March 25, 2013 § 8 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 21, 2013 § 2 Comments
Today’s guest post is brought to you by my friend Joel Braunold, who heads up Strategic Partnerships for the OneVoice Movement. Joel is a keen observer of Israeli politics and a passionate advocate for a two state solution, and he has been keeping his eye on Naftali Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi party and its efforts to carry out the settlement movement’s aims. The Yesha Council, which is the most prominent settler group, has released a new strategy paper coinciding with President Obama’s visit to Israel, and Joel has an extended take (see his quick take at Open Zion here) on what it portends for the new Knesset and government. You can read more of Joel’s work on his blog at Haaretz.com and his Twitter handle is @braunold.
With President Obama visiting Israel, many groups are trying to get his attention so they can let the president know what they think he should do. Included within the pleas from the peace camp and the ‘Free Pollard’ camp is a document prepared by the Yesha council titled, “Judea and Samaria – It’s Jewish, It’s Vital, It’s Realistic.”
Questions answered within this Kafkaesque document include: why the demographics are on the settlers’ side, why the Palestinians are stealing water from Israel, and what is the legal history of Israel’s settlement enterprise. Most interesting, however, is the nine-step plan that the Yesha council has created at the end of the document to fulfill their vision.
The main tool that the Yesha council has to achieve its vision are its political advocates in the Knesset and in the government. Their building in the West Bank happens through the good graces of the state authorities. Of course the main party for the Yesha council is Habayit Hayehudi, but they also have representation through Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu and a scattering of MKs in some of the center parties. Members of their communities operate across the center and right of the Israeli political spectrum.
Looking at the nine steps we can see the underlying Habayit Hayehudi strategy during the coalition talks. Additionally we can start to make sense of some of the other Knesset moves and statements by members of the settler community on the national stage.
Step 1: Renewing the strong belief in the supremacy of the Jewish claim to the Jewish Homeland and the justness of taking measures to maintain control of it
In the coalition agreement between Likud and Habayit Hayehudi was a bill to make the Jewishness of the state supreme. This is a redo of the Avi Dichter bill from the last Knesset. No one is quite sure of which version will hit the Knesset, if it gets through Tzipi Livni, but it is part of a big move to decouple the concepts of Jewish and democratic state as equal and promote the former at the expense of the latter. The motivations behind this become clear in a strategy that is tied into biblical land claims and preparing for a situation where the civil rights of millions of Palestinians are going to have to be restricted.
Step 2: Uniting the nation and its leadership
Throughout the coalition talks, Bennett was the peacemaker between Yair Lapid and Bibi Netanyahu and has pledged to be a leader for all of Israel, not just the settlers. His party has also taken over key ministries that can affect the cost of living across Israel. Bennett has been very keen to be seen as responding to the J14 protests and be a transformative politician who can transcend the tribal politics of the moment and be one of the new leaders of Israel alongside Lapid. By also slipping in the raising of the electoral threshold into the coalition agreement, he can ride the wave of Habayit Hayehudi current popularity and force others from his camp to work with him if they want any representation at all. By forcing people into a broad tent he gives himself a broader appeal and solidifies himself and by extension the Yesha council firmly into the mainstream.
Step 3: Military strength and control of the territory by the security establishment
Though many ex-military and security men veer to the left after they retire from service (just see The Gatekeepers), the new Defense Minister, Moshe Ya’alon, most definitely veers to the right and was the first choice of the settler community. Though the security establishment is pretty much entrenched in the West Bank already, Ehud Barak had been the thorn in the side of the Yesha council. With him removed the security establishment can work in concert with the Yesha council in helping it expand both from the Knesset and on the ground itself.
Step 4: The elimination of terror and cessation of incitement in Palestinian schools
While all Israelis want to see an end to terror and incitement, the previous government’s flat-out rejection of the State Department’s school textbook report demonstrates a complete unwillingness to examine the issue of incitement on both sides of the border. It is essential to demonize the Palestinian national narrative while maintaining that individual Palestinians are ok and stating that the settlements actually have had great relationships with the communities pre the first intifada.
