Obama’s Israeli-Turkish Detente Goes Bust

2013-03-25T143853Z_663707091_GM1E93P1QIA01_RTRMADP_3_TURKEY-ISRAEL-ERDOGANLast March 22, at the tail-end of President Obama’s visit to Israel, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu “apologized” over the phone to Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan for the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident—in which Israeli commandos, in fighting for their lives against a club- and knife-wielding mob of Turkish Islamists, killed nine of the attackers.

The apology drew sharp criticism, mainly from Israeli and U.S. conservatives. Some blamed Netanyahu for allegedly cravenly giving in to Obama; some blamed Obama for allegedly pressuring Netanyahu into the move.

I didn’t join the critics at the time. First of all, there was Netanyahu’s wording. He told Erdogan he “apologized for operational errors that may have led to a loss of life.” In fact, it’s agreed in Israel that the commandos’ landing on the ship was poorly planned, and if done differently could have averted a violent eruption.

That doesn’t mean Israel actually had anything at all to apologize for. It didn’t; the Turkish side had instigated the aggression. But Netanyahu did not say he “apologized” for the fact that his soldiers had defended themselves, which indeed would have been deplorable. It was a nuance worth noting.

More importantly, though, I thought the “apology” might be justifiable as a realpolitik move if it led to restored Israeli-Turkish strategic cooperation. The critics pooh-poohed that possibility as well, stressing Erdogan’s nature as an anti-Israeli, anti-Semitic Islamist.

They had good foundations for saying that; but the history was a bit more complicated. Although Erdogan and his Islamist AKP had first taken office in 2003, the strategic relations had continued after that point. In 2005 Erdogan visited Israel with a large group of businessmen, held talks with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, laid a wreath at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, and said Iran’s nuclear program was a threat not just to Israel but to the whole world.

True, relations started to sour before the Mavi Marmara when Erdogan—not a huge fan of Israeli self-defense against terrorists—objected to Israel’s 2008-2009 operation against Hamas in Gaza. Already in October 2009, Erdogan barred Israel from participating in an aerial exercise with Turkey, the U.S., and Italy.

By last spring, though, it seemed that common Israeli and Turkish concerns about the Syrian crisis and Iran—greased by some propitiatory words from Netanyahu—could lead to at least a low-key resumption of ties. In April it was reported that Israeli national security adviser Yaakov Amidror was in Ankara to get Turkey’s agreement, in exchange for Israeli favors, to Israeli use of a key Turkish airbase. An Israeli military source called Turkey, before the 2010 crisis, “our biggest aircraft carrier.”

By now, though, there have been no further reports in that vein. Israeli-Turkish talks have stalled, and there has been no normalization of relations or exchange of ambassadors. It appears that, regarding Erdogan’s disposition toward Israel ca. 2013, the critics were right.

Indeed, as Walter Russell Mead notes, Erdogan and his AKP have—quite in contrast to any warming toward Israel—been heavily playing the anti-Semitism card in reacting to recent Turkish protests against Islamist rule. Erdogan attributes the protests to “dark forces” and the “interest lobby.” While these are understood as anti-Semitic code words, other elements in his party have been more explicit.

Mead quotes from an article in The Turkey Analyst:

the main pro-AKP daily newspaper Yeni Şafak claimed that it had uncovered evidence that the…protests had been orchestrated by the “Jewish lobby” in the U.S. and even published the names and photographs of a number of prominent Jewish Americans who it alleged were the leaders of the conspiracy. The Yeni Şafak article was publicly endorsed by a succession of leading members of the AKP…. On July 1, 2013, the Turkish Cihan news agency quoted Deputy Prime Minister Beşir Atalay as publicly accusing the “Jewish Diaspora” of responsibility for the…protests….

Erdogan himself has not explicitly identified Jews as being responsible…. Yet neither has he condemned or attempted to distance himself from the claims. Indeed, he has instructed several state institutions…to launch an investigation to uncover evidence of suspicious financial trading by foreign financiers before and during the protests and to identify the foreign “dark forces” he is convinced are trying to undermine him.

Given the timing of Netanyahu’s telephone chat with Erdogan last March—at the end of Obama’s visit—it can reasonably be inferred that, whether or not Netanyahu deserves to be blamed for going along with it, the Israeli “apology” and supposed reconciliation was Obama’s idea. Has Obama learned anything from the failure of that idea?

The question is not meant to be rhetorical. Last week another Islamist party, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, was overthrown. As with Erdogan, Obama had shown considerable sympathy toward the Brotherhood. The fact that he’s now continuing military aid to the Egyptian army that overthrew them suggests Obama has realized that the Brotherhood was not such a positive force after all.

The AKP, unlike the Brotherhood, has been steadily arrogating power to itself for a decade, and it seems unlikely that the Turkish anti-AKP protests can go as far as the Egyptian anti-Brotherhood protests went. The next Turkish national elections, though, are in 2015. Can Obama start seeing the Turkish picture more clearly, as he and his administration seem (belatedly) to be reading it better in Egypt?

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  • Mladen_Andrijasevic

    Of course it went bust. It never stood a chance.
    Israel’s apology to Turkey. An explanation.

