Thursday, January 22, 2009

After the War

Prime Minister Erdoğan has gained popularity throughout the Muslim world for his renunciation of Israel's invasion of Gaza, but what will the future hold for Turkey-Israel relations and Turkey's aspirations to become a key player in the region? PHOTO from Le Monde

Last Saturday's ceasefire brought an end to one of the worst humanitarian tragedies of this century. Many eyes were on Turkey throughout three horrific weeks of Israeli operations, and with Operation Cast Lead brought to a close, questions remain as to just how Gaza will affect Turkish foreign policy in the region. Throughout the conflict, Turkey conducted fast-pace shuttle diplomacy between Damascus, where prominent Hamas leaders are stationed, and Cairo, where Egypt attempted to use its diplomatic clout in order to attain a ceasefire agreement between Israel and Hamas. At dispute were Israel's continued chokehold of the Gaza Strip and the steady supply of munitions that make their way to Hamas through Egypt. Throughout the three-week ordeal, Turkey used its newly acquired UN Security Council position to argue for an immediate ceasefire, journeyed to Arab capitals throughout the Middle East, and offered forces to act as peacekeepers to patrol the Refah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt. Turkey, which hopes to bolster its diplomatic clout by proving itself capable of successfully mediating Mideast conflict, not only has plans to facilitate negotiations between Hamas and Israel, but also Hamas and Fatah. All the while, Turkey has kept relations with Tel Aviv home, and though the Turkey-Israel relationship is no doubt more complicated after the war, it is unlikely that relations between the two countries will be permanently affected.

Although some have accused Turkey of hypocrisy or held its diplomacy to be confused, its balancing act is a function of its ambition to be an important player in the region. Since these larger regional aspirations are premised on good relations with Israel, the Arab World, and even Iran, the appearance of any emotionally-clad violent conflict lands Turkey on difficult terrain. Therefore, Turkey has an interest in eschewing conflict, making Turkish diplomacy a valuable force for peace in the Middle East. Additionally, as aforementioned, conflict -- although to be avoided -- provides fertile opportunity to prove its diplomatic credentials as evinced by Turkey's recent attempt to broker a Syrian-Israeli peace accord. With neo-Ottoman ambitions to restore to the MENA region the relative peace it once knew under the Ottomans, Turkey hopes its soft power will become a defining force in the region. In attempt to resolve the lonf-standing dispute between Syria and Israel over the Golan Heights, four low-level talks were held last year (see
Gareth Jenkins, EDM, April 29), although plans for more were halted with the crisis in Gaza. The real question now is just where Gaza leaves Turkey's chips. Within what limits -- and with what caveats -- can Turkish diplomats act, and just what exactly can they acheive within these boundaries?

While Gaza bolstered Prime Minister Erdoğan's popularity in the Arab world (see
Emrullah Uslu, EDM, Jan. 15), at question is just what Turkey will do to mend relations with Israel. Turkish rhetoric, especially from Prime Minister Erdoğan, has been especially vitriolic. Other less than cordial diplomatic exchanges included the denial of Israel Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni's request to visit Ankara, and Erdoğan and snub of Israel during the Prime Minister's tour through the Middle East just after Israeli operations began. Erdoğan refused to meet with Israeli officials until a ceasefire had been acheived, decrying the Israeli incursion as an affront to all humanity, characterizing it as ruthless and savage, losing no opportunity to denounce Israel's illegal use of white phosphorus gas, DIME explosives, and indiscrimnate strikes on women and children, particularly those taking refuge in UN schools and other supposed "safe" facilities. In one set of remarks, Erdoğan pointedly declared that God will punish those who kill innocents. At no point during Turkey's intensive efforts did any Turkish officials make any attempt to reach out to Israel. Returning the cold shoulder, Amos Gilad, Ha'aretz reports that the head of the Israeli Defense Ministry's Diplomatic-Security Bureau, refused to meet with President Gül this weekend, citing Erdoğan's rhetoric as the reason.