Step 5: Creating a situation where it becomes clear to the international community that another state west of the Jordan River is not viable
The serious policy community is split about whether the two-state solution has already been killed by the settlements and the Yesha council or if it is merely on life support. Needless to say, the Yesha council is well on its way to pulling the plug. The new Deputy Foreign Minister, Ze’ev Elkin, already ascribes to this point of view. Though many advocates of one-state agree that the settlements have killed the two-state solution they do not share the Yesha council’s vision of what a one-state solution would look like. The power and establishment will be with the Yesha council and in doing so it will have a tremendous momentum on the ground when two-states is officially abandoned to fulfill its vision before anyone else gets a look in. Yes, Israel will lose friends and allies and there might be a brain drain that could seriously affect the economy. But I sadly have less faith that pressure will force Israel to give up its raison d’état of providing the Jewish people with self-defense and power by giving those they have been occupying full civic rights. The death of the two-state solution will mean the Yesha council has won, and read the rest of their document to see how they view Palestinians.
Step 6: The further immigration of one million Jews to Israel to secure a permanent Jewish majority in Israel
In the coalition talks, Bennett managed to carve the Diaspora portfolio out of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and into his own portfolio. The reason for this now becomes crystal clear, as he is desperate to get more Jews to immigrate. Bennett demanding this portfolio always seemed odd. The settlements are often the largest bone of contention between Israel and her Diaspora (amongst Jews who are engaged at least). Passing on this responsibility to the former general secretary of the Yesha council looks on the surface to be a recipe for disaster. This step helps us understand the real consequence of why this demand was made. What will be interesting to see is how Bennett attempts to bring Diaspora Jews to Israel and how their aliyah will be tied to step 7. Is the aim just to lock in the demographics regardless of where the Jews live or to get them to move to the West Bank and lock in the settlements? We will have to wait and see but watch to see where new job incentives will be made for new immigrants, as Bennett has the ability through Trade and Industry to create incentives where he chooses.
Step 7: One million Jews in Judea and Samaria, tripling its Jewish population
With the housing and trade ministries, Habayit Hayehudi can now start working on this. The proof will be in where the new low-income housing is built. Even if just restricted into the settlement blocs, if this plan is being followed the aim will be a massive increase in settlers. As with step 6, we will have to see if alyiah and settlement are linked. President Bush (41) conditioned the aid to help resettle the Russian Jews on them not being housed in the West Bank. One other important step to remember is that Bennett received the public diplomacy portfolio as well. Through this he can push the settlements into the official Israeli government narrative both at home and abroad.
Step 8: The creation of large residential areas surrounding the current communities of Judea and Samaria
Housing, Trade, Knesset Finance chair – between these three portfolios and a willing defense minister the sky is the limit on step 8. I predict the concept of settlement bloc will expand and large scale projects will begin to be planned as expansions in key areas. Even more so then Yaalon, Danny Danon is a particular fan of the Yesha council and he is Deputy Defense Minister.
Step 9: The execution of a construction, development and economic plan for the million residents of Judea and Samaria
Habayit Hayehudi has already indicated that they would rather release prisoners and transfer taxes to the PA than freeze settlement construction. Looking at this nine-step plan, it is easy to see why Bennett would rather give any other ‘confidence building measure’ than allow the slowing of the settler population. The one thing that the party cannot allow is a settlement freeze as it destroys the plan above.
All of this should be seen as nothing less than a strategic effort to kill the two-state solution. Keep in mind that Prime Minister Netanyahu just committed his new government to two states for two peoples in his joint press conference with President Obama on Wednesday. Looking at how this is planned out, it is clear that the only thing that could stop this from happening is freezing settlement construction. The sad fact is that a settlement freeze has already been tossed by the US administration as a failed attempt.
The Yesha council is very open about its aims, objectives and methods. If people want to do more than pay lip service to the idea of two-states, they must not only oppose the Yesha council at every turn of this plan but offer their own step by step approach to how to create a two-state reality today. Though it is the establishment opinion that two-states will happen, those opposing it literally are executing on a plan to kill it. Those of us who wish to see it come about must equally set out a plan and today start building facts on the ground to make it so.
March 19, 2013 § 2 Comments
I am back from two weeks in Turkey, and it was easily two of the best weeks that I have spent anywhere. The meetings were nearly all informative, the speakers engaging, and it was wonderful to spend so much intense time with a great group of friends. Not to mention that Turkish cuisine is my favorite type of food, spring in Istanbul cannot be beat, and I barely had to pay a dime for anything. There was so much to digest that one blog post is never going to cover all of it, but there were some larger themes that repeatedly emerged, however, and some big picture thoughts that crossed my mind, so here goes.
