Opinion | Columnists

The price of Tel Aviv’s ‘apology’

Despite assurances by Turkey that its policies regarding Israel and the Palestinians remain as principled as ever, there is little doubt that a hasty shift is underway and this is causing much confusion and inconsistency

  • By Ramzy Baroud, Special to Gulf News
  • Published: 20:00 April 9, 2013
  • Gulf News

  • Image Credit: AFP
  • Benjamin Netanyahu

Writing in the right-wing FrontPage magazine on April 1, Joseph Puder reiterated the supposed worry in Israel that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s half-hearted apology to Turkey for the murder of nine Turkish activists in May 2010 could open a “Pandora’s box”.

“In fact,” Puder asserts with peculiar confidence, “an Arab diplomat stated last Sunday that some Arab states are considering the possibility of demanding that Israel apologise for killings in the Occupied Territories and in Lebanon — just as Israel has apologised to Turkey over the Mavi Marmara”.

Arabs rarely demand apologies from Israel. Instead, along with many other countries, they demand an end to military belligerence and occupation of Palestinian, Lebanese and Syrian territories, in accordance with international and humanitarian law. An “apology” for the killing of many thousands and the subjugation of whole nations will not suffice.

Speaking on behalf of “Israelis”, Puder expects an apology from Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan for “his provocative actions against Israel and his anti-Semitism”.

The “anti-Semitism” reference is particularly interesting. At a UN conference in Vienna on February 27, Erdogan had referred to Zionism as a crime against humanity. The statement sent shock-waves among Israeli supporters, especially those who wished to see Israeli-Turkish relations return to their old status before Israeli commandos descended on the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara, killing and wounding many.

Writing in Al Monitor, Tulin Daloglu linked Erdogan’s remarks to the March 1 visit to Turkey by the newly-appointed US Secretary of State, John Kerry. “Erdogan had expected him to extend an invitation to meet [Barack] Obama at the White House,” Daloglu wrote. “He did not receive one.” The reason, according to an unnamed US official: “His remarks on Zionism had hurt the bilateral relationship.”

In some ways, international acquiescence to Zionism is an American success story linked to its triumph over the Soviet Union at the end of the Cold War. In November 1975, UN General Assembly Resolution (UNGAR) 3379 declared that “Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination,” for it provided the needed historical and political discourses through which Palestine’s original inhabitants were massacred and violently uprooted, as their villages and towns were destroyed or claimed by a different, mostly European race. However, in December 1991, international balances of powers had dramatically shifted in favour of Israel and its US-western benefactors. Without having to alter any of the notions deemed abhorrent by UNGA, Zionism had magically ceased to be racist.

To remain an American ally, Erdogan is expected to toe the American line. In a visit to Denmark on March 30, the Turkish prime minister attempted to negotiate a balanced approach to the controversy ignited by his earlier statement. In an interview with the Danish newspaper, Politiken, he insisted that his criticism of Israel is focused on “some critical issues,” and is “directed especially towards Israeli policies on Gaza”. “On the other hand, we have recognised Israel’s existence within 1967 borders based on a two-state solution,” he said.

Probing the issue further on April 4, in the Hurriyet Daily News, Mustafa Akyol wrote that Erdogan was unlikely to be a “committed Anti-Zionist”, “because it is the official policy of the Erdogan government to support a ‘two-state solution’ in the Holy Land ... Anyone who supports the two-state solution can really not be an ‘anti-Zionist’ at the same time”.

Despite assurances by Turkey that its policies regarding Israel and the Palestinians remain as principled as ever, there is little doubt that a hasty shift is underway. This is causing much confusion and inconsistency between Turkey’s official discourse and conduct. The source of that confusion — apart from the appalling violence in Syria and earlier in Libya and other Arab Spring upheavals — is Turkey’s own mistakes.

The Turkish government’s inconsistencies regarding Israel highlight earlier discrepancies in other political contexts. There was a time when Turkey’s top foreign policy priority included reaching out diplomatically to Arab and Muslim countries. Then, we spoke of a paradigm shift, whereby Ankara was repositioning its political centre, reflecting perhaps economic necessity, but also cultural shifts within its own society. It seemed that the East vs West debate was skilfully being resolved by politicians of the Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Erdogan, along with Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, appeared to have obtained a magical non-confrontational approach to Turkey’s historic political alignment. ‘The Zero Problems’ policy allows Turkey to brand itself as a bridge between two worlds. The country’s economic growth and strategic import to various geopolitical spheres allowed it to escape whatever price was meted out by Washington and its European allies as a reprimand for its bold political moves — including Erdogan’s unprecedented challenge of Israel.

Indeed, there was a link between the growing influence of Turkey among Arab and Islamic countries and Turkey’s challenge to Israel’s violent behaviour in Palestine and Lebanon and its rattling against Syria and Iran. Turkey’s return to its political roots was unmistakable. Yet, Washington could not simply isolate Ankara and the latter shrewdly advanced its own power and influence with that knowledge in mind. Even the bizarre anti-Turkish statements by Israeli officials sounded more like incoherent rants than actual foreign policy.

For a short while, Turkey’s political fortunes were boosted by the early phases of the Arab Spring. Then, much hope was placed on the rise of popular movements in countries that have been disfigured by Arab dictators and their western benefactors.

However, the euphoria of change created many blind spots — one of which is that conflicts of sectarian and ethnic nature, as in Syria, do not get resolved overnight. That foreign military intervention, direct or by proxy, can only support protracted conflict. Indeed, it was in Syria that Turkey’s vision truly fumbled. It was obvious that many were salivating over the outcome of a Syrian war between a brutal regime and a self-serving and divided opposition — each faction adopting one foreign agenda or another. Suddenly, Turkey’s regional and global ambitions grew ever more provisional because of fear of chaos spilling over to its border areas and the fear of a strong Kurdish presence in northern Syria.

Turkish calculations grew more muddled. And under American auspices, an insincere Israeli apology was issued to nudge both parties to an urgent alliance. “In the light of Israel’s investigation into the incident which pointed to a number of operational mistakes, the prime minister expressed Israel’s apology to the Turkish people for any mistakes that might have led to the loss of life or injury ... ”, Netanyahu’s apology read in part. No commitment regarding the Gaza siege was made.

It was good news for Israeli and pro-Israel media, which are likely to raise the price of that apology as needed. Turkey and Israel: A ‘what next?’ mindset was the title of an article in the right-wing Israeli daily Jerusalem Post. The answer came in the Jewish Press: “Next on the Israeli-Turkish Agenda: Sending Al Assad to Jordan.” Meanwhile, also in the Jewish Press: Israeli Knesset member “Moshe Feiglin wants Turkey apology for the deaths of 766 Holocaust refugees.”

Ramzy Baroud is an internationally-syndicated columnist and the editor of PalestineChronicle.com. His latest book is: My Father was A Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story (Pluto Press).

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