled and some cynically self-serving reasons. It probably feels good to do so, but at the same time it is clearly harming Turkish interests and Turkish prestige, putting the U.S. in an awkward and difficult position, harming Turkey’s defense posture, and making the prospects of an Israeli apology and compensation for the Mavi Marmara ever more remote. Turks of all political stripes are beginning to realize this, and if Erdoğan is the last person to see the writing on the wall, it is not going to resound to Turkey’s benefit. Let’s hope that the prime minister wakes up to this reality sooner rather than later, since the country that is suffering as a result of his verbal barbs is his own.
November 16, 2012 § 3 Comments
There are all sorts of reports and firsthand accounts over Twitter that Hamas has started shooting rockets at Jerusalem and Hamas itself has claimed that it shot a rocket toward the Knesset. It doesn’t appear that any rockets have hit Jerusalem proper, and it sounds as if they fell instead on Gush Etzion, which is a large settlement bloc south of Jerusalem. Where the rockets have landed is not as important as where they were intended to go though, and shooting at Jerusalem is a big, big deal for a couple of reasons.
First, the limited historical experience that Israelis have with this sort of thing is that Jerusalem is generally not targeted. During the Persian Gulf War, Saddam Hussein shot 42 Scuds at Israel and 39 of them landed, and they were all aimed at Tel Aviv and Haifa, but not at Jerusalem. During the 2006 war with Hizballah, Jerusalem was not targeted despite the rumored presence of long-range rockets in Hizballah’s arsenal. When Iran has made threats to attack Israel, Tel Aviv has been mentioned but not Jerusalem. The oft-stated Palestinian desire to liberate Jerusalem is a reference to pushing Israel out rather than destroying the city. Targeting Tel Aviv is not a surprise to Israelis, but sending large scale ordinance in the direction of Jerusalem is very much out of the ordinary.
Second, leaving aside the historical experience, there has been a presumption that Jerusalem would be left alone because of the makeup of its population and what the city contains. There is a large Palestinian population in East Jerusalem of over 200,000 people, and shooting notoriously unreliable and inaccurate rockets at Jerusalem is taking a huge chance of killing large numbers of Jerusalem’s Arab residents. While Hamas sent suicide bombers to Jerusalem with alarming frequency in the past, blowing up a bus or cafe in West Jerusalem meant killing large numbers of Jews. Sending rockets is a crap shoot, and while Jews are the obvious target, there is by no means a guarantee that Hamas will actually hit where they are aiming. In addition, Jerusalem is a patchwork mosaic of sites holy to Jews, Muslims, and Christians, whereas Tel Aviv and Haifa are not. Just imagine what would happen if a Hamas rocket hit the Old City and did any damage at all to the Temple Mount; the consequences of that are literally unimaginable.
Targeting Jerusalem is an enormous escalation and very risky, much more so than rockets toward Tel Aviv. Rocketing Tel Aviv to my mind guaranteed an eventual Israeli ground invasion, but attempting to bombard Jerusalem just exacerbates the situation to an exponential degree. Blake Hounshell tweeted earlier that Hamas firing at Jerusalem is the equivalent of scoring on your own goal, and I think that analogy is an apt one. It says to me that Hamas is getting desperate, and I think this move is going to backfire in a big way, both in terms of creating a more ferocious Israeli response and costing Hamas important points in the court of public opinion. Hamas is now acting in ways that could cause large numbers of Palestinian casualties and damage to Muslim holy sites, and I think that there will be consequences for this strategy.
November 16, 2012 § 1 Comment
This article was originally published in Foreign Policy yesterday, and I am reposting it here.
Ever since the Israel Defense Forces launched Operation Pillar of Cloud on Wednesday with the killing of Hamas military chief Ahmed al-Jabari, the official IDF Twitter feed has been working overtime to publicize Israeli military exploits.
As of this writing, the feed has published 88 tweets since Wednesday. It began with the announcement over Twitter that Israel had launched a military campaign against Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad targets in Gaza, continued with posting video footage of Jabari’s car being blown up by an IDF missile, and then moved on to taunting Hamas fighters not to “show their faces above ground in the days ahead.”
