March 25, 2013 § 6 Comments
As everyone knows by now, on Friday Bibi Netanyahu talked to Tayyip Erdoğan (for the first time since Netanyahu was elected in 2009!) after being handed the phone by President Obama and apologized for operational mistakes causing the deaths of nine Turks aboard the Mavi Marmara in 2010. Netanyahu also agreed to pay compensation to the families of the deceased, and both men somewhat fudged the issue of the Gaza blockade by noting that Israel has already lifted some restrictions and pledging to work together going forward to ease the humanitarian situation in Gaza. This formula should not be surprising; in November I wrote the following:
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.
As readers of this blog know, I have maintained for awhile that Israel was ready and willing to apologize to Turkey but that I did not think Turkey was prepared to accept an apology given the domestic political benefits for Erdoğan and the AKP of feuding with Israel. Indeed, over the past few months there have been reports of Ahmet Davutoğlu and other Turkish officials rebuffing Israeli attempts to meet and lay the groundwork for a rapprochement. That the apology was suddenly offered and accepted took me by surprise, and got me thinking about what would make Turkey change its calculus. I wrote a piece for Foreign Affairs identifying Turkey’s suddenly more pressing need for better intelligence in Syria given the chemical weapons angle and Ankara’s desire to meet its energy demands through channels other than Russian natural gas as the primary reasons, and noting that the timing here is also related to the successful talks with PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan. Here’s the core of the argument:
For Ankara, the Syrian crisis has been a major headache. Turkey has suffered a loss in trade, been forced to rely on NATO for Patriot missiles to defend against border threats, and accepted just under half a million Syrian refugees. Ankara’s demands for Assad to step down have fallen on deaf ears, and its requests for NATO intervention in the form of a no-fly zone and heavy arms for the Syrian rebels have also been brushed aside.
All this has been unfortunate for Turkey’s leaders, but it was the recent introduction of Syrian chemical weapons into the equation that really changed Turkey’s calculus; now more than ever, the country needs better intelligence and allies to bring an end to the civil war or at least prevent it from spilling over. Turkey cannot afford to have chemical weapons used anywhere near its border with Syria, and the longer the fighting goes on, the greater the chances of a chemical weapons strike gone awry. Israel simply has better intelligence on regional developments than Turkey does, and Turkey can use that help to monitor Assad’s weapons stores and troop movements on both sides. In addition, whereas the United States and other NATO countries have been reluctant to support the Syrian rebels in any meaningful way, Israel has a greater incentive to make sure that the moderate Sunni groups prevail over the more radical jihadist elements of the opposition. As the situation in Syria heats up, Turkey and Israel will be thankful that they can talk to each other and coordinate.
Another area in which Turkey needs Israel’s assistance is energy. Turkey’s current account deficit, which stood at $48.8 billion in 2012, is almost entirely a result of the country’s reliance on oil and natural gas imports; Turkey has no natural resources of its own. Furthermore, Turkey is paying through the nose for both Russian and Iranian natural gas, due to onerous price contracts. Earlier this month, I talked with a number of people in Turkey — government ministers, opposition politicians, business tycoons, and trade group leaders — and they all mentioned Turkey’s growing energy needs and lamented the country’s overreliance on Russian and Iranian natural gas. Israel, meanwhile, has just discovered two major natural gas basins, the Tamar and Leviathan fields, off its coast in the Eastern Mediterranean. Since Turkey has no hope of smoothing over ties with Cyprus, its longtime adversary, which has been the other main beneficiary of the Mediterranean gas boom, it will likely turn to Israel as a natural gas supplier. With Turkey’s economic growth slowing, Israel’s potential as a partner makes reconciliation more attractive now than at any point in recent years.
Because it is – in my view – Turkey that changed its mind on reconciling, I focused on the Turkish side of things in the FA piece, so I thought I’d now write a little bit about the Israeli side. From Israel’s perspective, making up with Turkey has made sense for awhile now, and the reasons to do so only grew stronger with each passing day. First, there is the regional dynamic in the Middle East, which is hardly trending in Israel’s favor post-Arab Spring. While I do not think that Israel has anything to fear from new governments in the region, the upheaval has opened up power vacuums in the Sinai and Syria that allow hostile non-state actors to operate with impunity. Add to this the existing threats from Hamas and Hizballah and the distinct possibility that the Jordanian government falls, and Israel desperately needs any friend who will have her. Making up with Turkey means that at least Israel is not entirely alone in the region, and being able to coordinate with Turkey and with Jordan (so long as King Abdullah remains in power) will be extremely helpful in containing the spillover threat from Syria. While I highlighted the urgency for Turkey in my FA piece, Israel’s biggest concern with regard to the Syrian civil war has always been the transfer of chemical weapons to hostile non-state actors, and now that the chatter around chemical weapons has increased, apologizing to Turkey took on an urgency for Jerusalem that was absent before.
