November 26, 2012 § 9 Comments
Like clockwork every 6-12 months, this weekend brought the now familiar news story informing us that Turkey and Israel are holding secret talks aimed at reconciling. As usual, this one has all of the elements that we’ve come to expect: backchannel negotiations between relatively powerless envoys, breathless claims that the two sides are not that far apart despite all evidence to the contrary, leaks from one side or the other that have everything to do with domestic politics and absolutely nothing to do with the two countries’ relationship, and a political situation at the top that leaves the talks destined to fail. My reaction is the same this time as it has been every other time, which is that the talks have as much chance of succeeding as Dick Morris does of getting a political prediction right. One of these times I am going to be wrong, but let me explain why I don’t think today is going to be that day.
First, the fundamentals of the situation have not changed. Turkey is still making three demands: an apology over the deaths of nine Turkish citizens aboard the Mavi Marmara, compensation for their families, and an end to the Gaza blockade. It is this last one that is the sticking point, since Israel has no intention of ending its enforcement of the Gaza blockade, particularly since the UN Palmer Commission ruled that the Israeli naval blockade of Gaza is legal under international law. Israel also feels that the blockade is none of Turkey’s business, anymore than it would be Israel’s business to insist that Turkey undertake a more lenient policy toward the PKK as a condition of resuming ties. Ahmet Davutoğlu reiterated on Sunday, however, that Turkey’s three demands are not subject to negotiation and thus unless a creative solution can be found to break this impasse (more on this below), these talks will meet the same fate as their forebears.
Second, when Feridun Sinirlioğlu and Yosef Chiechanover worked out language over an apology in the summer of 2011, it was ultimately scuttled when Bibi Netanyahu decided that Avigdor Lieberman’s hardline position against an apology presented too much of a political threat to him. Netanyahu was afraid that Lieberman would hammer him from the right if he apologized for the IDF’s actions, so the whole thing went nowhere. Fast forward to November 2012, and Lieberman is now even more powerful than he was two summers ago since Likud and his own Yisrael Beiteinu party are running in the January elections on a joint list. If Lieberman had the power to sabotage even a partial agreement over the language of an apology back when he was a much derided and often ignored foreign minister, his opposition this time will make the entire thing a non-starter.
Third, the January 22 election makes the timing of this almost impossible to pull off. The objections to issuing an apology and compensation for the Mavi Marmara come from Netanyahu’s right, and in the aftermath of Operation Pillar of Cloud, rightwing nationalist parties are polling much stronger than they were before. One of the latest polls has Jewish Home and National Union at 13 seats and Strong Israel at 4 seats, and while those parties can be expected to join a Likud-led coalition after the election, Netanyahu cannot afford to have them attacking him from the right before the election, even if their support wanes (which is likely). Making concessions to Turkey plays right into their hands, and it is something that the ever-cautious Netanyahu will be loathe to do.
Finally, and this last one cannot be stressed enough, Prime Minister Erdoğan’s rhetoric during the Gaza operation was so over the top and outside the lines of acceptable discourse and basic civility that no government would be able to just set that aside and continue along as if nothing happened, irrespective of what the status of the negotiations was before Israel launched Pillar of Cloud. Calling Israel a terrorist state of baby killers and denying that thousands of rockets being launched at civilians creates any right to self defense is the kind of thing that is tough to move past. If Erdoğan thinks that Israel is going to come and plead with Turkey to reconcile after his tirade, then his grasp of how governments operate is, to put it delicately, less than sound.
It’s pretty clear that the sudden leaking of these talks is coming from the Turkish side as part of Ankara’s effort to demonstrate its relevance in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. One cannot help but note the amateurish display of Erdoğan originally stating that there are zero contacts between Israel and Turkey to then have Davutoğlu claim a few days later that Turkey was “actively involved” in trying to broker a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas and that Ankara and Jerusalem were talking as part of that involvement. The fact that Turkey has essentially made itself irrelevant when it comes to anything involving Israel has been widely noted and the absurdity of Erdoğan’s positions is being criticized by Turks as well. Erdoğan and Davutoğlu are now furiously trying to spin the ceasefire as partly a Turkish achievement, but that is only believable insofar as it can be demonstrated that Turkey has any sway left at all with the Israelis. Hence the timing of this leak and Erdoğan letting it slip that Mossad head Tamir Pardo and MIT chief Hakan Fidan met in Cairo. All of a sudden, claiming that Turkey has absolutely no contacts with Israel has become a political loser and a source of criticism, and so the Turkish government is now trying to make it seem as if reconciliation is a possibility when the reality is that rapprochement between the two sides remains a distant dream given how things currently stand.
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.
November 21, 2012 § 11 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.
November 16, 2012 § 3 Comments
There are all sorts of reports and firsthand accounts over Twitter that Hamas has started shooting rockets at Jerusalem and Hamas itself has claimed that it shot a rocket toward the Knesset. It doesn’t appear that any rockets have hit Jerusalem proper, and it sounds as if they fell instead on Gush Etzion, which is a large settlement bloc south of Jerusalem. Where the rockets have landed is not as important as where they were intended to go though, and shooting at Jerusalem is a big, big deal for a couple of reasons.
First, the limited historical experience that Israelis have with this sort of thing is that Jerusalem is generally not targeted. During the Persian Gulf War, Saddam Hussein shot 42 Scuds at Israel and 39 of them landed, and they were all aimed at Tel Aviv and Haifa, but not at Jerusalem. During the 2006 war with Hizballah, Jerusalem was not targeted despite the rumored presence of long-range rockets in Hizballah’s arsenal. When Iran has made threats to attack Israel, Tel Aviv has been mentioned but not Jerusalem. The oft-stated Palestinian desire to liberate Jerusalem is a reference to pushing Israel out rather than destroying the city. Targeting Tel Aviv is not a surprise to Israelis, but sending large scale ordinance in the direction of Jerusalem is very much out of the ordinary.
Second, leaving aside the historical experience, there has been a presumption that Jerusalem would be left alone because of the makeup of its population and what the city contains. There is a large Palestinian population in East Jerusalem of over 200,000 people, and shooting notoriously unreliable and inaccurate rockets at Jerusalem is taking a huge chance of killing large numbers of Jerusalem’s Arab residents. While Hamas sent suicide bombers to Jerusalem with alarming frequency in the past, blowing up a bus or cafe in West Jerusalem meant killing large numbers of Jews. Sending rockets is a crap shoot, and while Jews are the obvious target, there is by no means a guarantee that Hamas will actually hit where they are aiming. In addition, Jerusalem is a patchwork mosaic of sites holy to Jews, Muslims, and Christians, whereas Tel Aviv and Haifa are not. Just imagine what would happen if a Hamas rocket hit the Old City and did any damage at all to the Temple Mount; the consequences of that are literally unimaginable.
Targeting Jerusalem is an enormous escalation and very risky, much more so than rockets toward Tel Aviv. Rocketing Tel Aviv to my mind guaranteed an eventual Israeli ground invasion, but attempting to bombard Jerusalem just exacerbates the situation to an exponential degree. Blake Hounshell tweeted earlier that Hamas firing at Jerusalem is the equivalent of scoring on your own goal, and I think that analogy is an apt one. It says to me that Hamas is getting desperate, and I think this move is going to backfire in a big way, both in terms of creating a more ferocious Israeli response and costing Hamas important points in the court of public opinion. Hamas is now acting in ways that could cause large numbers of Palestinian casualties and damage to Muslim holy sites, and I think that there will be consequences for this strategy.