Government action is not the only problem. Each day the conflict continued, the crescendoing scale of Israel's attacks drew larger and larger protests across Turkey. The size and anger of the protests increased pressure for the government -- already pushing the envelope with Israel and the U.S. -- to cut off diplomatic relations with Israel in their entirety. Apart from demonstrations, protests included boycotts, e.g. the
Turkish Consumer Association's boycott of Israeli goods. Some Israelis, in turn, have called for boycotts on Turkish goods and services, including Turkish hotels. And, just as the Turkish press has been quite critical of Israel, Israeli press have lost few opportunities to launch shots at Turkey. However, observers should also appreciate that despite over 1,300 violent deaths in Gaza and the massive international outcry that ensued, Erdoğan nor any other government official used the word "genocide" to describe Israel's actions, which was not the case in other countries across the region. Turkish reaction to bloodshed in Gaza was indeed so intense that protests united Kurds and Turks in Diyarbakir, where demonstrations drew together over 50,0000 people.

However, despite recent tensions, it is unlikely that much will fundamentally change between Turkey and Israel. On Friday, just one day before the ceasefire, Foreign Minister
Ali Babacan re-affirmed his dedication to keep channels of communication open, expressing hopes that Turkey might play a constructive role in a permanent end to hostilities. Israel is simply too valuable to Turkey, too instrumental to its larger foreign policy objectives to cast aside. However, the real issue is just how Turkey's damaged relations with Israel will affect its ability to mediate in the region, and to this end, Turkey is faced with the same double-edged sword that has confronted past mediators.

President Gül met with other leaders in Sharm el-Sheikh on Sunday to discuss the ceasefire, and still unclear is just what role might Turkey play to make the current ceasefire sustainable? Hamas had agreed to a
Turkish troop presence because of its "respect to Turkey as an Islamic nation." Hamas' assent occurred reluctantly, and with likely pressure from Egypt. The news was enthusiastically welcomed by the Turkish press, and public enthusiasm is quite high for such participation. However, details of such an arrangement have yet to be worked out. This did not stop chief foreign policy advisor Ahmet Davutoğlu from claiming credit for the ceasefire shortly after it was concluded. If Davutoğlu is correct in his prideful evaluation of Turkish influence, then Turkey's diplomatic hopes to promote peace in the region should not be dismissed.

Playing Both Sides

Despite expressed intentions to normalize relations with Israel, Erdoğan did not seem to have second thoughts about characterizing Western countries' treatment of Gaza as hypocritical, saying in Brussels on Sunday that the U.S. and EU were much more quicker to intervene to stop ethnic cleansing in Georgia this summer than they were to stop the mass atrocities we have seen in Gaza. More provocative, though, were statements undermining Mahmoud Abbas' leadership. Couched in a call that Western powers and Fatah recognize Hamas as the legitimately elected representative of the Palestinian people, Erdoğan insinuated that failure to recognize and negotiate with Hamas is a contradiction of democratic principles. The Brussels comments won
praise in Tehran. Earlier this month, Javier Solana, EU High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy, praised Turkey's efforts to mediate a truce with Hamas as constructive, but it is not clear what position the EU will take on Turkey's expressed intent to become an arbiter between the Palestinians. However, the EU has invited Turkey to take part in its own efforts to make Saturday's ceasefire holds.

Although Iran and Syria have called on all Muslim countries to break relations with Israel (Qatar and Mauritania have done so), Turkey has different designs. As aforementioned, Turkey needs good relations with Israel in order to hold onto its diplomatic clout in the region; however, it also needs a relationship with Hamas, thereby filling a gap in Palestine-Israel diplomacy. While Arab autocracies like Qatar and Saudi Arabia are ambivalent toward Hamas, Turkey recognizes the potential of its working relationship with Hamas leaders. Ans, whereas Egypt lost much of its credibility in the Arab world when it failed to open up its borders to Gazan refugees, Turkey is relatively unscathed. Its Islamic-leaning government is inspiring when held against the authoritarianism of Egypt or Jordan, and because it is not an Arab state, Turkish diplomats are able to operate outside of Arab internicene politics.

Turkey's relationship with Hamas first began to develop in 2006 when Turkey hosted Hamas leader Khaled Mishaal, after which Turkey has repeatedly recognized Hamas' role as necessary to any resolution of the Palestine-Israel conflict. Relations with Israel are underpinned by a 1996 bilateral agreement. Israel sells and repairs Turkey weapons, including tanks, combat aircraft, unmanned spy planes to monitor PKK activity in the southeast of Turkey, and -- in a most
recent deal -- radar, electronic warfare and intelligence systems technologies. In hopes of perpetuating good relations on all sides, Turkey will find itself in a precarious position over the coming months. There is talk that President Gül has plans to make a conciliatory trip to Israel in the coming month, and government officials are drawing up plans for a Middle East Security and Cooperation Conference. Turkey's role in negotiating a sustained peace between Israel and Hamas is yet to be determined, and should a decision be made by Israel or the United States to pursue negotiations with Hamas, Turkey is well-positioned to play an important role. It has already become Hamas' de facto representative at the Security Council.