  • Raymond_in_DC

    I was among those first critics. Indeed, my first reaction to the news of Israel’s apology was, “They did *what*!” And though Netanyahu only apologized for “operational errors”, there was nothing mutual about it. Erdogan offered no regrets for supporting the flotilla, no acknowledgement of the role that the IHH group had attacked IDF soldiers or provoked the incident. And Israel promised to pay compensation – in an amount to be agreed later, a commitment no clear thinking negotiator would ever agree to.

    Obama walked away with one of the few “accomplishments” of that trip by hand-delivering to his BFF Erdogan what the latter sought: Israel’s humiliation. Israel, as usual, got nothing from this act of craven submission.

  • Attila_the_hun

    One of Natanyahu’s mission is to survive the Obama era. Israel can’t
    stand up to Obama – at least publicly-. For better of worst America is
    the only friend Israel can rely on. Natayahu knows America’s
    friendship with Israel much deeper and stronger than Obama’s
    narcissistic personality. Let soo called apology satisfied the egos of Hussein O and Erdogan.. We all know Israelis didn’t mean it.

    • defcon 4

      Who’s to say the zero won’t find his own Reichstag scenario to retain power beyond 2016? Don’t believe it? Who would believe no one would commence impeachment proceedings against a regime that has used the IRS to persecute political opponents and supporters of Israel? Or, alternatively, a regime that wiretaps journalists w/no cause or warrant whatsoever?

  • itaintmojo

    Obama’s friends include Erdogan, and the Sheik’s of Saudi, Qatar, and the UAE. He will be rewarded handsomely for his friendship to all of these Sharia law advocates, at the end of his term, as was Jimmy Carter, and his Carter Center.

    Obama sided with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, instead of the more than 20 million freedom seeking people there who simply want the right to live secular lives if they so choose. These secular Egyptians do not mind if Sharia law is practiced by Sharia law Islamists. But the followers of Sharia law consider secular living unacceptable.

    Its not the 1st time Israel has had to watch a POTUS appease Radical Islam, and sell out to Sheik money and oil. If we didn’t need a drop of their bloody oil, it might be different. If Americans were properly educated on what Sharia represents, then they could not find it acceptable for any POTUS to ever take sides with Sharia advocates ever again.

    Its extremely disturbing for me, to see the POTUS take the side of the bad guys. I watched one to many movies I guess. I mistakenly grew up thinking that America stood by and supported the side of good.

  • Donald J DaCosta

    Is Obama really seeing things in Egypt “more clearly” or is he stuck on the horns of a dilemma? His actions leading up to this Egyptian upheaval suggest a strong preference for the Brotherhood. Continuing support for the Egyptian military is perhaps Obama and his crew of intellectual, foreign policy “experts,” marking time while surreptitiously helping Morsi and the Brotherhood regroup, regain control and continue to create an Islamic theocracy in what was, not too long ago, a secular, “decadent” Egypt. With “the religion of peace” controlling every aspect of Egyptian life, what could be better for Egypt and the world.

    And once again the Egyptian people will get the result which is far from the changes they seek. Something like what’s happening here without the violence……yet. But that’s just my perspective and what the heck do I know.

  • Gee

    Turkey’s purchase of Chinese surface to air missiles should see them expelled from NATO and they have no chance at getting into the EU

    • Inane Rambler

      They don’t care about the EU anymore, and unfortunately they are still too valuable to kick out.

  • Gee

    The only thing that we should be sorry about is that the Israeli Navy didn’t just sink the boat. That would have been legal under the San Remo Maritime Treaty.

  • Copper Munger

    Isn’t it telling that Erdogan’s change of attitude came on the heels of Obama’s election in 2008? And that Erdogan is the first person Obama called with the news. Obama claims Erodgan is his best bud among the world’s leaders. The ties to the Muslim brotherhood were already in place and he supported Hamas since the beginning.

    Then we find out that after arming Al Qaeda in Libya, he used Benghasi to ship much of the remaining munitions (that had shown up in the Sinai) to Al Qaeda in Syria thru where else but Turkey.

    Now it surfaces that he’s paid the MB $8 billion to turn over the Sinai to Hamas. This the reason the Criminal Regime is quaking, since the Egyptian Army is now partnering with Israel to stem the terrorism there. If the MB isn’t reinstated in Egypt, his dreams of Israel being surrounded and taken down are fading. Isn’t this what Morsi’s cohorts kept spewing, that they would take Jihad to Jerusalem and conquer it?

    The Middle East conflagration is Obama’s war against Israel. He is doing all that he can to be seen as the one who makes the ‘Palestinians’ ‘dream’ of the final Jewish holocaust an actuality.

  • DontMessWithAmerica

    I’m sorry but Netanyahu lost a lot of stature in my estimation because of that “gesture.” I have far more respect for Egypt’s general el-Sisi who is standing up to Obama now and even refused to take a call from that jerk now heading the CIA.
    If Obama had pressured me to apologize to Erdogan I would have said, “Why don’t you do it on my behalf. You’re so much better in that game.”