Second, Turkey has successfully blocked Israel from NATO military activities and summits, and the ability to get back in the game has always been important to the Israeli government. While the Noble Dina naval exercises with Greece and the U.S. that Israel began doing in 2011 are nice, they are a poor substitute for Israel being able to use the vast Turkish airspace for aerial training or being able to participate in NATO military exercises. Israel has attempted to ramp up its military relations with Greece and Cyprus in response to the freeze in relations with Turkey but this has always been a suboptimal solution, and Israel has felt this acutely as the government has become increasingly preoccupied with possible threats from Iran. Furthermore, Israel’s defense industry has had billions of dollars in contracts with Turkey suspended by Ankara, and being able to resume sales to Turkey should provide a nice jolt to the Israeli economy.
Nobody should expect Israel and Turkey to go back to where they once were. Turkey does not feel as alone in the region as it once did, there is still a benefit from having cool relations with Israel, and too much has taken place between the two, from Davos to the Mavi Marmara to the “Zionism is equal to fascism” kerfuffle of a month ago. It is unfortunately not surprising to already see Erdoğan backing away from his commitment to normalize relations, although it will happen sooner rather than later since this is only Erdoğan playing politics in response to some hardline domestic criticism over the deal with Israel. Exchanging ambassadors and resuming limited military and intelligence cooperation does not negate the fact that bashing Israel will remain a potent element in Erdoğan’s box of tricks, and I expect to see issues big and small arise between the two countries, particularly as things remain static on the Israeli-Palestinian front and settlement building in the West Bank continues. Nevertheless, this restoring of formal ties is good for both sides, and I hope that both countries can get over their past issues and begin work on developing a healthier relationship.
March 4, 2013 § 4 Comments
I am headed to Turkey later today for the second part of the Young Turkey Young America program (in case you have forgotten or are new to this blog, explanation here) and will be spending the next two weeks in Ankara and Istanbul getting the Turkish perspective on the current state of U.S.-Turkey relations. As I noted after the first part of this program in September, the relationship between the two countries seemed stronger than ever, and U.S. government officials, business leaders, and foreign policy analysts were overwhelmingly positive about Turkey’s global role and its importance to U.S. interests. Turkey was seen as a crucial and helpful ally, President Obama and Prime Minister Erdoğan clearly had a strong personal relationship, and everything was humming along as smoothly as possible.
Since then, however, some storm clouds have developed on the horizon, and I will be very interested to see whether the wide variety of Turkish officials with whom we are meeting are as positive about the U.S. as American officials were about Turkey back in the fall. In the period since then, a number of issues have either cropped up anew or have intensified, and Washington and Ankara do not seem to be as much on the same page as they were before. The two governments have had sharper disagreements over the proper course to pursue in Syria, with Turkey wanting to aggressively arm the rebels and the Obama administration (wisely in my view) holding back. There is also friction over Iraq and how much independence the Kurdistan Regional Government in the north should have from Baghdad. Issues surrounding freedom of speech and imprisonment of journalists have become more prominent as well, and Ambassador Francis Ricciardone was called on the carpet after criticizing the government over the Ergenekon trials. Then there is the lingering Israel issue, with Erdoğan’s Zionism-equals-fascism comment last week only the latest in a long line of vitriol directed at Jerusalem that complicates Turkey’s standing here in Washington. In September I wrote the following:
The deterioration in relations between Turkey and Israel is clearly weighing on policymakers’ minds, and it was repeatedly brought up as something that needs to be fixed before it starts to adversely affect Turkey’s relationship with the U.S. A couple of people made allusions to the fact that Israel is always going to politically win out over Turkey in the U.S. and so it is vital for Turkey that the two countries repair their ties. Given the prevailing view in Turkey that the fallout with Israel has been relatively cost-free, I think that some of my Turkish colleagues were surprised to hear that this was an issue that could possibly bleed over into U.S.-Turkey bilateral ties. It’s not terribly surprising from my perspective given that Israel and Turkey are two of the most important U.S. allies in the region and the U.S. would like to go back to the era of being able to coordinate with them in concert, but I’m not sure my Turkish friends had thought about it much from this angle.
I think this is even more salient now than it was a few months ago, and with the establishment of an Israel-Hellenic caucus in Congress and arms deals with Turkey either being held up or not being introduced into committee at all, there is no doubt in my mind that Turkey’s feud with Israel is adversely impacting its interests in the U.S. Furthermore, the danger for Ankara is that its standing among policymakers is contingent upon it being seen as a helpful ally because it does not have a real independent base of support here otherwise. Unlike Israel, which has a strong relationship with the U.S. for a host of reasons – including the strength of AIPAC and other pro-Israel groups – but that all stem from the fact that Israel is immensely popular with most Americans and even loved by many, Turkey does not enjoy this same status. If Erdoğan and his government keep on having disagreements with Washington over Syria, Iraq, Israel, and other issues, Turkey’s relationship with the U.S. is bound to suffer a decline, no matter how often Obama and Erdoğan talk on the phone.
