KARON: Gaza costs Israel another friend – there aren’t many left October 19, 2009

Turkey & Israel

by Tony Karon  - The National -  18 October 2009

For years Israel has acted as if the unconditional support of the US would be enough to shield it for ever from the consequences of its behaviour – which is why last week was an unusually traumatic one for them.

No suicide bombers detonated themselves and no rockets or mortar shells fell, but the double whammy of a Turkish snub and a UN Human Rights Council vote shook Israelis even more than any aimless shelling would have done. Those two events signal profound changes that leave Israel paying a growing political price for the attack last winter that killed some 1,400 Palestinians and reduced Gaza to rubble.

It was the brutal pummelling of Gaza that prompted Turkey’s democratically elected government to break the silence among the region’s moderates and stand up for the Palestinians. At the time, the prime minister, Recep Erdogan, condemned the Israeli actions as war crimes, in language deemed intemperate and inappropriate by western leaders.

Curiously, Erdogan’s “intemperate” language was endorsed by the findings of a UN Human Rights Council investigation headed by the Jewish South African judge Richard Goldstone, known as a friend of Israel – findings that were adopted by the Council on Friday despite the efforts of the US and France to shield Israel from being formally accused of war crimes in an international body.

While the Israelis have always believed that the UN is dedicated to their persecution, they have long counted Turkey as a valuable political and military ally. When Mr Erdogan criticised their bombing of Gaza, and famously walked off the stage at the World Economic Forum in Davos in response to a finger-wagging harangue from the Israeli president, Shimon Peres, they dismissed it as populist posturing.

But the depth of Turkish anger at Israel became clear last week when Ankara withdrew an invitation to the Israeli air force to participate in a Nato exercise on its soil, which was consequently cancelled. This was not simply a diplomatic spat; it was the Turkish-Israeli military alliance that was now in jeopardy. The Israeli government, according to the well-sourced veteran columnist Nahum Barnea, “expects an intervention by the US administration  to restrain the Erdogan government”. Good luck with that.

Mr Erdogan left no doubt that the reason for dropping Israel from the Nato exercise was Gaza, and he insisted that the decision was guided by “the conscience of our people … because our people did not want Israel’s participation”. The attack on Gaza, and more recent provocations in East Jerusalem, have sparked tremendous popular anger in Turkey, and the Erdogan government is necessarily far more responsive to popular sentiment than some of the US and Israel’s traditional partners.

The idea that the Turks can be “restrained” by Washington from challenging Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians looks increasingly fanciful. Far from being a supplicant of the West, Mr Erdogan’s Turkey is becoming an increasingly assertive regional power, pursuing an independent foreign policy and offering a moderate, democratic and development-orientated model of Islamist governance that stands in sharp contrast both to many Arab autocracies and to Iran.

Turkey remains critically important to US strategic interests from Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Balkans to the Middle East, but has long-since stopped exhibiting the obedience to Washington that Israel’s leaders still expect to see (Turkey’s denial of US requests for bases there to support the Iraq invasion ought to have served as a warning). Today, like many others in the region, Turkey’s leaders have diminishing confidence that the US can muster the will to resolve Israeli-Arab conflicts – and therefore diminishing patience for the diplomatic restraint demanded by the US to allow its peace efforts more time.

The Goldstone vote at the UN Human Rights Council is a symptom of the same trend. It came about only because the Palestinian Authority was forced, under pressure from its electorate, to reverse an earlier decision to block discussion of the report. That decision had been taken according to the “old rules” – the US had leant on the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, to keep the issue off the UN agenda lest it upset the Israelis and dampen their already limited enthusiasm for negotiations.

But the Palestinian street, and even most of Mr Abbas’s own Fatah party, is no longer content to play by the old rules. A leaked internal Fatah document suggests that the movement’s leaders have lost faith in Barack Obama delivering an end to Israel’s occupation, and they are no longer willing to restrain themselves from challenging Israeli actions in the hope that this may some day yield Israeli concessions.

One fatal flaw in the US Middle East peace strategy until now has been the assumption that the status quo is basically sustainable, and therefore that incremental progress, no matter how unsatisfactory, is progress nonetheless: Mr Netanyahu rejects a settlement freeze? Oh well, let’s find something we can all agree on then, shall we? Just don’t do anything to annoy Mr Netanyahu or he’ll retreat into his shell…

Last week’s actions by Turkey and the vote at the Human Rights Council are signs that many of the region’s leaders are no longer waiting for Washington to reorder the Middle East, and are instead moving to do it themselves, in ways that won’t make Israel or the US comfortable.

And that Israel is moving to consolidate its grip on East Jerusalem, where holy sites have the symbolic power to inflame public opinion across the Muslim world, suggests that this is only the beginning of erstwhile quiescent authorities in the Middle East breaking more and more visibly from the US script.

Tony Karon blogs at rootless cosmopolitan, www.tonykaron.com

If you liked this article, please consider making a donation to Australians for Palestine by clicking on the PayPal link
Thank You.
Bookmark and Share

Add a Comment

required, use real name
required, will not be published
optional, your blog address