This prompted a response from Hamas over Twitter that Israel had “Opened Hell Gates on Yourselves” and that Israeli leaders and soldiers would be targeted no matter where they were, lending new meaning to the term cyberwarfare. The IDF’s utilization of Twitter became such a big story that there were rumors, which turned out to be uncorroborated, that Twitter had suspended the IDF’s account over terms of service violations for posting the Jabari assassination video. All in all, it is clear that using Twitter to encourage its supporters and drive media coverage is a purposeful component of the Israel’s public diplomacy strategy while it is fighting Palestinian terror groups in Gaza. The strategy certainly has its supporters, as it has been described as an effective way to explain “the morality of the war it [the IDF] is fighting” and as “the most meaningful change in our consumption of war in over 20 years.”
But the IDF’s barrage of tweets indicates that it has not learned some important lessons from its last major incursion into Gaza. Operation Cast Lead, carried out in December 2008 and January 2009, was a tactical military victory that came at a costly price. The large numbers of Palestinian civilian casualties and images of destruction led to a renewed and vigorous effort to isolate Israel in the international community. The highest-profile example was the United Nations’ Goldstone Report, conducted by South African judge Richard Goldstone, which damaged Israel immeasurably. The report was such a disaster for Israel that in 2009 Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it one of the three biggest threats Israel was facing, alongside a nuclear Iran and Palestinian rockets. The aftermath of Cast Lead also brought a renewed fervor to the Boycott Divestment Sanctions movement, which seeks to isolate and delegitimize Israel, and generally placed a harsher spotlight on Israeli efforts to deal with Hamas. In all, Israel beat Hamas on the battlefield but lost the war of public opinion, which in some ways was the more important one. And while Israel always faces an uphill battle in winning the world’s approval for reasons that are beyond its control, there are some lessons it has not absorbed.
The IDF is doing two things through its Twitter campaign that are replicating the same public relations mistakes it made the last time around. The first is a strategy of playing to its own base. In posting a video of Jabari’s car exploding in a fireball or issuing blustery warnings to Hamas to stay hidden, the IDF is trying to galvanize its supporters and mobilize the pro-Israel community into retweeting and posting messages on Facebook that bolster Israel’s case and create the impression that Israel will be able to rout Hamas and eliminate the rocket fire coming from Gaza. This is an effective way to rally those who are already with you, but it is unlikely to win any new supporters. People inclined to criticize Israeli military action are not going to be swayed by such appeals, and the evidence suggests that Israel is not trying very hard to target this demographic. Mobilizing your own supporters is great, but ultimately widening your circle rather than deepening it is going to be needed in order to blunt some of the criticism that is bound to come once Operation Pillar of Cloud has concluded.
Second, and more saliently, the reason Israel suffered so badly in the court of public opinion following Cast Lead is because there was a perception that Israel was callous about the loss of Palestinian life that occurred during that operation. Partly this was fueled by the sheer number of casualties — a number that was deeply tragic but also unsurprising given Hamas’s strategy of purposely embedding itself in the civilian population — but partly it was fueled by things like T-shirts depicting Palestinians in crosshairs, suggesting disgustingly poor taste at best and a disregard for the terrible consequences of war at worst.
Publicizing posters of Jabari with the word “Eliminated” do not rise to the same level, but do not send the message that Israel should be sending. The IDF in this case is trumpeting the killing of an unapologetic terrorist leader, and nobody should shed a tear for Jabari for even a moment, but the fact remains that many people, particularly among the crowd that Israel needs to be courting, are deeply skeptical of Israeli intentions generally and tend not to give Israel the benefit of the doubt. They cast a wary eye on Israeli militarism and martial behavior, and crowing about killing anyone or glorifying Israeli operations in Gaza is a bad public relations strategy insofar as it feeds directly into the fear of Israel run amok with no regard for the collateral damage being caused. Rather than convey a sense that Israel is doing a job that it did not want to have to do as quickly and efficiently as possible, the IDF’s Twitter outreach conveys a sense of braggadocio that is going to lead to a host of problems afterward.
Israel is proud of its ability to hit Hamas where it most hurts, and understandably wants to make Hamas leaders think twice before escalating rocket attacks against civilian population centers. Nevertheless, the IDF Twitter feed over the past two days is going to great lengths to inadvertently ensure that Israel once again wins a tactical military victory but loses the overall battle, further contributing to its own international isolation and a fresh round of vociferous condemnations once the dust has cleared.
