What Turkey Can Learn From Minnesota

August 31, 2012 § Leave a comment

I spent most of yesterday being inundated with Minnesota and Minneapolis-St. Paul corporate and government propaganda (for those of you who aren’t regular readers, this is why), so you’ll excuse me if I sound as if I work for the Twin Cities Chamber of Commerce, but it occurred to me over the course of the day that there are actually some important lessons for Turkish politics that can be gleaned from observing the North Star State, and that bringing a group of emerging Turkish leaders here is a good thing.

First, Minnesota has an unusually high level of civic engagement and corporate innovation. We were told a couple of times that it has the highest voter turnout rate of any state, and I checked every election from 2000 through 2010 and that held true for all of them. Minnesota voters turn out to the polls in larger numbers than their fellow citizens and the lesson of civic engagement and the important of voting is a good one, particularly given that the small and nonrandom sample I took today of my Turkish colleagues indicates that they do not feel terribly connected to their politicians. A number of the people we spoke with today waxed effusive about a sense among Minnesotans that politics is not only important but that politics can be a real driver of change and that local politics here is extremely responsive to its citizens. It is a good model for the Turkish visitors to observe, because it shows the importance of political engagement and the less cynical side of what can be accomplished through the political system. Minnesota also has the largest number of Fortune 500 companies per capita, which is a good reminder that innovation and corporate success do not have to be limited to the east and west coasts. Much of Turkey’s economic growth over the past decade has come from outside the big cities, and Minnesota mirrors that while illustrating that economic dynamism will flourish with an educated populace (which Minnesota has, with Minneapolis-St.Paul having the highest percentage of any metropolitan area in the country of adults with a diploma at 90%).

Second, Minnesota state politics is a great example of a diverse system that is not captured by one party and that tolerates, and even embraces, divided government. Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress, represents a district right next door to Michele Bachmann, who is currently notorious for her anti-Muslim witch hunt targeted at Huma Abedin. Two years ago, a Republican governor and Democratic legislature flipped completely, and Minnesota now has a Democratic governor and Republican legislature. Minnesota votes for Republican governors like Tim Pawlenty and complete wildcard governors like former pro wrestler Jesse Ventura at the same time that it votes for extremely liberal senators like Paul Wellstone or Al Franken. The state is hard to characterize politically and reveals a real openness to a wide spectrum of political ideas and personalities. Turkey, on the other hand, is a country that right now effectively operates as a one-party state given the AKP’s dominance and the CHP’s feckless impotence. As I’ve noted in the past, an unhealthy political system is ultimately going to hamper Turkish economic and political development and harm Turkey’s status as a geopolitical power. Minnesota presents a great demonstration for this next generation of Turkish political, business, and press leaders of a political system that is not captured by any one party or set of policies and that does not stagnate as a result of stale politics or a static political environment.

(This post has been brought to you by the State of Minnesota. The brainwashing will cease soon.)


Practicing What I Preach

August 29, 2012 § 3 Comments

One of the themes that I continuously harp on in the course of writing this blog is the vital importance of the U.S.-Turkish relationship. The U.S. and Turkey are strategic partners and have been for decades and cooperate on a host of security and trade issues. While U.S.-Turkey ties rest on a shared foundation of common interests, they are ultimately sustained by government officials, business leaders, and opinion makers in both countries who are committed to keeping the relationship strong. Starting today, I am officially going to be part of this group.

For the next two weeks (and then again for two weeks in Turkey in the spring) I will be participating in the Young Turkey Young America program, which is run by the Atlantic Council and sponsored by the State Department and aims to connect 30 young professionals from the United States and Turkey to examine key foreign policy issues and build a group of emerging leaders committed to bilateral cooperation. This year’s group has a bunch of really impressive Americans and Turks who are, among other things, government advisers, journalists, non-profit executive directors, CEOs, local elected officials, and academics, and I can’t help but feel that I kind of snuck in the back door. We are starting off in Minneapolis today, then moving on to New York and finally Washington, and will be having meetings and panels with members of Congress, executive branch officials in charge of Turkey policy, corporate leaders, academics, and policy experts. The agenda looks great, and I am really excited to spend the next two weeks constantly thinking and speaking about the current and future state of the U.S.-Turkey relationship with smart and talented folks from both countries.