Over the next two weeks, aside from enjoying time spent with good friends in one of my favorite places in the whole world, I will be thinking about these issues and trying to assess U.S.-Turkey relations in the larger context of everything else taking place. The relationship is one of critical importance, and while nobody expects both countries to agree on everything or to see eye to eye on every issue, it behooves them both to ensure that bumps in the road do not turn into roadblocks. So with that, an iyi yolculuklar to me, and I will do my best to blog what I can over the next couple of weeks.
December 4, 2012 § 9 Comments
Last night Jeffrey Goldberg tweeted an apt point that all supporters of Israel should think about very hard. He wrote, “Two things can be true at the same time: Israel is judged more harshly than any other nation–and, Netanyahu is behaving terribly.” Israel is subjected to double standards to which no other country is held, and if you think that isn’t true, consider the nearly single-minded focus on Israel that is the hallmark of the United Nations General Assembly and Human Rights Council, or the harsh spotlight trained upon Israel over civilian casualties relative to other countries. Israel behaves badly on plenty of occasions, but so do other countries with far less complex challenges, and yet a visitor from another planet encountering Earth for the first time would lump Israel together with North Korea based on the media coverage (and if you think that is a fair comparison, please just stop reading now since you’ll be wasting your time). Israel always starts off in any situation at a complete disadvantage, and this is something that no other country deals with on a similar scale. Yet, this does not mean that Israel is a completely blameless actor in every instance, and none of the above obviates the fact that not all criticism of the Netanyahu government is a result of anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism, dislike of Netanyahu personally, or driven by a hidden agenda. To take the case in point, Netanyahu’s actions since last Thursday are not only childish and puerile, they are weakening Israel to an immeasurable degree.
Let’s zoom out for a minute and look at the long term picture. Israel is now perhaps more isolated than it has ever been on a number of levels, and certainly the most isolated it has been since 1975 during the Arab oil boycotts and the falling out with the Ford administration. Looking at Israel’s traditional regional allies, Israel’s relationship with Turkey is at an all-time low, its ties with Egypt are the most strained they have been in the post-Camp David era, and Jordan is too preoccupied with its own internal problems and the wave of refugees coming over the border from Syria to give Israel much cover on anything. While Israel does not have to worry about military threats from Arab states, it is looking at a long-term stream of diplomatic pressure from Islamist governments and less cooperation from Arab states on repressing non-state actors who threaten Israel.
In Europe, Israel faces an uphill battle as well. There is generally a lot of sympathy in European capitals for the Palestinians, but Europe’s indignation over settlements is real as well. This was driven home by the lopsided UN vote on Palestinian statehood, in which the Czech Republic was the only European country to vote with Israel. New allies Cyprus and Greece, to whom Israel has pinned such high hopes, both voted to grant Palestine non-member state observer status, and stalwart Israeli ally Germany abstained due to its anger over repeatedly being dismissed by Israel over the issue of settlement expansion. This all comes on the heels of the surprising European support for Operation Pillar of Cloud, which indicates that while Israel faces a tough audience in Europe, it has some wiggle room.
Then there is the United States, which has given Israel military aid for Iron Dome, constantly goes to bat for it in the UN including last week, was unwavering in its rhetorical support during military operations in Gaza, and also has been pleading with Israel to halt settlement expansion. The U.S. is unlikely to put heat on Israel like Europe does, but it has repeatedly expressed its displeasure with settlements and is very clear that it sees settlement growth as an obstacle to peace.
Given all of this, what is Israel’s most sensible course of action? Is it to loudly announce that it is going to “punish” the Palestinians for going to the UN by building thousands of more homes in the West Bank? Or is it to look at the big picture, realize that settlements are not just an excuse trotted out by anti-Semitic Europeans and Israel-hating leftists but are actually causing Israel all sorts of problems, and come up with some other way to deal with what it views as Palestinian intransigence? Israel went in the span of weeks from being viewed sympathetically due to Palestinian rockets indiscriminately targeting Israeli civilians to being denounced and having its ambassadors hauled in on the carpet over settlement expansion and being threatened with all sorts of countermeasures by the West. Please, someone make a cogent argument for me how this is somehow a brilliant strategy and how Netanyahu is ensuring Israel’s future existence, because from where I am sitting it is counterproductive, dangerous, and unwaveringly stupid. It’s all fine and good to constantly claim that Western views don’t matter and that Israel has the right to do what it wants, but that is the equivalent to burying your head in the sand. The fact is that Israel cannot exist on its own, it needs allies given the neighborhood in which it lives, and settlements are actually a problem for Israel’s allies. That’s the truth, and pretending otherwise is fiddling while Rome burns.