I have written before about the corrosive and long lasting effects of military intervention on political institutions, and I have of course spent countless hours of my life thinking about this issue with regard to Turkey, but in the context of conversations over the past couple of weeks, it occurred to me that Turkish groups and institutions are still subconsciously operating under the shadow of this history despite the widespread belief that military coups are a thing of the past. I noted last week at how open and straightforward individual Turkish politicians were when speaking with us, but there was a stark contrast between individual forthrightness and general organizational or institutional forthrightness. The institutions that govern Turkey or that are influential in Turkish society are unusually opaque, with uncertainty over their true goals and motives. For instance, I spent a lot of time debating with my Turkish friends about the AKP and whether it is an Islamist party or not. As readers of this blog are well aware by now, I don’t think that the AKP is an Islamist political party, but rather is a political party run by Islamists, and that the focus should be on the AKP’s authoritarianism rather than its alleged Islamism. One particularly smart Turk and I argued over this point repeatedly, with my challenging her to point to any policy that the AKP has put forth in over a decade of rule that can be deemed Islamist, and her just as adamant that the AKP only does not advance Islamist policies because it doesn’t have the backing for it, but that once it transforms society it will rule as openly Islamist. We went back and forth, but the heart of the problem is that nobody can satisfactorily answer this question because we just have no way of knowing. Given AKP leaders’ past statements and history, they might be playing a long game, or they might actually be what they seem, which is a pro-growth socially conservative party with authoritarian tendencies but not harboring ambitions of Islamist rule. Because the AKP keeps things deliberately ambiguous, there is simply no way to say one way or the other.
Similarly, I had lots of conversations with trip participants, journalists, outside friends, and acquaintances about the Gülen movement and what precisely the Gülenists are up to. It is evident that the movement’s activities in Turkey are different from its activities elsewhere, with my best guess being that in Turkey it is engaged in revenge against its former antagonists and in the U.S. it is trying to bring Turks into the country on work visas and make as much money as possible. Nevertheless, I can’t say for sure, and neither can anyone else. The Gülen movement cages its intentions and motivations so that it can be difficult, if not actually impossible, to ascertain what it really wants or what the end game is. One organization we met with while in Turkey seemed to have the hallmarks of a Gülenist group in some ways, but then one of its representatives was railing against religion and the Gülen movement in a side conversation, all of which made for a great guessing game later on that day. Another group we met with portrayed itself as a straightforward economic and trade organization, and then over the course of an hour of questioning made it clear that it actually had a seriously political and religious agenda, which you would never know from the group’s official website, pamphlets, or statements. I should also point out that none of these organizations can be deemed underground, and in fact are all very close to the corridors of official power in Turkey, and yet they feel the need to hide the ball.
All of this got me reflecting on why this might be, and I think the answer has to lie in Turkey’s history of military interventions in civilian politics. Irrespective of how eviscerated the army might now be, when it has a history of executing and jailing politicians, activists, journalists, and anyone else who ran afoul of its prerogatives, that is an extremely difficult thing for any of its potential opponents to overcome. The AKP now rules the country virtually unopposed, but its members have a history with the military. The same goes for the Gülenists, and many other religious groups. Organizations have an incentive to hide their true motives in order to give themselves plausible deniability since the specter of military rule still haunts Turkey, even if the possibility of a coup has been consigned to the dustbin of history. It is a remarkable thing to see powerful groups feel the need to stay closed to the outside world, and it is yet another reminder of how political patterns are incredibly resistant to change and how institutions can remain affected by past events long into the future.
Next, the one issue that was brought up time and time again by politicians and business leaders was Turkey’s energy consumption and the difficulty of meeting the country’s energy needs. Turkey’s current account deficit can almost entirely be attributed to its imports of natural gas from Russian and Iran, and it is not in a position to do anything about it because it has no natural resources with which to create domestic energy supply of its own and is locked into extremely onerous contracts with its foreign suppliers. Nobody we spoke to had a good solution for fixing this problem, and while nuclear power might do the trick, my friend Aaron Stein has convincingly demonstrated that this is not in the cards any time soon. I don’t know what the answer is, but there is a lot of money to be made in figuring out a way for Turkey to meet its explosive energy demands while reducing its reliance on Russian natural gas.
