Tag Archives: Arab-Israeli conflict

The Forest Fire in Israel and Political Lessons From Mother Nature


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).


Un-nuking Iran, Protecting Israel: Military Strike Best Option?


August 22, 2010

On August 17, John Bolton, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, claimed that Israel had three days to strike Iran’s nuclear energy plant at Bushehr before it came online. As of yesterday morning, with Russian assistance, the Iranians began to insert fuel rods into the reactor. As Bolton had pointed out, because the humanitarian and environmental consequences of an attack would be immense once the plant became operational, the chances of an attack are now miniscule.

The alarmism in Bolton’s statement is characteristic of the hullabaloo surrounding Iran’s nuclear program. From President George W. Bush’s “axis of evil” speech in January 2002 to talk of using tactical nuclear weapons against Iran in 2006, doom-and-gloom is no stranger to discussions on how to “un-nuke” Iran.

Other than the actual pace of Iran’s nuclear program, Bolton’s statement is indicative of Republican attempts to increase pressure on President Obama to “get tough” with Iran by “protecting Israel.”

There’s almost certainly going to be a Republican comeback in the midterm elections in the United States this November. If President Obama’s chances for re-election decrease in 2012 because of slow economic recovery (or worse), it’s perfectly conceivable that his administration could get tougher with Iran to shore up domestic support.

Would this mean another Middle East war? It’s hard to tell. But there are good reasons why a military operation would not be the best option to prevent Iran from “getting the bomb.”

After the United States, the United Nations, and the European Union imposed new sanctions on Iran’s gasoline imports (although Iran is a major oil exporter, because of inadequate infrastructure, it has to import gasoline), Iran has agreed to start a new round of negotiations. It seems that targeted sanctions do modify Iranian behavior.

So diplomacy has a decent chance to succeed than alarmist words would lead us to believe.

Unfortunately, that’s not how things appear from Israel (or to some in the United States).

Following his interviews with over 40 former and current Israeli officials, the journalist Jeffrey Goldberg reports that Jerusalem is becoming more restless about hitting Iran before it’s “too late.” For the Israelis, coupled with Iran’s ballistic missile program and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s controversial comments on the Holocaust, Iran’s nuclear program is an unacceptable risk. Apparently, Israeli military planners are contemplating scenarios where they would “go it alone,” without U.S. help.

But would a preemptive military strike actually serve America’s or Israel’s political aims?

The ongoing reconstruction and security efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan are far from complete. It would not be in U.S. interest to resort to the military option so prematurely. Iran has a lot of clout with Iraqi insurgent groups. With the last U.S. combat troops out of Iraq and Iraqi security forces struggling to maintain control with American assistance, an increase in insurgent attacks would undermine the gains made since the 2007 surge.

Tehran wouldn’t mind cooperating with Al-Qaeda and the Taliban (both sides dislike each other because of the Sunni-Shia schism) in case of a U.S. attack either. Remember what a pleasant experience (!) it was for the Soviets to deal with Afghan insurgents armed with U.S.-made Stinger shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles in the 1980s? With the U.S. armed forces relying on helicopters for logistics and combat operations in Afghanistan, similar weapons from Iran at the hands of insurgents would be too deadly for the United States.

For Israel, the most dangerous consequence of an attack on Iran would not be backlash from Hezbollah and HAMAS. Attacks from the two groups would be hurtful to Israeli civilians but they could be contained at levels acceptable to Israeli leaders.

The real danger is this: If Israel fires the opening salvoes of an Iran war, even moderate regimes in the region would have to back away from the idea of normalizing relations with Israel. Peace with the Arab world would be out of question for the foreseeable future. Worse, any Arab leader who has normalized relations with Israel – or has tried to do so in the past – would find his seat (and life) in danger. Imagine a few popular revolutions comparable to Iran’s 1979 Revolution toppling the moderate governments of Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia.

This is not to say that the United States should resign from the idea of persuading Iran to “un-nuke.” Even though the United States could live with a nuclear-armed Iran, its regional allies could not: If Iran acquires nuclear weapons, other Middle Eastern countries – especially the Persian Gulf monarchies – would have to either cozy up with Iran or develop their own nuclear capabilities. In either case, the United States, which has tried to “un-nuke” Iran for such a long time, would find its credibility in shambles and the Middle East in a cataclysmic nuclear arms race.

The best way to “un-nuke” Iran is by not giving the Iranian regime any pretext to “get the bomb.” At the moment, Iranian officials are probably uncertain about using their nuclear energy program to produce a bomb.

A U.S. and/or Israeli attack on Iran will change all that: Not only will such an attack convince the country’s ruling theocrats that they need the bomb, worse, it will force the people of Iran into a very unpleasant bind: Support the authoritarian government and defend the motherland or acquiesce in foreign aggression and let Iran turn into another Iraq or Afghanistan. For most Iranians, who faced a similar dilemma when Saddam Hussein attacked in 1980, the choice is most likely to be the former.

At this time, the military option against Iran would simply be counter-productive. Especially if the idea is to protect Israel.

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


Israel, Palestine, and the Middle East: “It Couldn’t Get Any Worse Than This”


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.

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