It has become clear to me over the past few years that contrary to the popular myth that the problems between Israel and the Palestinians stem from 1967, the parties are still fighting over 1948. Significant segments of Palestinians, with Hamas leading the way, simply will not concede the legitimacy of Israel, plain and simple. Concurrently, the constant refrains from the right about Palestinians not needing a state of their own because they have Jordan or the tired old canard that there is no land to give back to the Palestinians because it belonged to Jordan and to Egypt (always smugly spouted as if this is some brilliantly clever argument) is a vestige of 1948. Everyone loves to point out that Hamas doesn’t care about settlements, and that the PLO was founded in 1964, and both of these things are true and speak to the challenges that Israel faces that have absolutely nothing to do with settlements. But – and this a big one – settlements exacerbate the situation enormously, particularly with Western countries. Even ceding the argument that Palestinians of all stripes are never going to accept Israel in the pre-1967 borders and that Arab states will never want to make peace with Israel, Israel should then be doing everything it can to make sure it has the West on its side. You want to know what the best way to foul that up is? Proudly declaring that you don’t care what anyone else thinks and that you are going to build settlements wherever and whenever you like, and that doing so is not in any way an obstacle to a two-state solution and that in fact the blame rests solely with the other side. I am sick and tired of watching Israel’s supporters, of whom I am most definitely one, ignore the glaringly obvious facts that are right in front of their faces. Settlements are a huge problem, case closed. If you think that the benefit to expanding Israel’s presence in the West Bank outweighs everything else, then I respect your argument and at least you are going into this with eyes wide open. Pretending that settlements are an ancillary side issue though is willful blindness, and if that’s what you really think, then your powers of observation and analysis are sorely lacking.
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.
October 24, 2012 § Leave a Comment
One of the things that clearly emerged from the debate on Monday is that, despite some predictions to the contrary, there is not going to be any serious U.S. assistance to Turkey on the Syria front after the election. As regular readers know, I have argued that no U.S. or NATO military action is forthcoming but I have still seen and heard speculation that neither candidate can make promises to intervene during campaign season but that it will happen following the election. On Monday night though, both President Obama and Mitt Romney insisted in no uncertain terms that the U.S. military is not going to get involved. Romney displayed a willingness to supply the Syrian rebels with heavier arms but not to send U.S. troops to intervene in the conflict, and Obama reiterated previous warnings about the dangers of blowback once you arm rebels with anything more than light weapons. Neither of the two men left much wiggle room at all in their answers, and it did not seem to me as if these were positions being staked out for campaign purposes that will be quickly rolled back once the election is in the rearview mirror. It goes without saying that if the U.S. is reluctant to intervene in Syria, NATO is even more so, and I can’t imagine a scenario in which there is a NATO presence in Syria or along the Syrian border without American involvement.
So what does Turkey do now? Prime Minister Erdoğan has been agitating for months to get the U.S. to intervene, ideally by setting up a no fly zone, and has denounced the U.S. for dragging its heels. That strategy has not paid off, and more tough rhetoric from Ankara is not going to change that since both Obama and Romney have calculated that it is simply not in American interests to intervene. It seems to me that Turkey has a menu of very bad options from which to choose. One is to try and go into Syria alone, which as I have detailed and as Dov Friedman and Aaron Stein have documented even more thoroughly, is a bad idea that is unlikely to happen. Another is to sit tight, try to keep the status quo, and respond to each instance Syrian shelling across the border with a more forceful round of Turkish shelling, which is what Turkey has been doing for the past month. I think that this second option is what is going to keep on taking place, but it should be perfectly clear by now that this doesn’t exactly solve the problem. If Turkey expected this strategy to be a placeholder until it got outside help for intervening, now is the time to rethink things in a serious way. Ankara has to come up with a new strategy that assumes no eventual U.S. or NATO involvement, since it has appeared up until now that Erdoğan has been waiting for exactly that. It goes without saying, of course, that Turkey can use all the help that it can get, and to that end the continuing refusal to back down from demanding that Israel end its Gaza blockade is not doing Turkey any favors. The Israeli government certainly seems open at this point to apologizing and paying compensation, and the faster that Turkey drops the Gaza demand, the faster Israel and Turkey can reconcile and perhaps some coordination will allow Ankara to start developing a more realistic long-term strategy to deal with its truculent neighbor next door.
September 19, 2012 § 4 Comments
This post is about a week overdue, but events in the news last week overtook my original blogging plans. As I wrote about here, I recently spent two weeks as part of an Atlantic Council exchange program called Young Turkey Young America that brought together emerging leaders from the U.S. and Turkey to discuss foreign policy issues with the aim of strengthening the bilateral relationship between the two countries. It was a great two weeks, lots of fun and also very informative, and I can’t wait to do the next leg of the program in Turkey in the spring. I was consistently impressed by everyone in the group, and the experience and knowledge that my colleagues all brought to the table was daunting. Since almost all of the meetings and discussions we had were off the record, I can’t write too much about the specific things we heard from government officials, policymakers, analysts, and others, but I did come away with some big picture takeaways that I’d like to share.