Keeping up my usual daily blogging schedule over the next two weeks is going to be tough, but I am going to try to blog as often as possible. Many of the conversations and meetings the group will be having are going to be off the record and so I am not going to be able to write about them specifically, but I plan on writing about the general insights that I glean from my colleagues – particularly the Turkish ones – about the opportunities and challenges in the bilateral relationship, and some thoughts about where U.S.-Turkey ties are headed. So basically, the blog is going have a changed tenor for the next two weeks and will not be as news-focused as usual, but hopefully it will be just as interesting (to the extent that it is ever interesting) in a different way. And don’t worry, if something big happens in Israel or Turkey I will make sure to leave all of you with my two cents.

Israeli Rays of Light

August 28, 2012 § 1 Comment

Dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians was dealt a big blow yesterday with the announcement that bitterlemons.org was shutting down after twelve years. For those who aren’t familiar with Bitter Lemons, it is a website that publishes Israeli and Palestinian views across the spectrum on the peace process and wider Middle East issues, and it was founded and run by Yossi Alpher and Ghassan Khatib. In explaining why they are ending their website, Alpher and Khatib both emphasized that dialogue and cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians are at their lowest ever point, and that not only is there no peace process at the moment but there is not even a prospect for one to emerge. More disturbingly, both asserted that this freeze at the top has filtered down to society. Khatib informed us that in the past, “despite the feeling among many in the Arab world that contact with Israelis is tantamount to accepting Israel’s occupation, seldom did authors decline an invitation. Lately, we have observed that this has changed, that even once-forthcoming Palestinians are less interested in sharing ideas with Israelis just across the way.” Alpher echoed this theme, writing, “Here and there, writers from the region who used to favor us with their ideas and articles are now begging off, undoubtedly deterred by the revolutionary rise of intolerant political forces in their countries or neighborhood.” When an outlet dedicated to advancing a wide and diverse array of ideas and perspectives on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict feels like it has reached a dead end, it is a terrible sign of things to come.

While the Israeli-Palestinian front grows increasingly dire, there are a couple of encouraging reasons for optimism when it comes to the polarized environment that exists between Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs. Following the attempted lynching of Jamal Julani, an Israeli Arab teenager, last week, eight suspects have been indicted for racially motivated aggravated assault and a ninth suspect has been indicted for inciting violence. The indictments and investigations are important but are also the ordinary course of the justice system at work, so this is neither uncommon nor unprecedented. What is, however, is that Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar ordered all Israeli junior high schools and high schools to dedicate a special lesson on the first day of school yesterday to the Julani beating and to discuss racism and violence in Israeli society. The treatment of Israeli Arabs is an uncomfortable topic in Israel, as they enjoy full citizenship rights but are routinely discriminated against, and the attack on Julani in the heart of Jerusalem exposed a dark undercurrent of racial violence that exists in some quarters. Ordering a national discussion in schools about the incident is a small step but an important step nonetheless, and it shows a heartening willingness on the part of the Israeli state and society for introspection. Certainly this will not heal all wounds or eliminate the problem of racism and violence toward Israeli Arabs, but it is a start toward building a more tolerant and aware Israeli polity.

In this vein, a friend directed me toward this remarkable interview with Forsan Hussein, an Israeli Arab who is currently the CEO of the Jerusalem YMCA. Hussein grew up in Sha’ab a small Arab village near Acco, managed to win a full scholarship to Brandeis (where he was two years ahead of me, although I didn’t know him), and later got a masters from SAIS and an MBA from Harvard. It is mind-boggling that he accomplished all this despite the fact that Sha’ab had no high school and Hussein spoke almost no English when he came to the U.S. to start college, but that is not what is most remarkable. What is most remarkable is that despite growing up in Israel as a clearly disadvantaged minority and in a community that feels very little connection to the state, Hussein spent his teenage summers establishing and running a peace camp for Jews and Arabs and then returned to Israel after working for an investment fund in the U.S. and is emphatic about the need for Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs to work together to improve their country. Despite his background and growing up with what he describes as a one-sided narrative, he is proud to be an Israeli and wants to improve Israel rather than tear it down. He ends the interview as follows: “My dream and vision is to work on the business side of peace — to be an ambassador for Israel in the Arab countries, and for the Arab countries in Israel. One day.” That someone like this exists provides me with hope that Israel is not as lost as its detractors claim,  and that there are many more Forsan Husseins out there who embrace their country despite its faults and are able to overcome their understandable resentments in working toward building a stronger and more integrated Israel.