Throughout the Gaza imbroglio, Erdoğan
insisted that his criticism against Israel was not anti-Semitic. However, many anti-Israel demonstrations also contained elements of anti-Semitism, as many demonstrators were not anywhere near so cautious as to draw a difference between Jews and the Israeli state. Political rhetoric has also failed to make the distinction. According to Hürriyet, Hasan Karakaya, a columnist at Vakit, recently wrote: "Jew equals terrorist." Similar statements have appeared in print and broadcast media throughout Turkey, as well as on placards, posters, and billboards. Hürriyet also reports that some Turkish hotels in Antalya put up signs declaring that Jews are not to be welcomed, although Minister of Culture and Tourism, Ertuğrul Günay, expressed concern with the signs. Worries about anti-Semitism held constant throughout the crisis in Gaza -- e.g. Emrullah Uslu, EDM, Jan. 7. And, despite Erdoğan's denials to the contrary, according to respectable Turkey expert Henri Barkey, the Prime Minister's rhetoric drew on traditional anti-Semitic prejudices.

UPDATE 1/22 -- For an an analysis of Turkey's potential peacekeeping role, see
Uslu's consideration of both the risks and the benefits. Uslu recalls Abbas' 2007 request for Turkish peacekeepers be sent to Gaza, which Hamas rejected. Is Turkish public support for the deployment of Turkish peacekeepers sustainable?

UPDATE 1/24 -- The American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, B'nai B'rith International, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs sent a letter to Prime Minister Erdoğan expressing their concern about the recent wave of anti-Semitism in Turkey. As TDZ reports, "the Jewish Telegraphic News Agency, an online news portal, noted that "the organizations that signed on to the letter declined to support a 2007 US congressional resolution recognizing the Armenian genocide, concerned that such legislation could harm the relationships between the United States and Turkey and Israel and Turkey."

And, not to discount concern about anti-Semitism, see President Gül's welcome response to a recent op/ed by Leyla Navarro, a profesor of psychlogy at Boğaziçi University. Navarro's article -- summarily titled "Being a Jew in Turkey: Loneliness of 500 years" -- responds to Erdoğan's remark about Jews being welcome in Turkey since the Spanish Inquisition, asking why Turkish citizens who are ethnically or religiously Jewish are still treated as guests in a country where they have full citizenship rights.

UPDATE 1/28 -- Babacan has told Turkish newspapers that Hamas should renounce violence and lay down its arms. From the Khaleej Times:
‘Hamas should make a decision: is it going to be an armed organisation or a political movement? We advise them to be part of the political process,’ Babacan told the popular Milliyet daily.

The minister spoke amid criticism at home that Ankara acted as a supporter of Hamas—considered a terrorist group by the West—during the Israeli offensive on the Gaza Strip, dealing a blow to its ties with the Jewish state, a key regional ally.

‘We cannot approve of what Hamas is doing, but peace cannot be achieved by ignoring Hamas,’ Babacan said in further remarks, published in the liberal Radikal.

‘A mid-way formula should be found... Hamas is a reality in Gaza,’ he said.
The call is likely an attempt by the AKP-led government to qualify its relationship with Hamas. Domestic and foreign critics alike accuse the government of taking an unbalanced approach to the conflict, especially in its dealings with Hamas. For an example of such criticism, see Millyet's Sedat Ergin's op/ed, "Why is PM's Gaza Rhetoric Problematic?" Ergin argues that Hamas terrorism should be firmly rejected by Turkey and that its fault in the conflict should not be dismissed. Erdoğan will meet with Israeli President Shimon Peres on Thurday at the World Economic Forum meeting in Switzerland. The meeting comes amidst other signals that Turkey is moderating its position, including a phone call late last week between President Gül and Mahmoud Abbas, a move which led to speculation about a schism in the Gül and Erdoğan's approach.

Yesterday UN Humanitarian Affairs Chief John Holmes criticized Hamas at the UN Security Council for using civilians as human cover throughout the 22-day crisis. Holmes criticized both sides for their involvement in the humanitarian tragedy, arguing both sides-- but especially Israel as the occupying power -- have a responsibility to allow humanitarian supplies to move uninterrupted over and within Gaza's borders.

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