First is the absolutely overwhelming view expressed by nearly everyone we spoke with of Turkey’s global importance and the strength of the bilateral relationship. Only one of tens of speakers over two weeks threw some cold water on Turkey’s role in the world; everyone else was about as bullish as you can get. At first I thought that this might be a case of government officials and corporate leaders simply telling the Turks in our group what they wanted to hear, but it became apparent over time that this was not the case and that policymakers genuinely believe that Turkey plays an oversized role in the global economy, geopolitics, and helping secure American interests overseas. On the one hand, I think this is certainly a good thing since it bodes well for a deepening of U.S.-Turkey ties in the years ahead, and it demonstrates that both countries are over the Incirlik debacle of 2003. From a Turkish perspective, it is good to know that the global hegemon (to the extent that the U.S. can still be described as such) views Turkey as nearly indispensable and is grateful for Turkey’s assistance and support in a variety of areas. On the other hand though, I got a clear sense that any possible caution signals are being completely ignored by the U.S., such as Erdoğan’s increasingly authoritarian posture and limits on the press and freedom of expression in Turkey. Whether this is because Americans in positions of influence either do not realize the extent to which these things are problematic or because they are willing to just look the other way, I am not entirely sure. It is something that bears watching.
Second is the fact that the Turkey-U.S.-Israel triangle came up with current and former government officials over and over again. The deterioration in relations between Turkey and Israel is clearly weighing on policymakers’ minds, and it was repeatedly brought up as something that needs to be fixed before it starts to adversely affect Turkey’s relationship with the U.S. A couple of people made allusions to the fact that Israel is always going to politically win out over Turkey in the U.S. and so it is vital for Turkey that the two countries repair their ties. Given the prevailing view in Turkey that the fallout with Israel has been relatively cost-free, I think that some of my Turkish colleagues were surprised to hear that this was an issue that could possibly bleed over into U.S.-Turkey bilateral ties. It’s not terribly surprising from my perspective given that Israel and Turkey are two of the most important U.S. allies in the region and the U.S. would like to go back to the era of being able to coordinate with them in concert, but I’m not sure my Turkish friends had thought about it much from this angle.
Third and somewhat related to this was the viewpoint expressed by Turkish speakers and some of my Turkish colleagues of the importance of ethnic lobbies in creating U.S. foreign policy. There were conversations that centered around the Israel/Jewish lobby but also around the Greek and Armenian lobbies, and I found it fascinating to hear so much focus on ethnic politics as a driver of foreign policy decisions. My own view is that ethnic lobbies obviously have a role but are not powerful enough to override clear U.S. interests, but I can understand why some Turks subscribe to the view that Greeks and Armenians (and over the past couple of years, Israelis) are working to undermine Turkish national interests and priorities. It also got me thinking about just what a unique body the U.S. Congress is from a world historical perspective, in that it plays such a large role in foreign policy and has a clear set of preferences apart from the White House irrespective of which party controls each institution. I think that the interplay of views and competing pressures can be tough to keep track for anyone, let alone foreigners who are not used to how the system here works. In any event, I found that Turks of all stripes were much quicker to jump on the lobbying bandwagon than were Americans, and I think that says something about both groups’ perspectives.
September 5, 2012 § Leave a Comment
In the midst of a very long day yesterday, the Atlantic Council’s Young Turkey Young America group had a meeting at the American Jewish Committee to talk about the U.S.-Israeli relationship with AJC executive director David Harris and former Israeli deputy permanent representative to the UN Aaron Jacob. I find that there is a general misconception in Turkey about the basis for U.S.-Israel ties along with a perception that the “Jewish lobby” controls U.S. politics (thank you very much Messrs. Walt and Mearsheimer), so to my mind this was a good opportunity for the Turks in the group to hear a different perspective and to separate fact from myth. It was also a great venue to hash out some of the many issues plaguing the Israel-Turkey relationship. One of the last questions asked was about Israel’s general unpopularity in the world, and part of the answer given was an attempt to demonstrate that Israel is not the only country that behaves in certain ways (Northern Cyprus and the fight against the PKK came up) and that both Israel and Turkey feel that they are misunderstood.
This last question and answer generated intense heated discussions throughout the rest of the day. A significant number of the Turks were unsatisfied with, and even angered by, the answer for two reasons. First, they did not feel that the question had been addressed, since the query was about why Israel is unpopular and isolated and this seemed to them like an attempt to avoid the question by changing the subject. Second, and more saliently, they were perturbed that someone would compare Turkish actions to Israeli actions, and some of them insisted that Turkey is not occupying Northern Cyprus and that the PKK is unquestionably a terrorist group whereas Hamas is not.
