Despite the Mavi Marmara incident being two and a half years in the past, its effects are still reverberating in Israel and Turkey and neither side is exactly covering itself with glory. On the contrary, both countries are in the midst of taking action directly related to the Gaza flotilla of 2010 that reflects poorly on each, and that does not inspire confidence for the future of Israeli-Turkish relations.
First is the less egregious example brought to us by Israel, which is the effort to bar National Democratic Assembly MK Hanin Zoabi from running in the January 22 election. Zoabi was the first Arab Israeli woman elected to the Knesset as a member of an Arab political party, and the Central Elections Committee is voting to bar her from running again based on charges that she does not support Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state and that she incites violence against the government. The first part of this equation stems from the fact that Zoabi decries Israel as racist for being a Jewish state and is openly and proudly anti-Zionist. The second part stems from Zoabi’s participation in the flotilla, as she was aboard the Mavi Marmara when it was boarded by IDF troops and afterwards blasted the IDF and accused it of deliberately killing people on board. It is for this latter reason that Likud MK Ofir Akunis submitted the petition to have Zoabi barred from the next Knesset, since there is an enormous amount of anger in Israel that a Knesset parliamentarian would take Turkey’s side against Israel and actually participate in a flotilla designed to break the Gaza naval blockade. In the past, petitions have been filed to ban parties, and this is again the case this time, but now we have the addition of going after Zoabi personally for her involvement in the flotilla.
There is no doubt that Zoabi is enormously critical of Israel, and there is also a strange cognitive dissonance involved when Zoabi uses her perch as an Arab Israeli elected to the Knesset on behalf of an Arab Israeli party to claim that Israel is fundamentally undemocratic. Nevertheless, one of the wonderful things about Israel is that someone like Zoabi can be elected to the Knesset and can express her opinions as loudly as she wants; this is precisely why arguments that Israel is not a democracy fall flat. Furthermore, Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein, who is not exactly a leftist, has urged the Central Elections Committee not to disqualify Zoabi because he says the evidence against her is not sufficient to do so. Once Zoabi is banned – the vote is not in question – she is almost certainly going to be reinstated by the High Court, but that does not make this episode any less discomforting. Democracies tolerate all types of unsavory and odious speech, and nobody has alleged that Zoabi herself engaged in violence or attacked IDF soldiers aboard the Mavi Marmara. Letting Zoabi continue to spout her view that Israel is not a democracy while doing so from the floor of the Knesset is a much better way of strengthening Israel than providing her with ammunition for her point.
While the move to kick Zoabi out of the Knesset is misguided, Turkey’s new effort to place heat on Israel over the flotilla is far more insidious. Turkish intelligence is now claiming that five of the IDF soldiers who boarded the Mavi Marmara were Turkish citizens who helped raid the ship and interrogate passengers, and it has sent their names to the prosecutor trying the case against IDF officers. According to this new information, which somehow nobody had ever mentioned for two and a half years until now, people on board the ship heard IDF soldiers talking in fluent Turkish and the alleged Turkish IDF members told the Turks whom they were interrogating that Israel had solicited them to be interpreters. In order to figure out who these people are, Turkey has investigated all of its citizens who traveled to Israel and back in the weeks before and after the flotilla, which means that the MIT is spending lots of time checking out Turkey’s Jewish community.
It is certainly in the realm of possibility that Israel sent Turkish translators to interrogate passengers, but I don’t buy the story for a second about Turkish Jews flying in to work for the IDF and then flying right back home when they were done. This is a not so subtle effort to intimidate Turkish Jews and create an implicit threat that if Israel does not apologize and pay compensation, it is Turkey’s Jewish community that will suffer the consequences. Hüseyin
Ersöz Oruç, who is the vice chair of the IHH (the group that organized the flotilla), declared that the five names are going to be published and that “everyone will know who the Turkish Jews are that served in the Israeli army and killed Turkish civilians on the Mavi Marmara.” This obviously is worrisome for Turkish Jews who now have to worry about reprisals and attacks upon their loyalty, which is even more absurd considering that a large portion of Turkish Jews purposely back away from Israel and go out of their way to stress that Judaism and Zionism are two separate things. Since Turkey’s efforts to pressure the Israeli government through traditional diplomatic means are not working, someone has made a decision to try new tactics and hit Israel in a sensitive spot by threatening the local Jewish community. As misguided as Likud MKs are in trying to throw Zoabi out of the Knesset over her support for a foreign government, it does not even begin to compare to threatening an entire minority community for nothing more than being Jews. I am confident that the Israeli High Court will do the right thing, and let’s hope that the Turkish government comes to its senses and does the right thing as well.