By BARIN KAYAOĞLU
June 14, 2010
A few months ago, after Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon’s public humiliation of Turkish ambassador Oğuz Çelikkol, conversations in Turkey rang with the sentence “Turkish-Israeli relations couldn’t get any worse than this.”
Then came the fateful morning of May 31. The Israeli Navy attacked an international convoy of six ships and nearly 700 activists carrying humanitarian aid to Gaza, which ended with the death of nine Turkish citizens (including a teenager with dual American citizenship). Turkish Prime Minister Recept Tayyip Erdoğan called the event “state terrorism” while the normally calm and composed Ahmet Davutoğlu, the Turkish Foreign Minister, labeled the raid an “act of piracy” in a vitriolic speech at the United Nations Security Council. The Israeli government denied the allegations of massacre and defended itself by releasing videos of Turkish activists allegedly attacking Israeli commandoes with clubs and lead pipes. Furthermore, Israel has stated that it won’t cooperate with an international panel investigating the events of May 31.
Many wonder, once again, if the tense atmosphere between Turkey and Israel could get any worse. People in Turkey and around the world are understandably livid over the Israeli Navy’s bloody operation and the Netanyahu administration’s less-than-persuasive response to the raid. And, at the moment, there’s talk about Mr. Erdoğan forcing his way into Gaza on a military convoy and a former Israeli general suggesting that Israel ought to “sink it.” It’s uncertain if a majority of Turks and Israelis (and other Middle Easterners) wouldn’t mind seeing their armed forces “slug it out.”
That’s a fact too frightening to even contemplate.
So, how do we pull the Middle East out of this predicament? A combination of near- and long-term solutions should look like this:
– The international community’s responsibility: An international peace-keeping mission must be dispatched to Gaza in order to lift the Israeli blockade and address the civilian catastrophe in the area. This international force should not only be physically larger than its counterpart in Southern Lebanon (which has about 12,000 troops on the ground) but it should also have a wider mandate in maintaining peace and order in the Palestinian enclave. It should have complete authority over the land and sea borders of Gaza in order to make sure that HAMAS doesn’t get any military supplies, thus preventing Israel from using HAMAS as a pretext for future incursions. Similarly, the development program for the West Bank, already taking place under the leadership of Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, must be accelerated through international aid and investment.
– U.S. responsibility: The United States has long been perceived as Israel’s enabler, especially because it bankrolls nearly 20% of Israel’s military budget every year. In order to change the current deadlock, America has to do a very important thing, aside from supporting the international community’s reconstruction efforts: Impress upon Jerusalem that Israel’s security would be best served only with the creation of an independent and sovereign Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital.
Of course, the Obama administration already knows that. Furthermore, with an extremist government in Jerusalem (the hawkish Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has relatively moderate stance in the six-party coalition), getting Israel to agree to the formation of a Palestinian state will be easier said than done. In fact, just as previous Israeli governments that have used pro-Israel groups in Washington to avoid making hard choices and heaping the blame on the Arabs, it is only sensible to expect the same from the current Israeli government.
But the times are changing. Israeli unease over Iran’s nuclear program is understandably mounting at a time when American officials are becoming increasingly upset with Israeli intransigence over the Palestinian question. At his testimony to the U.S. Senate in March 2010, General David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Central Asia and the Middle East, acknowledged that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was undermining U.S. interests in the region. Washington needs to remind Jerusalem that it needs American backing against Tehran just as much as Washington needs Jerusalem to move on the Palestinian front.
– Israel’s responsibility: Many people in the Arab and Muslim world – including the Palestinians – do not want to drive Israel to the sea. Those days are gone. Syria was on the verge of agreeing to the basic framework of a peace treaty with Israel right before Israel started the Gaza War in December 2008. In the run-up to that turning point, “the terrible Turks” had mediated the indirect talks between Jerusalem and Damascus. And earlier in 2008, HAMAS leader, Khaled Meshaal, had told former U.S. President Jimmy Carter that HAMAS recognized Israel’s right to live in peace and that it would agree to a 10-year truce if Israel would withdraw from the Occupied Territories.
In order for the Middle East to move forward, all nations in the region – but especially the Israelis – have to elevate their thinking. At the Arab League summit of March 2002, with Saudi backing, Arab governments agreed to the “land for peace” principle. Arab governments have pledged to recognize Israel once it extends the same courtesy to the Palestinian state. The ball’s on Israel’s court. It has to decide whether it wants to start a new era by agreeing to integrate with other Middle Eastern nations or continue its behavior as a residue of Western colonialism.
– Turkish and Arab responsibility: Although there are quite a few people who don’t mind the existence of a Jewish state in the Middle East, there are many radicals who do. And because of that fact, a good portion of public opinion in the West – especially in the United States – supports, or, at least, tacitly endorses Israel.
In this context, the Turkish and Arab objective should be to change that distorted view of the conflict. These actors ought to impress upon HAMAS that, in the long-term, violence – especially against Israeli civilians – doesn’t pay off. HAMAS’s uncompromising attitude obviously puts the Palestinian people and other Middle Eastern countries in a bind. In the face of Israeli occupation of their lands, Palestinians are left with few options: either acquiesce to Fatah’s extremely unpopular method of working with Israel or follow HAMAS’s way of resisting the Israeli occupation by any means necessary.
But this is a dilemma that had complicated Israeli-Palestinian relations in the past. From the mid-1960s through the late 1980s, the PLO had refused to recognize Israel’s right to exist. In fact, PLO did not formally recognize Israel until the conclusion of the secret negotiations that led to the Oslo Accords of September 1993.
Countries such as Turkey, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia need to develop Khaled Mashaal’s announcement of April 2008 that the Islamist group would agree to a 10-year truce in exchange for Israeli withdrawal from the Palestinian territories.
A final word on Turkey: In light of recent events and the fallout in Turkish-Israeli relations, Prime Minister Erdoğan should question whether his country’s interests – and the interests of the region – are served by his constant bickering with Israel. After all, down the road, Turkey, together with Egypt and Saudi Arabia, is the best candidate to mediate peace between Israel and every other Arab and Muslim country.
Failing to end the Arab-Israeli conflict prevents the Middle East from reaching its full potential. Before more dangerous events sinks the region in a deeper quagmire, Middle Eastern countries and the international community need to take preventive measures. History teaches us that things could – and often do – get worse.
Barın Kayaoğlu is a Ph.D. candidate in history at The University of Virginia. He welcomes all comments, questions, and exchanges. To contact him, click here.