Friday, September 24, 2010
The relations between Turkey and Israel had another rocky week. First, it was reported in Zaman, a conservative Turkish daily, Turkish President Abdullah Gül was scheduled to meet with Israeli President Simon Peres in New York, where the two leaders arrived for the United Nations General Assembly meetings this week.
When the news was first heard, many observers thought this meeting could create a chance for a fresh start since the leaders are seasoned statesmen who are known for their soft-spoken manners.
Shortly after the news leak, a potential face to face meeting between Gül and Peres immediately collapsed and both sides put the gloves back on and continued to trade body-blows. According to a former U.S. ambassador to Turkey, “Appointing commissions was intended to create a cooling-off period; having the two most senior representatives of Israel and Turkey meet without full preparation carried some risk. It might be better to proceed in a more deliberate and careful way to explore options to improve relations." When both sides tried to build on this weak terrain, it triggered yet further, significant erosion in relations.
Aiming for the top meeting and overlooking the deficit of trust issue between them, both countries seemed at first to be taking a risk. Nevertheless, before too long, which side is requesting and which side is rejecting the meeting game or fight occurred once more to collapse the potential meeting. Thus the trust deficit needs to be dealt with from the bottom of the cubicle of the relations mechanism to the top, if there is still any seriousness to repairing the relations on either side.
According to well-placed sources following Turkey-Israel relations closely in Washington, there are many players on both sides who want to sabotage any positive steps between the countries from taking place for their own benefit.
In that respect, the United Nations Human Rights Council's report on the Mavi Marmara raid does not seem to offer any assistance to either side to move on. The report slammed the Israeli side and condemned Israeli forces with harsh words; in return, Israel said it found the report “biased.”
Turkey, on the other hand, welcomed the report and stated it found it satisfying. According to diplomatic sources, Turkey is still expecting a formal apology from Israel at this point; Israel has also started to voice a demand for an apology from Turkey nowadays.
I asked David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, or AJC, to describe the climate following the UNHRC flotilla report which came out on Wednesday. Harris, following the daylong diplomatic meetings at the U.N., said: “I believe the issues are serious. They should not be underestimated. The strikingly contrasting reaction to the UN Human Rights Council's report illustrates the point. Turkey enthusiastically embraced it. Israel bitterly rejected it. But, in my view, it's not just about the Mavi Marmara episode, important though it is in the present discussion. Rather, it's about a strategic decision taken in Ankara to move closer to Iran, Syria, Hamas and Hezbollah -- and further away from Israel. Had it not been the Mavi Marmara story, it would have been something else, I fear. I deeply regret this development. ... Can we restore the friendship and trust? I certainly hope so, but it will take political courage and diplomatic creativity. The events in New York this week, including President Gül's speech at the U.N. and the snub of Israeli President Peres, surely did not help. More broadly, as a long-time friend of Turkey, I hope its leaders realize that its evolving orientation may be winning friends in Gaza and Tehran, but also, candidly speaking, losing friends in Washington and many European capitals."
A visiting assistant professor at the State University of New York’s Maritime College, Mark Meirowitz, insisted during our long phone conversations this week that both sides need to move beyond requesting apologies if they really want to get back on track. Meirowitz said: “Turkey should have been in the picture of the Middle East peace talks along with the American, Egyptian and Jordanian leaders. Turkey could have been active in the process more actively than currently is... What essentially needs to happen is for both sides to come to their senses and realize the importance of each other in the region. This link and mutual love is essentially out there between the people of two countries… It is up to the governments to find their own solutions to move forward.”
Not everyone is sure if the link between the people of two long and impressive histories, as strong as in the past. A leading voice of the Jewish Turkish community in New York, who immigrated to the US from Turkey just about 15 years ago, painted a rather gloomy picture when talking about Jewish life in Turkey. “About 17,000 Jews live in Turkey and nowadays there is a big pressure on them,” said the leader, who did not want to be named. “The current climate in Turkey is not good for Turkey’s Jewish community. Turkey has been our home for 500 years and it is sad to see many of the youth leaving there now. Every year hundreds of Jews are abandoning their home, Turkey. Things have got worse since the flotilla attack.”
President Gül also stated last week that what happened with the Mavi Marmara would have been considered as casus belli, a reason to launch war, in the past. He also stated, “We will never forgive Israel even if it apologizes for the Mavi Marmara.” These two harsh statements both mark an even sharper position on the Turkish side than ever elaborated before, adding fuel to a climate in which the head of states failed to meet. President Gül also received a plaque from ultra-orthodox and radical Rabbi Yisroel Dovid Weiss during his visit to New York. Rabbi Weiss, in December 2006, spoke at the International Conference to Review the Global Vision of the Holocaust held by the Iranian government in Tehran, which was described by media sources such as NPR as a gathering of Holocaust deniers. It is sad to see that a head of a very serious country in international affairs, such as Mr. Gül, would meet anyone before thoroughly vetting or investigating him.
According to news reports, the Turkish delegation had a busy week in New York in which they met tens of representatives from various foreign countries. I think it is good for the Turkish leadership to meet and greet so many head of states in such a limited time. Though, the highlights of Gül's New York visit in the international media happened to be his meeting with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and his not being able to find time to meet with Peres at the same time.
Those who believe the worst is over between Turkey and Israel, after watching the nasty jabs in New York at the highest levels, might be proven wrong sooner rather than later – if they haven’t already been.