It’s been a rough week in Israel. After PM Netanyahu refused to offer more than regrets for the flotilla incident after the release of an ambiguous official report, Turkey sent home Israel’s ambassador and announced plans for a range of sanctions. Meanwhile, reports have emerged that recently retired US defense secretary Robert Gates was a harsh critic of Israel behind the scenes, and that his criticisms were not met with objections by other senior officials. Either one of these events happening alone would be unsettling; the two happening in the same week surely has Israeli leaders sweating from more than just the late summer heat.
The Turkish affair comes amidst a steady deterioration of relations. The rise of the Islamist-lite AK Party in Israel’s ally was very worrisome to some Israelis (and many Turks) who see its moderate rhetoric as a mask for a darker agenda. Erdogan, Gul, and Davutoglu led the Republic away from an increasingly unfriendly Europe and towards greater influence in the Middle East, with little regard for the alignments of the factions from which they sought influence. Realists found this tactic quite familiar and thus downplayed reports of a fundamental Turkish shift even when Ankara’s stance after the flotilla incident was effectively pro-Hamas. This was a credible position—while the rhetoric flying between Turkey and Israel was heated, cooperation continued behind the scenes, including in crucial areas like security.
The zero change thesis is now becoming harder to maintain. Erdogan has promised the total suspension of all dimensions of Turkish-Israeli relations, including not just military aspects, but also trade (the latter being $3 billion per annum). Erdogan is prone to overstatement, and an anonymous official later said that the Prime Minister was only referring to a stoppage of military trade, rather than all commercial activity. However, this is still (to paraphrase another famous misspeaker in contemporary global leadership) a big deal. The falling out has now begun to damage the hard elements of the relationship—a changed Turkey is all but undeniable.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivers his infamous lecture to Israeli President Shimon Peres in 2009. (Image via Monde)
Filed under Iran, Israel, Turkey
Mideast journalist Patrick Seale has a new column in the Diplomat asserting that Iran has “defeated” Obama, whose alleged policies of “demonizing” the Islamic Republic continue to throw away a golden chance at engagement. It’s unusual to see a piece so full of errors in a major publication, so I felt it would be worth addressing.
Obama did misread Iran, but in precisely the opposite direction from that which Seale alleges. The candidate Obama took a very open, soft stance to Iran, making promises of face-to-face meetings with no preconditions. Obama meant it, too–it was, in technical terms, a costly signal, for Clinton and McCain criticized him for it relentlessly, yet he stuck to his guns. Obama thought that by opening America’s ears to Tehran, there would be a change in calculations as the mullahs realized that the US was not an eternal enemy and that our two nations share some common interests and, beneath the chador of the state’s harsh Islamism, a lot of common culture. Those taking this position have a lot of explaining to do–how can America even be neutral towards a major proliferator and sponsor of terror, how can it ignore the soldiers dead from Iranian bombs in Iraq, how can it ignore the tragic repression of one of the world’s most ancient cultures? However, it’s not a totally indefensible position by any means. There are always glimmers of hope emerging from beneath the system, and the hardline stance of the regime gives it few friends–shouldn’t it want to reach out? Can’t the perennial appearance of reformists be a sign of a chance for detente?
Obama's openness to Iran was widely criticized, but it didn't last. (Image via patdollard.com)
Israel’s foreign minister and head of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, Avigdor Lieberman, is reportedly blocking the sales of Israeli arms to Turkey. Lieberman has been prone to dramatic behavior in the past, and his credentials as a hardliner cannot be disputed, but this decision takes him to a whole new plain: the plain of foolishness. I try to take alternative perspectives, to see this through his eyes, and it still doesn’t make sense. Israel and Turkey have a longstanding security relationship, including extensive arms deals. The flotilla incident last summer caused a major public falling-out between the two states, but the security cooperation continued without trouble. Still, some on the Israeli right see Turkey as having made a dramatic Islamist turn in recent years, and see no daylight between the governing Justice and Development Party and the Muslim Brotherhood or similar movements. To them, Turkey’s public reaction to the flotilla incident negated the private nonreaction. To them, cooperation with Turkey is cooperation with a country that is a non-friend at best.
We cannot deny that Turkey’s “Arab Turn” will lead to divergences of interest. Turkey is cozy with Syria and tried (with Brazil) to help Iran mend its differences with the IAEA. Turkey cannot go too deeply into the Arab world without facing questions about its ties with Israel, and without being forced to feign interest in the Palestinian cause. However, Turkey is playing a double game and keeping the back channels with Israel wide open. Israel has a chance to use its formidable arms industry to repair any damage to the relationship that wasn’t superficial. Avigdor Lieberman’s confused image of that relationship could seriously hinder those repairs.
Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, making the face one should make when reading about his latest move. (Image via World Military Forum)
Turkey, under Erdogan and Davutoglu, has taken a much-publicized turn towards the Arab world. The common theory is that, with their EU membership bid making no progress, they’ve decided to seek influence elsewhere. Turkey has pursued a foreign policy of “zero problems” with its neighbors, and has attempted to turn into a new regional powerbroker–for instance, it defied the United States to offer Iran a compromise on their nuclear program. The maneuver has made PM Erdogan a consistently popular figure among Arab publics, and many were lauding Turkey’s newfound diplomatic independence and leadership and calling their new direction “neo-Ottomanism” (said with a straight face, since almost nobody in the Middle East looks back at the Ottoman era with pride, with the exception of a few nutty fundamentalists).
The handshake that's killing Turkey: Assad meets Erdogan. (Image via indynewsisrael)
Several former American presidents. Carter, Clinton, and Bush have assumed elder statesman roles; Nixon's soiled reputation made this an impossibility.
I encourage you all to read this post by Bahraini blogger Burajaa, which discusses several possible future elder statesmen of the Arab World. I especially agree with his nomination of Rafik Hariri–his international background and continued symbolic influence testify to what a giant he was. I’d like to add a few potential future elder statesmen myself.