Finally, let me make a plea on behalf of the Young Turkey Young America program. Because of the sequester, the State Department is unlikely to fund YTYA next year, which will be a huge loss. The U.S. and Turkey need each other for a host of reasons, and this program forges bonds and relationships between future leaders in both countries that will withstand the test of time. It is also a force multiplier, because everyone in the program is now engaged in promoting the bilateral relationship in one way or another, whether it be through civil society projects, op-ed writing, educational initiatives, or cultural events, and in so doing spreads the message of the importance of ties between the U.S. and Turkey and a greater understanding of each other’s politics, society, and culture. If this enormously valuable and important program is to continue past this year with a new crop of participants, some other source of funding has to be located. So if you are reading this and you have any interest at all in ensuring that U.S.-Turkey ties remain strong going forward and you work for an organization that has the means to help out in sponsoring the program in the future, please get in touch with me.
P.S. For those of you who have asked for my thoughts on the new Israeli government, I may get to it later this week or next, but do not feel an overwhelming need to write about it given that everyone seems to think that the new coalition will not last long, which I predicted on election day two months ago. As things have turned out as I expected (including the makeup of the coalition) I don’t feel the need to rehash things. As for President Obama’s visit, the market for analysis on this is so oversaturated with predictions, advice for the president, advice for Israelis, and general peace process commentary that there’s nothing left to be said about a visit that is not going to have much of an effect on anything. The executive summary is, don’t expect any big pronouncements from either side, and count on Obama and Netanyahu pretending to have smoothed over any differences between them.
March 13, 2013 § 6 Comments
One year ago today I sat down at my laptop, signed up for a WordPress account, thought for five minutes about what to name my blog, and started writing. Although I hoped someone would notice, I had very little expectation that anyone outside of my family and friends would read it, and I just wanted to use it as an outlet to get my thoughts down in some sort of regular fashion as I had been frustrated at repeatedly sending pitches to places like Foreign Policy and the Atlantic and rarely having them accepted. One year later, the attention O&Z has gotten has outpaced anything that I anticipated, and I am truly grateful to all of my readers for listening to what I have to say and engaging me with your comments, emails, and responses. There are few things that give me more enjoyment than meeting someone new who turns out to be a reader of the blog, and interacting and debating with other folks in these arenas of Israeli politics and Turkish politics has led to a bevy of new friendships and professional contacts and immensely enriched my own knowledge and understanding of Israel and Turkey. The circle of people who seriously study one or both of these countries is growing, and I hope that even more people join the chorus of voices in writing about these two places in one form or another. For evidence that blogging is a worthwhile endeavor, just take a gander at my list of publications and note how many of them came pre-O&Z and how many of them are from the past year. So a sincere and heartfelt thank you to anyone who has ever made their way over to this corner of the Internet, I hope something I have written has made you think whether or not you have agreed with it, and I’ll do my best to keep writing about issues that I feel should be highlighted. In the meantime, since I doubt there is even a minyan of people who read my first post back on March 13, 2012, I am reproducing it below since it still applies one year later.
This is a blog about Turkey. And Israel. And Turkey and Israel. As someone who has lived in, written about, and studied both countries intently, I spend a good chunk of my day thinking about the politics of each. There is a lot of good commentary out there on Israeli and Turkish politics and current affairs, but I think I come from a unique enough place to add my voice to the din.
Over the past few years, in response to the domestic politics of each country and exacerbated by the Mavi Marmara flotilla affair, there is a growing trend among commentators and analysts who feel the need to pick sides and institute a mutually exclusive dynamic where you can be either “pro-Turkey” or “pro-Israel.” It escapes me why this has to be the case, but it is nevertheless largely the state of affairs that exists. This blog is an attempt to move past this dynamic. I love the culture, language, history, and general environment of both countries, and I also recognize that both of them are deeply flawed. I think that one can comment on both, considered separately and together, without letting one’s feelings about either of them adversely affect one’s analysis. This blog is an attempt to put forth what I hope will be an interesting take on the geopolitics of two important states without the animosity that characterizes lots of the commentary about both.
Aside from my own academic and professional interest, Turkey and Israel are fascinating to study in their own right. As I have written in a different (and far more distinguished!) venue, Israel and Turkey are remarkably similar. Both are non-Arab countries in the Middle East seeking to attain regional hegemonic status and are the two strongest military powers in the region; both were founded by staunch secularists who thought that the influence of religion would wane over time and yet both countries now find themselves with increasingly religious populations and are struggling to balance the religious with the secular; both are dealing with similar foreign policy problems; both have significant populations either within their borders or under their control that would like to form an autonomous state; and until recently the two were firm allies who remain linchpins of American strategy in the Middle East.