November 12, 2012 § 11 Comments
Israel has been dealing with a constant barrage of rockets and shelling from Gaza since last week, and despite Egyptian claims to have mediated a ceasefire yesterday, it has apparently had no effect as the rockets have continued unabated today. Bibi Netanyahu warned foreign ambassadors yesterday that Israel might have no choice but to launch a ground operation into Gaza, and the Israeli press is rife with speculation that Cast Lead redux is about to begin.
On the face of it this may seem like a risky move. A ground operation into Gaza is bound to lead to civilian casualties and international opprobrium, along with the inevitable resulting Israeli investigatory commission. Also factoring in is that this is the second day in a row that Israel has fired at Syria in response to Syrian shooting at Israeli positions in its attempt to hit rebel fighters – the same dynamic that has been occurring along the Turkish border. If Israel goes after Hamas and other terror groups in Gaza, the possibility always exists for Hizballah to seize on Israel’s preoccupation in the south and launch its own rockets in the north, and between Palestinian armed groups in Gaza and Hizballah, it is the latter that is the far graver danger and more serious threat. Looming in the background of all of this is Iran, and how a large scale operation in Gaza might danger Israel’s diplomatic efforts to keep the pressure on the regime in Tehran. And of course, with elections coming in January, Netanyahu might be loathe to undertake any big risks right now that will endanger his presumptive reelection, and any large operation into Gaza is undoubtedly a big risk.
Despite all this, unless Egypt is actually successful and the rockets stop in the next two or three days, I think we are going to see Israel go into Gaza with air strikes and ground forces. To begin with, Israel has never been hesitant to do what it must to establish deterrence against Hamas, and the IDF is probably concluding right now that any hint of deterrence it might have created following Cast Lead is gone. It is an open question as to whether such deterrence ever existed, but the rocket escalation leaves little doubt that Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and other armed groups in Gaza have zero qualms right now about targeting Israel civilians with rocket fire. No government can afford to let such attacks continue, and certainly the Israel government has not historically been shy about going after Hamas when it feels it is necessary.
The security angle is prominent, but there is a political angle as well. Netanyahu has been campaigning on security issues pretty much his entire political life, and the current campaign is no different. His focus on security is so strong that Kadima, in what can only be described as a last ditch effort amongst its death throes, has adopted as its campaign slogan “Bibi is endangering us” superimposed against a backdrop of a mushroom cloud. The irony of Netanyahu’s hawkish public persona is that he has never presided over a large military operation during either of his two tenures as prime minister, but as risky as it may be to send ground forces into Gaza right now, he cannot afford to just sit on his hands. A man running for prime minister whose primary rationale for reelection is that only he is prepared to do what is necessary to keep Israel safe cannot sit idly by as rockets rain down on southern Israeli towns and have any hope of winning the election. From an electoral standpoint, I don’t think Netanyahu has any choice but to respond with force and hope that the IDF is prepared for what it will encounter in the streets and warrens of Gaza City. If Netanyahu cannot deal with the threat emanating from his own backyard, he cannot credibly claim to be able to deal with the threat coming from Iran.
Compounding this situation is the fact that the other Israeli political parties are egging Netanyahu and Likud on. Kadima, Yisrael Beiteinu, Yesh Atid, and Habayit Hayehudi have all called for military operations hitting Hamas or the resumption of targeted assassinations of Hamas leaders, and even Labor has made a nebulous recommendation for “military and diplomatic pressure.” The only significant party urging a ceasefire is Meretz. This means that the longer Netanyahu waits to move on Gaza, the longer he will have to face calls from political rivals urging immediate actions, and every day this goes on endangers Netanyahu’s electoral prospects. It is one thing to take your time when the other parties are calling for calm, but quite another when elections are coming up and nearly every party across the political spectrum is calling for some form of action. As an aside, this also goes to show just how dead the peace camp is in Israel, and why Ehud Olmert’s apparent plan to reenter politics and campaign on the basis of reaching a peace deal with the Palestinians is going to be a disastrous miscalculation (more on that later this week).
As I noted yesterday on twitter, I think Israeli military action has crossed the threshold of being a lot more likely than not. As historically risk-averse as he might be, Netanyahu is not going to just wait this out. Security necessity and political calculations are both moving in the same direction here, and I think that we are about to see a Cast Lead-type incursion.
P.S. If this does indeed happen, I am going to be a busy man given what it will do to Turkish-Israeli relations in light of Erdoğan’s embrace of Hamas and imminent trip to Gaza.