Monday, November 02, 2009

J Street and strained Turkey-Israel relationship

   The supporters of J Street were eager to discuss some of the moral issues that surrounded the Israel-Palestine conflict during their inaugural conference in Washington, D.C. Jeremy Ben-Ami, executive director of J Street, declared that nobody had authority to determine what policy was right and wrong about Israel, and the moral questions were out there to discuss while viewing the current situation in the region. The J Street crowd clearly believes that the ongoing impasse of the Israeli-Palestine peace process and the possibility of losing hope for the two-state solution will have terrible consequences for Israel. Haim Ramon, one of Israel's most veteran political figures and chairman of the Kadima Council, also pointed out in a speech at the conference that a “one-state solution” was just around the corner, and he didn't articulate how, but argued that "we have to take a unilateral initiative, if necessary, to reach a two-state solution."
In such a one-state scenario, after decades of wars and struggles, with an increasing Arab population, the Jewish people will be either a minority in their “own one-state” and endure the consequences of future elections, or have to resort to an “apartheid” governing system, which will certainly damage its moral standing forever in the world. Therefore, as many speakers in the J Street conference argued, Israel needs to work harder to achieve a two-state solution than Palestine, in reality.
I do believe that the J Street crowd is able to grasp much better some of the warnings that are encircling today's Israel than does Israel's current administration in power. It is true that J Street, itself, apparently has not fully come to terms with its sudden popularity, and still strives to position itself between different policy stances on many issues. Mr. Ben-Ami lauds a broad liberal umbrella for its movement for a wide range of issues while it gears to begin more intense lobbying practices in Washington, D.C., though it seems that the movement has been sliding slowly towards the center. And it is quite alright for such a new organization to navigate through gray policy zones in order to find its real identity and appeal to a broader base of the Jewish-Americans.
Israel, today, has a well-oiled democratic system and enjoys a moderately free press, although according to the latest report by Reporters Without Borders, the Israeli press is in a free fall compared to last year. I often read the harshest opinion pieces regarding Israel's policies in the Israeli press. And in that respect, Israel puts itself in a first-class democratic nations league; but then it falls short of the attributes of the same league while it attempts to utilize its “unbreakable” ties with the United States and behave as a unilateral power in the region. The latest unilateral action, the "Operation Cast Lead," in Gaza has clearly isolated Israel and eroded its moral stance. Yet Israel still has not started its own probe over what exactly happened during the war in order to gain some of its lost credibility.
There have been many opinion pieces in the Israeli press lately that have been arguing about losing the strategic alliance with Turkey that has benefited both countries over decades. However, my Israeli friends seem not to realize the changing dynamics and public opinions in the Middle East, and how Israel is increasingly viewed, so to speak, as a “bad actor” in the region.
I asked about the worsening relationships between Turkey and Israel to Daniel Levy, senior research fellow at New America Foundation, a Washington, D.C. based think-tank. Mr. Levy was a member of the official Israeli delegation to the Taba negotiations with the Palestinians in January 2001, and previously served on the Israeli negotiating team to the "Oslo B" Agreement in 1995. Levy bluntly assessed that, "Israel's ideological and political dimensions continue to undermine the relationship between Israel and Turkey. While Turkey's civil government has been trying to restrain its military's role in civilian affairs, Israel still wants to hold on to the last century's habits to conduct most of the business through the Turkish military or through back channels in Washington with its American friends." With this current outlook, Levy thinks that the more democratic the Middle East becomes, the more problematic the situation will be for Israel in the near future.
When one analyzes Turkey's hardened rhetoric against Israel, amid the latest exclusion of Israel from the "Anatolian Eagle" an annual joint air force exercise, one can see better that Turkey, with its latest policy orientations and better relationship with its neighbors, is less dependent on Israel than vice versa. With the growing backlash against Israel, both in the international arena and in Turkey, knocking Israel down brings nothing but more popularity for the politicians in almost every country.
I have my own concerns over some of the Justice and Development Party, or AKP's, foreign policy assessments and I have sharply voiced those concerns often enough in the past. For example, I still believe that the cozy relationships with Iran, congratulating Ahmadinejad hastily for his very dubious victory after the June elections still lingers as a shameful episode over the Turkish foreign affairs. Though when it comes to the strained Turkish-Israel relationships, the AKP, in light of the Goldstone Report, which has approved overwhelmingly in the U.N. Human Rights Council, seems to be doing merely what the international public opinion suggests without receiving much criticism.
J Street is still a young movement that has yet to clarify and decide which position it will take in many policy issues. However, one thing is clear, and that is that J Street opens up a new venue for the Jewish-Americans to view the Israeli-Arab conflict differently and voice their dissatisfaction more loudly. The current Israeli establishment has to take a harder look at what they say and reconsider these options in light of its worsening image in the region.
And for the Americans' role. Many experts I have talked to in recent weeks have emphasized that it is the American leadership that will bring the parties to the same table for the negotiations. It appears that Obama clearly miscalculated when he openly urged Netanyahu to accept freezing the settlements earlier in this year as a pre-condition for the peace process without having a plan B. Now America seems to be backpedaling and loses a lot of credibility in the Arab world. Israel feels trapped, resorts to old tactics of unbending policies; however it clearly needs help from the outsiders, such as the J Street crowd and the Americans, to extradite itself out of the vicious circle for its own security and peace concerns. Otherwise, the current “isolation and condemnation” process of Israel will come back as a boomerang to haunt all of us and stir the region even more profoundly. The holy scriptures don't have to be proven right, nor the radicals of both sides, which seem to be benefiting from the current impasse, lest diplomacy and good will can be pursued.

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