This Is Why Bringing Religion Into Politics Is A Bad Idea

August 27, 2012 § 1 Comment

Last week I wrote about Bibi Netanyahu’s attempt to use religious authority to create support for a strike on Iran. There are many problems with going down this path – and I should add that Netanyahu is not unique in this regard; there is a long history of Israeli and even American officials seeking Rav Ovadia Yosef’s approval for various national security initiatives – but one of the bigger ones is that once you allow politics to be influenced by religion, you can no longer control the deluge that is guaranteed to follow. To wit, Netanyahu has to deal with the fact that he is being publicly challenged by influential rabbinic authorities on implementing the High Court’s order to evacuate Migron, the settlement outpost that was built on land privately owned by Palestinians. Rabbi Elyakim Levanon, the chief rabbi of the Shomron Regional Council and a past ally of Netanyahu, declared over the weekend that if the prime minister attempts to “raise a hand on Migron [he] will have it cut off.” He also made implicit threats that the IDF will have to disband if the government offends the religious Zionist community since if yeshiva students stop joining the army on the orders of their rabbis, “there will be no army. Who will join the army? Those who raise two kids and a dog?” He took great pains to let everyone know that he wasn’t actually threatening the prime minister, but simply hoping that God makes his words come true.

This is not the first time that Rabbi Levanon has attempted to use religious pressure to change or influence government policy. This past January, he quit his position as head of the Elon Moreh hesder yeshiva (hesder yeshivot allow observant Israelis to combine army service and Torah study) because he vehemently disagreed with an IDF ruling that soldiers could not walk out of events in which there were women singing. Before quitting, he had given an interview in which he said that the IDF was “bringing us close to a situation in which we will have to tell [male] soldiers, ‘You have to leave such events even if a firing squad is set up outside, which will fire on and kill you.’ I hope the army rabbinate will bring in some wise figures who will stop this terrible state of affairs. But if there are no such rabbis, we won’t have any choice, and I’ll recommend to anyone who asks me about the IDF that he shouldn’t enlist.” Given Levanon’s position as head of an influential hesder yeshiva and as chief rabbi of the Shomron Regional Council, which oversees 30 settlements in the West Bank, his thoughts on such matters cannot be simply brushed off, and his comments on Migron represent only the tip of the iceberg of what is to come from the religious settler community should the High Court decision be enforced.

This ties into the excellent piece by Dan Byman and Natan Sachs on settler terrorism in Foreign Affairs, in which they argue that Israel needs to treat settler violence the same way it treats Palestinian violence and that “mainstream rabbis should denounce their radical brethren and demonstrate how their views contradict centuries of religious tradition.” They are correct with this recommendation, and there is already a growing movement to do exactly that. The problem, though, is that the involvement of rabbinic authority goes both ways. If the Israeli government is to appeal to religious tradition to convince the violent settler fringe to cease its terrorist activity (and if you need any convincing as to how deep the fanatical rot has penetrated, the three suspects in the firebomb attack last week are 12 and 13 year olds from Bat Ayin, which is known for having something of an artsy and hippie vibe), it then makes it tough to operate when religious authority dictates that the government is doing something that contradicts Jewish law, which is what Rabbi Levanon contends is the case with evacuating Migron. Bibi runs to Rav Yosef when he wants to pressure Eli Yishai into supporting military action, but nobody should fool themselves about what this means when the government decides to give an order to evacuate a settlement. Religious authority is not something that can be turned on and off with a switch, utilized when convenient and ignored when not. Netanyahu is going to have a serious problem on his hands with Migron and other settlements down the road, and the fact that he so brazenly and nakedly uses religion for something he regards as a priority is going to haunt him when religion operates to stifle actions which he has no choice but to take.

