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.