I took two lessons away from this. First, it never fails to amaze me how people – and my new Turkish friends are not unique in this regard at all, since we are all (myself included) guilty of this – will go to great lengths to distinguish their own country’s behavior from another country’s behavior despite the similarities that exist. Some of my Turkish compatriots were arguing later in the day that Israel must be doing something wrong since it has no friends in the world save the U.S. (and one person made the astute point during the AJC meeting that there is a real difference between friends and partners) and everyone is opposed to Israel’s foreign policy actions, yet in the next breath argued that Turkey was fully justified in its Cyprus policy despite the fact that the only country in the entire world that recognizes Northern Cyprus is Turkey. You can’t have it both ways, and yet many of the Turks were visibly annoyed when it was suggested that Turkey is not behaving any differently than Israel, or that Hamas is just as much a terrorist group as the PKK. It really reinforced just how hard it is to overcome your natural biases no matter where you are from, and how intractably difficult some of these issue are.
Second, it served as a reminder about how different audiences require different messages. Some of the AJC answers were exactly what you’d expect in terms of an aggressive defense of Israeli actions, but some of the Turks were taken aback at just how forceful the answers were, and as I noted were not at all receptive to the argument that Turkey and Israel are similar in their approaches and in both being misunderstood by international actors. The more forceful answers are the type that worked on the American audience to a greater extent and would have been very well received by a Jewish pro-Israel group, but the overall strategy seemed to backfire with the Turkish contingent. Rather than convincing them, it made them defensive and left them somewhat unsatisfied, whereas they appreciated the questions that were answered in a more measured or more reflective way. I don’t generally spend too much time thinking about communications issues, but it was interesting to listen to Turkish reactions to different answers and how interest group messaging strategy affected them. All in all a very interesting meeting, and many thanks to AJC for hosting a wide-ranging and frank discussion on a sensitive topic.
August 20, 2012 § 1 Comment
SEE BELOW FOR UPDATE
Over the weekend, the news emerged that an Israeli delegation of Shas MKs, European Haredi rabbis, and Bar-Ilan University professor of Arabic and Islam Moti Kedar made a secret visit to Turkey last week. According to the reports in the Israeli press, the group was led by Shas MK and deputy finance minister Yitzhak Cohen and had approval from Prime Minister Netanyahu’s office, although it appears that the Foreign Ministry was not on board with the trip and even tried to sway Cohen from attending some of the meetings. It also appears as if the group was invited to Turkey by “local interfaith organizations” and met with Turkish parliamentarians, including some from the AKP.
There are a number of strange things going on here. First, I can’t find any mention of this secret visit in the Turkish press. As of last night there were zero references to it in either the English language Hürriyet Daily News or Today’s Zaman, or in the Turkish language Hürriyet, Zaman, or Radikal. The Turkish press might not be reporting the story because the government does not want it to get out that members of the AKP have been meeting with Israeli officials, or it might be that the Turkish press finds this to be a non-story, but it’s odd to me that nobody in Turkey has any original reporting on this and that the Turkish papers haven’t even picked up the story from the Israel press.
Second, I’d love to know the identity of the unnamed interfaith groups that invited the Israeli delegation to Turkey and presumably set up meetings for them with Turkish MPs. The first group that comes to mind, of course, is the Gülen movement, and Gülenists certainly have the sway to set up meetings between Cohen and AKP officials, but then we run into the problem that the Gülenist newspapers – Today’s Zaman and Zaman – have been completely silent about the trip. One would think that if the Gülenists had arranged the trip, their press outlets would be touting it. It’s also a strange mix of people that the unnamed interfaith groups invited, with its combination of Israeli Haredi Knesset members, non-Israeli European rabbis, and Moti Kedar, who is a rightwing academic known for his willingness to tangle with al-Jazeera hosts in Arabic but to my knowledge is not an expert on Turkey. The Shas MKs would certainly have a reason to talk to the AKP and try to improve official ties between Israel and Turkey, but the Europeans and Kedar have no purpose for being there in this regard, and so it almost looks like the point of the trip was indeed about some sort of interfaith dialogue and that any political meetings Cohen had were entire ancillary to the whole thing.
Third, the reported disagreement between Netanyahu’s office and the Foreign Ministry is intriguing. Avigdor Lieberman is a vocal hardliner when it comes to Turkey, and reiterated that Israel has no intention of apologizing to Turkey during his meetings with Turkish journalists in Israel last month. That the Foreign Ministry under Lieberman would not want Israeli MKs traveling to Turkey and meeting with the AKP with no strings attached and without embassy supervision is not at all surprising. This incident might signal a real split between Netanyahu and Lieberman over repairing the relationship with Turkey. In this light, the fact that Shas members are the ones who went to Turkey takes on greater significance, since there is outright hostility between Shas and Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu, and between Lieberman and Shas head (and Interior Minister) Eli Yishai. If there is any party that would have no hesitation at all over crossing Lieberman and going against the wishes of the Foreign Ministry, it would be Shas. On the other hand, if this was a delegation explicitly sent by Netanyahu, it would strange to send Cohen and Nissim Zeev rather than Likud MKs or even one of Bibi’s personal advisers. Shas is not known for its expertise or even interest in foreign affairs, and using Shas MKs to act as diplomats would be highly unusual.