There Is Little Hope for Turkey In Its War With Syria

August 24, 2012 § 1 Comment

Suat Kiniklioğlu wrote a clear headed column in Today’s Zaman on Wednesday in which he argued that Turkey is effectively at war with Syria and that the only solution to ending the Syrian problem is a military one. Given that Turkey is supporting and arming the Free Syrian Army and Kiniklioğlu contends that Syria is responding with increased support for the PKK, he wrote that Turkey has two basic options before it. Option one is to engage in direct war with Syria and set up a no-fly zone or buffer zone, and option two is to continue Turkey’s indirect war through supporting the opposition. After laying out the inherent problems with both approaches, Kiniklioğlu implied that he favors the first option of a more direct war:

The Syrian crisis and the concomitant rise in PKK terror have bitterly reminded us of the need for a professional fighting force. It is inconceivable that after three decades of fighting against the PKK we are still fighting with non-professional forces. Whether we like it or not the Syrian crisis has turned into a regional imbroglio. We must bring an end to the Syrian crisis — that can only be done through military means. Our government has the responsibility of holding to account those responsible for bombing our cities on a Ramadan holiday evening in Gaziantep.

This sentiment is an understandable one. The longer the mess in Syria drags on, the more it brings Turkey’s foreign policy credibility down with it. Things have become so bad that there are now calls for Ahmet Davutoğlu, who many assumed would replace Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as prime minister, to step down from his post as foreign minister. Turkey’s demands on Assad have fallen on deaf ears, Syrian provocations such as the downing of the Turkish reconnaissance jet have gone unanswered, and in the midst of all this the PKK has ramped up its attacks and made this the bloodiest summer for Turkey in decades. Arming the opposition has not gotten Turkey anywhere, and as Kiniklioğlu writes, the problem with a more direct military approach is that the Obama administration and NATO have shown close to zero willingness to intervene, which makes a unilateral Turkish intervention a far more difficult task. Turkey is in such a bad position at the moment that it almost seems as if there is no other choice but direct military confrontation with Syria, if for no other reason than to take the fight to the PKK. To paraphrase one of President George W. Bush’s more memorable lines, it’s better for Turkey to fight the PKK over there so it doesn’t have to fight the PKK over here.

The problem with this approach is that Turkey is having an enormous amount of trouble handling the PKK on its own territory, and I shudder to think about what will happen should the Turkish military chase the PKK over unfamiliar ground while adding the Syrian army into the mix. Nobody has any idea what is really going on in Hakkari, and just yesterday another six soldiers were killed in PKK bombings and assaults. As many PKK terrorists as the Turkish army is taking out, the military is suffering significant casualties of its own, and this despite sealing off an entire swath of southeastern Turkey and having the benefit of fighting on its own turf. Let’s say that Turkey decides to invade Syria with the dual purpose of eradicating as much of the PKK as possible and hastening the end of the Assad regime. How well would such an operation possibly go? Turkey has already sadly been on the wrong end of Syrian air defenses and would be fighting on foreign soil against the PKK, the PYD, some part of the Syrian army, and one cannot discount Iran at that point entering the mix. I get the bind that Turkey is in and the frustration at feeling impotent to control events despite having the second largest army in NATO, but stepping up overt military operations against Syria is a bad idea at this point. Turkey is in a terrible mess at the moment – albeit one partially of its own making given its years of supporting Assad and its complete lack of any Kurdish policy – but an invasion of Syria would only make things worse. There aren’t really any good options, which is what Kiniklioğlu’s column is getting at, but I think that the only real course Turkey has for now is to keep fighting the PKK at home, hope that Assad falls soon, and pray that whatever replaces him will be able to contain the fallout from migrating across Turkey’s borders. Intervening in Syria alone will not lead to a positive outcome, and in fact would have a high chance of creating even more headaches and security problems for Ankara than it already has.