Despite this, Turkey and Israel seem to be moving in opposite directions in the eyes of the world. Turkey is widely seen as ascendant, with a strong economy, a growing hand in world geopolitics, and a foreign minister widely respected and viewed as one of the world’s influential thinkers. In contrast, Israel is viewed by many as a country under siege, with an imminent demographic problem, a rapidly deteriorating relationship with its most important Arab neighbor and ally, and most crucially a possible war with Iran on the horizon. Tracking these developments over the next few years as the aftershocks of the Arab Spring continue to be felt will be fascinating to me, and I hope to others as well.
So there you go. I hope to make this blog a valuable resource for commentary, analysis, and links on all things related to Israel and Turkey, and pick up some readers along the way. And given my past academic life and other interests, don’t be surprised to see some ruminations along the way on constitutional issues related to war and civil liberties, the Boston Red Sox, the politics of the American Jewish community, or why Parks and Recreation might be the best sitcom in the history of network television.
March 11, 2013 § 1 Comment
Apologies for not doing a better job of blogging while in Turkey, but last week was a very busy one. Now that we have left Ankara and moved on to Istanbul, it seems like a good time to set down some brief thoughts on what I found particularly interesting in our meetings with Turkish politicians of all stripes and what it means for the future of U.S.-Turkish relations. When I say politicians of all stripes, I mean it: so far we have spoken with, among others, Deputy Prime Minister Ali Babacan, AKP co-founder and MP Reha Denemeç, Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Volkan Bozkir, CHP vice chairman and MP Faruk Loğoğlu, and MHP deputy chairman Tuğrul Türkeş. This is a very influential group but also a fascinating one, and taking the sum total of what they said has made for a good overview of the state of things here. All of these meetings were off the record and so I cannot go into particulars, but there have been some general themes running throughout conversations with nearly everyone we have spoken with that I can talk about in a broader context.
First, I must note that compared to U.S. politicians – and this includes private and off the record meetings I have been in with them – the Turkish politicians on this trip have been unusually open, honest, and forthright. They have defended their positions without trying to hedge or sugarcoat some of the rougher edges, and have rarely tailored their messages to what they think the audience in front of them wants to hear. Conversations with politicians from the AKP, CHP, and MHP have at times begun to approach being heated, and everyone we have spoken with has handled anything thrown their way. I myself have not shied away from asking tough questions about issues such as Israel, Patriot missiles, positions on Syria, realistic chances of joining the EU, differences between the PKK and Hamas, and others, and nearly every question has been answered in a straightforward way. Whether I agree with the answers or not, I greatly appreciate the engagement with the questions. I tend to think that politicians are the same everywhere in terms of being slippery and evasive, and that has been the case here too in some instances, but I have been pleasantly surprised so far particularly when comparing the people we have met to politicians back home.
Second, before leaving on this trip last week I observed that the relationship between Turkey and the U.S. is very much based on mutual interests rather than a sense of shared values or culture, as is the case with the U.S. and other countries in Europe or the U.S.-Israeli relationship. So far relations between the two countries have been framed exactly in the language of common interests, and while one official we spoke with talked about the importance of shared values, he failed to provide any concrete examples and went on to talk about shared interests instead. I happen to think that there are indeed values that bind the U.S. and Turkey together, whether it be democracy, secular government with fairly religious societies, etc. but on an official level the relationship is rooted in realpolitik, and everyone on both sides appears to realize that. As I noted before, what this means is that Turkey needs to be particularly careful about continuing to demonstrate its value as an ally, as it does not have a large base of support within the U.S. domestically upon which to fall back should there be a perception that Turkey is not as helpful as it could be. This is what happened following the Grand National Assembly’s decision not to allow the U.S. to use Turkey as a staging ground before the Iraq War, and another situation like that could easily crop up in the future.
Finally, the U.S. embassy staff in Ankara has an extremely clear-eyed and realistic view of the political situation in Turkey and the challenges that might crop up between the two countries, and it was extremely encouraging to be able to talk frankly with such a smart and talented group. Whether it be a keen grasp of the inherent political constraints on the Turkish government (and we all know that I can’t resist a good domestic political explanation for foreign policy moves) or an exposition of Turkey’s options for dealing with Syria, I cannot express enough how impressive I found our diplomats in Ankara. They gave me a lot to think about, including one historical angle on the U.S.-Turkey relationship from a standout State Department officer that I have been pondering all week, and I have no doubt at all that whatever issues or problems arise in the future, our embassy folks in Turkey are beyond well-equipped to handle them.
Many more meetings this week with politicians, think tankers, business people, and civil society groups, so hopefully more thoughts to come. And as always, there is nothing like being in Istanbul…