So in sum, something about this whole thing seems off to me. It doesn’t seem like it was orchestrated or initiated by Netanyahu even though he seems to have had no problem with it, and the veil of secrecy also makes little sense if it was not a delegation empowered to do much of anything. There would be no reason for the cloak and dagger routine over an attempt at interfaith dialogue, but there would also be no reason to have European rabbis and Kedar on the trip if it were anything but that. If the trip was actually planned as an interfaith dialogue but Cohen and Zeev were instructed to carry out a side mission of talking to the Turkish government, then the secrecy surrounding the trip was even more ill-conceived since once the story leaked it would ruin any efforts at plausible deniability. Basically, I can’t quite figure out what is going on here. If anyone has any ideas, I’d love to hear them.
Somehow I missed that Today’s Zaman ran a short piece yesterday quoting Ynet on the Shas visit to Turkey (thanks to Claire Berlinski for alerting me to that), but after I wrote this post last night, the Turkish language dailies this morning ran with the story of the Israeli delegation’s visit, so ignore my speculation above on why the Israeli press had this story but the Turkish press didn’t. The Turkish press did make a big contribution to our knowledge though by reporting that the Israeli delegation met with, among others, the notorious Adnan Oktar (otherwise known by the honorific Adnan Hoca or by his
real assumed name, Harun Yahya), who was presumably the “local interfaith organization” that invited Cohen and his cohort to Turkey. If you’ve never heard of Oktar, take ten minutes and read this right now, and you will have gotten your fill of daily entertainment. For those who want the short version, Oktar is a Turkish televangelist known for being a Holocaust denier and for keeping what is literally a harem. He has also been charged with a bevy of crimes including rape, blackmail, theft, and cocaine possession. He is currently popular with the Israeli rabbinical crowd as he has denounced his former views on Jews and the Holocaust and defends Jews as vigorously as he used to denounce them. He has in the past scored a meeting with Israel’s Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau and has a long-standing relationship with Kedar, which explains how Shas MKs would be coming to Turkey at his invitation but does not even come close to explaining why Israeli rabbis and officials are granting Oktar any shred of legitimacy. Is Israel really so desperate for a friendly face that it can’t find anyone with a more stable background than Oktar? It also sheds some new light on why the Foreign Ministry, which is presumably more familiar with Oktar’s exploits than the prime minister’s office, might have had reservations about the whole thing.
July 19, 2012 § 3 Comments
With the killing yesterday of Bashar al-Assad’s inner circle of defense officials, most experts appear to agree that this marks the beginning of the endgame phase for the Assad regime, although how long this phase will last is anyone’s guess. Assad is not going to go quietly and there is bound to be a lot of violence and bloodshed ahead, but given yesterday’s blow to the regime’s top leadership and the fighting in Damascus, it is difficult to envision a scenario in which Assad ultimately quells the opposition and rules a unitary Syria again. This has left the most interested outside parties struggling with how to respond, and the new situation is a good illustration of why, as I wrote a month ago, Syria was never going to be the issue that forced a Turkish-Israeli rapprochement (despite the fact that it would be helpful if the two coordinated on their response).
At the moment, both countries have very different concerns. Israel’s most pressing worry is that Assad will use chemical weapons against Israel in a last gasp effort to rally Syrians around Syrian nationalism and distract from the massacres of his people that he has been carrying out, or alternatively that chemical weapons will be passed to Hizballah. The problem is that Israel is not in a position to do anything about it because attacking chemical weapons plants and storage depots will provide Assad an opportunity to marshal public opinion behind him against the Israeli enemy or the pretext to then retaliate by launching missiles at Israeli cities. Consequently, Israel is left to choose between a bevy of bad and worse options, and is thus in the awkward position of being somewhat wary about Assad’s departure. If it can be done in a controlled way, then Israel can sleep a lot more quietly at night, but that is unlikely to happen. While there is no doubt that Jerusalem does not want to keep watching Assad massacre Syrians, its involvement in pushing him out the door has to be minimal and the consequences of his downfall, direct and indirect, pose numerous security problems.
Turkey, on the other hand, is not exposed to the same risks as Israel, and thus its policy preferences are different. Ankara has a good relationship with the Syrian opposition and has been indirectly supporting them, and has placed itself in an optimal position for when Assad is finally removed. Turkey has zero ambivalence about Assad at this point and wants him gone at all costs, but unlike Israel, Turkey does not face the same dangers that might accrue from Assad leaving. Turkey will not be a target of Syrian chemical weapons, nor will it be facing down Hizballah, and so it has little to fear from the messy consequences of Assad’s downfall (the PKK is not in the chemical weapons market). Turkey wants to see as much pressure on Assad as can be brought to bear, whether it is from outside forces or an Islamist opposition, and it needs the Syrian civil war to end as quickly as possible so as to staunch the flow of refugees over the Turkish border.
