The Forest Fire in Israel and Political Lessons From Mother Nature

By BARIN KAYAOĞLU

December 6, 2010

Mother Nature has reminded us of several things with the forest fire that consumed northern Israel last week: Given our temporary residence on this planet, our differences – whether religious, sectarian, or national – are quite trivial. Another lesson is that nature knows no boundaries: Given the fire’s scope (nearly 50km2 – about 12,000 acres – of forest are now in ashes) and its potential impact on the ecological balance, most countries in the Middle East will probably face negative consequences as well.

Although I’m not certain whether politicians in the region will learn those lessons, there is hope. Upon hearing about the disaster, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan ordered two fire-extinguishing planes to be sent to Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu phoned his Turkish counterpart to thank Turkey for being the first country to help Israel. Mr. Erdoğan, in response, referred to his “humane and religious duty,” despite maintaining his adversarial stance against Israel.

Over the weekend, reports came out that Turkish and Israeli officials had met in Geneva and journalists began to discuss whether Turkey and Israel can improve their relations. But we need to understand that such an improvement is easier said than done. For one thing, Mr. Erdoğan reiterated his government’s position that Israel has to apologize for its navy’s attack on an international flotilla led by the Turkish ferry Mavi Marmara last summer and pay reparations to the families of the 9 Turkish civilians killed by Israeli commandoes. Interestingly, Israeli officials, who had vehemently refused to apologize last summer, have not publicly rebuffed the Turkish government’s request this time.

In order for this disaster to move us forward to peace, we need to set some “thinking points” to guide the Turks, the Israelis, and, of course, the Palestinians.

Prime Minister Erdoğan’s “humane and religious duty” explanation shows that the Turkish leader doesn’t “simply hate Israel,” as a U.S. embassy report on Wikileaks claims. In fact, by sending the fire-extinguishing planes to Israel, one of Mr. Erdoğan’s unknown qualities has surfaced: the ability to rise above the fray and acting in a cool-headed manner.

Mr. Erdoğan has to put that quality to the forefront and learn to control his temper. Since Israel’s attack on Gaza in 2008 (Operation Cast Lead) and increasingly after the raid on the Mavi Marmara last summer, Mr. Erdoğan’s vocabulary, especially his liberal use of the word “murderer,” has undermined his case. Especially the Western media focused on how the Turkish Prime Minister criticized Israel rather than why. In other words, rather than strengthen his case, Mr. Erdoğan’s harsh rhetoric undermined it and may have even forced Western countries to tacitly support Israel.

Many people around the world (including this author) shared – and continue to share – Mr. Erdoğan’s outrage over Cast Lead, the attack on the Mavi Marmara, and the Netanyahu government’s foot-dragging with the peace process. But offending 7 million Israelis for their navy’s mistake is unfair and unwise, especially when Israeli intellectuals have spoken out against both Cast Lead and Mavi Marmara. In the near future, Turkey will be one of the few countries that can help to convince the Israelis that withdrawal from occupied Palestinian territories would lead to peace for the Palestinians. Why not regain that positive influence by speaking more softly?

To that end, the Turkish side should get HAMAS to release Corporal Gilad Shalit, who had been captured by the Palestinian group in July 2006. In order to punish HAMAS and Hezbollah, Israel had attacked both Gaza and Lebanon that summer but had failed to rescue Cpl. Shalit or deter the militant groups. In fact, later events have demonstrated that Israel’s security has only deteriorated.

The release of Cpl. Shalit would be a major symbolic achievement for all sides. Turkey would be able to show (and not only to Israel but to the international community as well), that its relationship with HAMAS can produce positive results. Furthermore, releasing the young Israeli soldier could change the international community’s perception of HAMAS for the better. And it will give a chance to help the people of besieged Gaza rebuild their lives.

Most importantly, Corporal Shalit’s release can change the perceptions of many Israelis, who see his prolonged captivity as a justification for Israel’s heavy-handed response to regional challenges and their anti-Turkish sentiments.

In order to improve Turkish-Israeli relations, the Israeli people and their government need to understand the actual cause of Mr. Erdoğan’s anger. In the lead-up to Cast Lead, the Turkish Prime Minister, his circle of advisers, and the Turkish Foreign Ministry had come very close to successfully mediating proximity talks between Israel and Syria and were on the verge of a diplomatic breakthrough. In December 2008, Mr. Erdoğan was expecting the then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s response to Syrian President Bashar Asad’s peace proposals. The response came in the form of the infamous attack on Gaza, which probably made Mr. Erdoğan feel like an idiot.

Beyond empathy, the Israeli side needs to consider apologizing – or at least expressing regret for the events on Mavi Marmara. And paying reparations to the victims’ families would not be the end of the world for Jerusalem. In Turkish, there is a saying: “To apologize is a sign of magnanimity.” Just as securing Cpl. Shalit’s release can improve Israeli perceptions of Turkey, agreeing to address the grievances of the Mavi Marmara victims can improve Turkish perceptions of Israel.

Finally, and most importantly, Israel has to start acting seriously if it wants peace and not isolation: That means lifting the siege of Gaza completely in the event that Cpl. Shalit is released. That means halting settlement construction in the West Bank – regardless of whether they are “natural” or not. That means, overall, that Israel’s security is fundamentally tied to a viable state, which can only come about if Israel retreats from an overwhelming majority of the territories it captured in 1967.

These things are going to be tough for the three sides to accept. But the fires of rage in our hearts are destroying the beautiful place that is the Middle East. It’s time to grow new forests in the region: planted by foresight and wisdom, its roots watered by peace, tolerance, and prosperity.

That would be an appropriate way to thank Mother Nature.

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.

You can also follow him on Twitter (@barinkayaoglu) and Facebook (BarınKayaoğlu.com).

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