The Best of Israel and the Worst of Israel

August 23, 2012 § 2 Comments

Following the disgusting and abominable attack on Arab teenagers in Jerusalem’s Kikar Tzion last week – which, for those of you keeping track at home, Emergency Committee for Israel executive director Noah Pollak referred to as a “late-night scuffle” – Israel’s leaders have been unsparing in their condemnation of the incident. Shimon Peres declared himself ashamed at what happened and stated the obvious, which is that the Arab teens were attacked for no reason other than the fact that they are Arabs. While this is not surprising coming from Peres, Israeli rightwing politicians have been just as harsh in their denunciations. Bibi Netanyahu described the attack as racist to its core, and former IDF chief of staff and current vice PM Boogie Ya’alon called it an “act of terror” which left no ambiguity into how serious Israeli leaders view what has been accurately described as a lynching. Going further, Knesset speaker and Likud MK Reuven Rivlin visited one of the victims in the hospital yesterday and apologized, noting that racist anti-Arab sentiment is clearly not just on the fringe of Israeli society and that the attack is a “microcosm of a national problem that could endanger Israeli democracy.” Daniel Seidemann, writing on Jeffrey Goldberg’s blog, noted that the discourse from Likud politicians on this is significant because it is not being done with public opinion in mind (it will not help Bibi or anyone else in the Likud primaries) and indicates that rightwing politicians are genuinely worried that this is a serious and growing problem.

This is the way democracies are supposed to work, and it is heartening that for all of the criticism of Israel, both legitimate and illegitimate, over its treatment of Palestinians, things are operating in the aftermath of this attack exactly as they should. The government is not trying to explain it away or call it anything other than racism and terrorism, and Rivlin’s acknowledgment that this kind of behavior is becoming endemic and is a problem for a democratic society is the type of soul-searching that any democracy needs to go through in order to remain strong and vibrant. As I’ve noted before, for someone like me who is not shy about calling out Israeli misbehavior, it is important to also praise the things that demonstrate the strength of Israeli democracy and Israeli character, and the response to the Kikar Tzion attack across the political spectrum deserves to be praised. For all of the talk that Israel is content to keep the status quo and has no interest in introspection when it comes to treatment of Palestinians or Israeli Arabs, the political response so far is encouraging, and perhaps the worst of Israel encapsulated by the Kikar Tzion beating will now bring out the best of Israel.

Moving from the best of Israel to the other end of the spectrum, the political leaders who have not exactly covered themselves in glory this week are the two Yisrael Beiteinu members who run the Israeli Foreign Ministry, FM Avigdor Lieberman and deputy FM Danny Ayalon. Lieberman has apparently decided to take it upon himself to wage political guerilla warfare against Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority, writing a letter to the Quartet calling for new Palestinian elections with the aim of ousting Abbas as Palestinian president and then saying today that Abbas is a greater threat to Israel than Hamas. Netanyahu’s office distanced itself from Lieberman immediately, saying that his letter does not reflect the position of either Bibi or the government, and Ehud Barak slammed Lieberman for harming Israeli interests and for basically being a dolt in believing that it would be better for Israel were Hamas to take over control of the PA. Lieberman told a group of Israel ambassadors that he wrote the letter because the Israeli government is not heeding his advice and relaying his views on the Palestinians to the West, which is just the latest piece of evidence that the government sees Lieberman as the embarrassment that he is. That Israel does not have a professional, or even competent, foreign minister is a serious problem, and that Lieberman is in the post for political reasons is not an excuse. Israel has so many experienced and talented ambassadors and diplomats, and it discredits the entire enterprise to have Lieberman as the front man, even if he is not taken seriously by anyone inside or outside his government.