You can see then how Syria might actually end up dividing Israel and Turkey even further rather than bringing them closer together. Let’s say Israel ultimately decides that it cannot live with the possibility of chemical weapons being out there and it destroys the Syrian facilities, which in turn allows Assad to get his officers and people to rally around the flag. In this scenario, Turkey will be apoplectic since this hypothetical Israeli action would have strengthened Assad and undermined the opposition, and prolonged the conflict in Syria. Israel, on the other hand, will have justifiably acted to neutralize a very real threat, and will not be amenable to listening to Turkish arguments on the issue. Relatedly, if Turkey actively steps in to broker a solution or steps up its efforts to arm the Syrian opposition rebel groups, and Assad or Hizballah attack Israel as a consequence, Israel will be unsparing in its criticism of Turkey. The bottom line here is that Israel and Turkey both do not like what they see going down in Syria, but that does not mean that their interests perfectly coincide and it certainly does not mean that they see eye to eye on Syria in such a way as to force their reconciliation. Yesterday’s events only make these differences more stark rather than less so.
June 21, 2012 § 3 Comments
Michael Herzog and Soner Cagaptay have an op-ed in today’s New York Times on Israel-Turkey relations in which they argue that the situation in Syria can provide the impetus for the two countries to reconcile. I was reluctant to comment on it since I have an op-ed of my own coming out soon on steps that need to be taken for Israel and Turkey to make up, but I think their piece has some flaws that I can’t help but point out. I am no stranger to the Syria argument, having pointed out before that it would be to both states’ benefit to cooperate on Syria. Herzog and Cagaptay take this idea a few steps too far, however, by essentially arguing that the mess in Syria can be the primary force that will move Jerusalem and Ankara back together.
The first problem with this is that while Israeli and Turkish cooperation would be nice, Syria presents a very different set of problems for each. Turkey is facing a serious refugee crisis with Syrians fleeing across the Turkish border, the prospect of revitalized PKK terrorism if Assad provides the PKK with a safe haven inside Syria, and reputational and credibility problems following early Turkish threats to establish buffer zones inside of Syria that are clearly nowhere close to materializing. In contrast, Israel is facing the possibility of Assad and the Syrian army stirring up trouble with Israel in an effort to distract from the massacres being carried out by Assad’s forces, Hizballah shooting volleys of missiles into northern Israel in response to alleged “Israeli meddling” in the conflict, and the inclusion of Islamist elements dangerously hostile to Israel in the Syrian opposition. So yes, in a wider sense, both Israel and Turkey are facing problems because of the brewing Syrian civil war, but that does not mean that cooperation between the two is such a no-brainer that it will get them to reconcile. For instance, would Israel help install the Syrian National Council in Damascus in order to stem the flow of refugees into Turkey if it means that it now faces Islamist governments on its southern and northern borders? Does Israel have anywhere near the level of interest in driving the PKK out of Syria as Turkey does? Yes, both countries want a resolution of some sort, but it is entirely unclear that they would agree on what that should be.
Second, Herzog and Cagaptay argue that any Israeli involvement in Syria has to be secret:
Any Israeli contribution would, of course, have to be invisible in order not to create a sense that Israel was behind the Syrian uprising. This makes Turkish-Israeli cooperation against Mr. Assad even more valuable, for it would allow Israel to provide untraceable assets to support Turkey’s efforts to undermine the Assad government.
Well, doesn’t that contradict the premise of the entire argument? Israel and Turkey are very publicly at odds, and any reconciliation is going to have to be a public one as a result. Much of the benefit of reconciling, and this is particularly true for Israel, is a public relations one, so some sort of secret rapprochement that nobody knows about outside of the respective countries’ militaries and intelligence services does not do much good. The notion that Israel would agree to help out Turkey but do so in an untraceable way is not a point that bolsters the argument that cooperation on Syria is going to lead to a reconciliation. It might be an important confidence building measure, but if you are claiming that the Syria mess is going to push Israel and Turkey to repair their relationship, you had better come up with something more than covert intelligence assistance.
Then there are a bunch of smaller problems in the piece. The authors assert that “A Turkish-Israeli dialogue on Syria could bolster Israel’s interest in regime change and enlist Israel to generate American support,” but I hardly think that Israel voicing its approval of a Turkish plan to get the U.S. involved is going to sway the administration’s impulse to stay out of things. They also argue that Shaul Mofaz’s inclusion in the cabinet dampens the influence of Avigdor Lieberman and his strident criticisms of Turkey, but Lieberman is hardly the only politician to have a hard line on a flotilla apology and there is no evidence that Mofaz is itching to pursue normalized ties. There is no discussion in the piece of the larger structural incentives that might push Israel and Turkey to reconcile, since the Syria issue has not been enough up until this point. In sum, I don’t think that Herzog and Cagaptay are wrong to identify Syria as a problem for both Israel and Turkey, but the overall argument flies right over so many important details that to me their op-ed fails to convince.