Obama’s Israeli-Turkish Detente Goes Bust
Why the critics were right to pan Netanyahu's apology to Islamist-controlled Turkey.
(/sites/default/files/uploads/2013/07/2013-03-25T143853Z_663707091_GM1E93P1QIA01_RTRMADP_3_TURKEY-ISRAEL-ERDOGAN.jpg)Last March 22, at the tail-end of President Obama’s visit to Israel, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu “apologized” over the phone to Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan for the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident—in which Israeli commandos, in fighting for their lives against a club- and knife-wielding mob of Turkish Islamists, killed nine of the attackers.
The apology drew sharp criticism, mainly from Israeli and U.S. conservatives. Some blamed Netanyahu for allegedly cravenly giving in to Obama; some blamed Obama for allegedly pressuring Netanyahu into the move.
I didn’t join the critics at the time. First of all, there was Netanyahu’s wording. He told Erdogan he “apologized for operational errors that may have led to a loss of life.” In fact, it’s agreed in Israel that the commandos’ landing on the ship was poorly planned, and if done differently could have averted a violent eruption.
That doesn’t mean Israel actually had anything at all to apologize for. It didn’t; the Turkish side had instigated the aggression. But Netanyahu did not say he “apologized” for the fact that his soldiers had defended themselves, which indeed would have been deplorable. It was a nuance worth noting.
More importantly, though, I thought the “apology” might be justifiable as a realpolitik move if it led to restored Israeli-Turkish strategic cooperation. The critics pooh-poohed that possibility as well, stressing Erdogan’s nature as an anti-Israeli, anti-Semitic Islamist.
They had good foundations for saying that; but the history was a bit more complicated. Although Erdogan and his Islamist AKP had first taken office in 2003, the strategic relations had continued after that point. In 2005 Erdogan visited Israel with a large group of businessmen, held talks with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, laid a wreath at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, and said Iran’s nuclear program was a threat not just to Israel but to the whole world.
True, relations started to sour before the Mavi Marmara when Erdogan—not a huge fan of Israeli self-defense against terrorists—objected to Israel’s 2008-2009 operation against Hamas in Gaza. Already in October 2009, Erdogan barred Israel from participating in an aerial exercise with Turkey, the U.S., and Italy.
By last spring, though, it seemed that common Israeli and Turkish concerns about the Syrian crisis and Iran—greased by some propitiatory words from Netanyahu—could lead to at least a low-key resumption of ties. In April it was reported that Israeli national security adviser Yaakov Amidror was in Ankara to get Turkey’s agreement, in exchange for Israeli favors, to Israeli use of a key Turkish airbase. An Israeli military source called Turkey, before the 2010 crisis, “our biggest aircraft carrier.”
By now, though, there have been no further reports in that vein. Israeli-Turkish talks have stalled, and there has been no normalization of relations or exchange of ambassadors. It appears that, regarding Erdogan’s disposition toward Israel ca. 2013, the critics were right.
Indeed, as Walter Russell Mead notes, Erdogan and his AKP have—quite in contrast to any warming toward Israel—been heavily playing the anti-Semitism card in reacting to recent Turkish protests against Islamist rule. Erdogan attributes the protests to “dark forces” and the “interest lobby.” While these are understood as anti-Semitic code words, other elements in his party have been more explicit.
Mead quotes from an article in The Turkey Analyst:
the main pro-AKP daily newspaper Yeni Şafak claimed that it had uncovered evidence that the…protests had been orchestrated by the “Jewish lobby” in the U.S. and even published the names and photographs of a number of prominent Jewish Americans who it alleged were the leaders of the conspiracy. The Yeni Şafak article was publicly endorsed by a succession of leading members of the AKP…. On July 1, 2013, the Turkish Cihan news agency quoted Deputy Prime Minister Beşir Atalay as publicly accusing the “Jewish Diaspora” of responsibility for the…protests….
Erdogan himself has not explicitly identified Jews as being responsible…. Yet neither has he condemned or attempted to distance himself from the claims. Indeed, he has instructed several state institutions…to launch an investigation to uncover evidence of suspicious financial trading by foreign financiers before and during the protests and to identify the foreign “dark forces” he is convinced are trying to undermine him.
Given the timing of Netanyahu’s telephone chat with Erdogan last March—at the end of Obama’s visit—it can reasonably be inferred that, whether or not Netanyahu deserves to be blamed for going along with it, the Israeli “apology” and supposed reconciliation was Obama’s idea. Has Obama learned anything from the failure of that idea?
The question is not meant to be rhetorical. Last week another Islamist party, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, was overthrown. As with Erdogan, Obama had shown considerable sympathy toward the Brotherhood. The fact that he’s now continuing military aid to the Egyptian army that overthrew them suggests Obama has realized that the Brotherhood was not such a positive force after all.
The AKP, unlike the Brotherhood, has been steadily arrogating power to itself for a decade, and it seems unlikely that the Turkish anti-AKP protests can go as far as the Egyptian anti-Brotherhood protests went. The next Turkish national elections, though, are in 2015. Can Obama start seeing the Turkish picture more clearly, as he and his administration seem (belatedly) to be reading it better in Egypt?
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