Not to be outdone by his boss, Ayalon resumed his spate of strange and embarrassing behavior by saying that South Africa remains an apartheid state in response to South Africa’s decision to label goods made in the West Bank as made in “occupied Palestinian territory.” Ayalon is rightly upset about what this will do to Israeli business interests, particularly if it ends up starting a trend that is picked up by other countries, but instead of responding with a measured argument, he chose to make a completely unsubstantiated (and incorrect) charge about South African politics and society. Not only won’t this change the South African government’s mind and will probably lead to an even further worsening of ties between the two countries, Ayalon did the exact thing that he and other Israel diplomats correctly rail against, which is recklessly tossing around the charge of apartheid in places to which it does not apply. How is Ayalon supposed to protest the next time some politician or celebrity stupidly refers to Israel as an apartheid state when he has just done the exact same thing? Ayalon was for years a respected diplomat and served as an able foreign policy advisor to Likud politicians and as ambassador to the U.S., but has seen his reputation take a serious turn for the worse under Lieberman. Between things like this and his ridiculous attempt at humiliating the Turkish ambassador by making him sit on a low chair in front of television cameras (for which Ayalon was forced to apologize), it’s tough to conclude anything other than that Lieberman’s corrosive influence is having a negative impact on Ayalon’s common sense. As well as the response to the attempted lynching of Arab teens by Jews has reflected on Israel’s politicians, its diplomats’ puerile actions this week have demonstrated the exact opposite.


The Significance of Gaziantep

August 22, 2012 § 1 Comment

The car bomb that exploded in Gaziantep on Monday, killing nine and wounding nearly seventy others, was a horrific act of terrorism that many suspect is the work of the PKK, although the PKK has so far denied any involvement. Hüseyin Çelik has raised the possibility that Syria may be involved as well, but unless one is prepared to go down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories involving the deep state (and I certainly am not), this has the fingerprints of the PKK all over it given the upsurge in PKK violence this summer, the location of the bombing, and the fact that the intended target was a police station. Allowing for the assumption that the PKK was behind this latest terrorist atrocity, this is the second strategic misstep for the group in as many weeks following the earlier bizarre kidnapping and release of CHP deputy Hüseyin Aygün, which only inflamed opinion against the PKK and seemed to harden the government’s stance against the group even further.

That the PKK has denied being behind the Gaziantep bombing is significant because it indicates that the PKK realizes that this might actually represent a turning point. It is a strange move for a terrorist group to perpetrate an act of terrorism – generally designed to garner attention and demonstrate the group’s power – and then immediately deny all involvement, but it is not surprising in this instance given the civilian casualties involved and the fact that it was done on Eid al-Fitr, the holiday marking the end of Ramadan. This was a major strategic miscalculation that backfired in a big way, and not only will it garner the PKK no sympathy, it will give cover to the government to go after the PKK even harder than it already has. Few will object to Turkish military operations against the group following this bombing.

The PKK’s terrorism campaign is a thorny one with no real end in sight for a number of reasons. The PKK is able to draw on a base of ethnic Kurdish support, which makes it difficult to root out and eliminate entirely. It also does not help that Turkish Kurds have a set of legitimate political grievances, yet the government has adopted a nearly exclusively military approach to the problem, assuming that once the PKK is gone, Kurdish political demands will dissipate. What this means is that the PKK draws on a well of Kurdish sympathy even in places where there is no outright support for the group or its actions. In Gaziantep, however, the PKK has done something that might actually cut into that base of sympathy. Trying to shore up support among the Kurdish population by blowing up civilians during a religious holiday is a strange strategy indeed, and it is bound to be a losing one. Maybe, just maybe, the PKK’s denials here are an indication that it realizes just how far it has gone.

One of the ways in which terrorism ends is when a terrorist group is faced with dwindling support arising from outrage at moral atrocities. There is a large moral distinction to be made between killing Turkish soldiers – and let me be crystal clear that I do not condone such PKK actions at all – and killing and maiming civilians with bombs placed in the middle of cities. The PKK pretty clearly realizes the danger here, which accounts for its widely derided denial of responsibility. If this attack cuts into the PKK’s support and contributes in any small way to the end of its terrorism campaign, then at least the senseless killing of nine Turks will perhaps be a spur to a better and more peaceful Turkey down the road. Reduced support for the PKK and a genuine political solution to the Kurdish issue are the only ways in which the conflict between the Turkish government and the PKK will ever be resolved.

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