Tag Archives: Gaza flotilla raid

Turkey, the Region, and the West after the Elections

23 Jun

[This post is co-authored with Hilal Elver]

 


             There has been a dramatic shift in critical international responses to the current Turkish political leadership that has been recently highlighted by reactions to the resounding AKP electoral victory of June 12th. The earlier mantra of concern was expressed as variations on the theme that Turkey was at risk of becoming ‘a second Iran,’ that is, an anti-democratic theocratic state in which sharia law would dominate. Such a discrediting approach has itself been discredited to the extent that it is all but abandoned in serious discussions of the Turkish governing process.

 

            The new mantra of criticism is focused on the alleged authoritarian goals of the Prime Minister Recip Tayyip Erdogan. He is widely accused of seeking to shift the whole constitutional order of Turkey from a parliamentary to a presidential system, and coupled with a little disguised scheme to become Turkey’s first president under the new constitution, and then look forward to being reelected the leader of the country for a second five year term. Some of these anxieties have receded since the AKP did not win the needed 2/3s majority in the parliament that would have enabled a new constitution to be adopted without needing to gain the consent of the citizenry through a referendum. In his victory speech on the night of the elections Erdogan went out of his way to reassure Turkish society, including those who voted against the AKP, that he will heed the message of the voters by seeking the widest possible participation in the constitution-making process with the aim of producing a consensus document that will satisfy a wide spectrum of Turks. It might be expected that such a process would likely preclude any shift to a presidential system, and would certainly make politically impossible the adoption of the strong French version, which does give a president extraordinary powers.

 

            From outside of Turkey the new line of criticism seems to reflect American and Israeli priorities and perspectives, and is not too closely related to Turkish realities. The tone and substance of this line was epitomized by a lead NY Times editorial published the day after the Turkish elections. After acknowledging some AKP achievements, including giving it credit for the flourishing Turkish economy and a successful reining in of the deep state, the editorial moved on to criticize “Mr. Edgogan’s increasingly confrontational foreign policies, which may play well at the polls, but they have proved costly for the country’s interests.” Such a comment by the supposedly authoritative and balanced NY Times is quite extraordinary for its display of ignorance and slyly disguised bias. After all, the hallmark of Turkish foreign policy during the Erdogan years, as developed under the inspired diplomatic leadership of the Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, has been ‘zero problems with neighbors’ as manifest in a series of conflict-resolving and reconciling diplomatic initiatives, and a broad conception of neighbor to include the Balkans, Central Asia, and the Caucuses, as well as the entire Arab world. It is possible to argue that this direction of non-confrontational foreign policy went too far in some instances, most notably Syria, and possibly Libya, and as a result have generated some serious challenges for Turkey.

 

            The only exception to this pattern of zero problems has been Israel, but here the NY Times once again displays an uniformed and opinionated outlook when it writes “Once-constructive relations with Israel have yielded to tit-for-tat  provocations and, if they continue, could threaten Turkey’s substantial trade with Israel.” It would be hard to compose a more misleading description of the deterioration of Turkish/Israeli relations. It should be remembered that prior to the Israeli attack on Gaza at the end of 2008, Turkey was doing its best to promote peace between Israel and Syria by acting as an intermediary, a role at the time appreciated by both parties. It is also quite outrageous to speak of “tit-for-tat provocations” when it was Israeli commandos that boarded in international waters a Turkish ship, Mavi Marmara, carrying humanitarian goods for the long blockaded people of Gaza, and killed in cold blood nine Turkish citizens. Even here in responding to Israeli unlawfulness in this Flotilla Incident of May 31, 2010, Turkey has subsequently tried its best to calm the waters, asking Tel Aviv only for an apology and compensation paid to the families of the victims, as preconditions for the restoration of normal relations with Israel. It has been Israel that has up to now defiantly refused to make even these minimal gestures in the interest of reconciliation.  And recently Davutoglu has gone further, perhaps too far, in his dedication to peaceful relations by openly discouraging Turkish participation in plans for a second Freedom Flotilla at the end of June, asking activists to wait to see if the blockade is broken due to changes in the Egyptian approach at the Rafah Crossing. The latest indications are that the Mavi Marmara will join the second freedom flotilla.

 

            The NY Times goes even further in its Orientalist approach to Turkey, writing that “Ankara must discourage private Turkish groups from initiating a second blockade-running Gaza flotilla..” Why must it? Is it not the blockade, approaching its fourth anniversary, that is widely condemned as cruel and unlawful, a flagrant violation of the legal prohibition on collective punishment set forth in Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention? Should not putting such a demand to Turkey at least be balanced by a call on Israel to end the blockade? Given the failure of the UN or neighboring governments to protect the people of Gaza, should not members of civil society feel a duty to do so, and in democratic societies should not be hampered by their governments?

 

            The other foreign policy complaint in the Times’s editorial on Turkey deals with Iran. Here, of course echoing complaints from Washington as well as Tel Aviv, Turkey is blamed for playing “cozy games with Iran” that have “only encouraged Iran’s nuclear ambitions.” Perhaps wrongheaded, but hardly an example of Erdogan’s allegedly confrontational style! What NY Times obviously favors, not surprisingly, is confrontation, urging the Turkish government to “press Turkish companies and banks to enforce international sanctions against Iran.” What is at stake here is the foreign policy independence of Turkey. Its efforts to find a peaceful resolution of the dispute surrounding Iran’s nuclear program are clearly designed to lessen the tensions surrounding the present coercive diplomacy of the U.S. led coalition, and backed by the UN, that is based on sanctions and military threats. It is in Turkey’s clear national interest to avoid a military encounter that could eventuate in a damaging regional war that would be disastrous for Turkey, as well as dashing the hopes raised by the Arab Spring, while also using its diplomatic leverage to discourage Iran from developing nuclear weapons, thereby producing an exceedingly dangerous situation for itself and others.

 

            Another Western criticism of the Erdogan’s approach is to blame Turkey for a diminishing prospect of accession to membership in the European Union. The Financial Times in their far more reasonable post-election editorial nevertheless appears to blame Turkey for “strained relations with the EU.” On what basis is not disclosed. What was not even discussed, but should be mentioned as the main explanation of the strained relations, is the rise of Islamophobia throughout Europe and reflected in public attitudes of governmental skepticism in Paris and Berlin, as well as elsewhere on the continent, about whether Turkey is a suitable candidate for membership, given its large Muslim population. It needs to be appreciated that Islamophobia in Europe while resurgent is not new. Recently, it had been associated with Turkophobia, in reaction to the Turkish guest workers that stayed on, and became a strong presence, often unwanted, in Germany. In the two earlier centuries prior to the 20th there existed European fear and loathing of an invading Ottoman Empire, and even earlier, of course, The Crusades with their marauding militarism.

 

            What emerges overall is this American led reluctance to accept Turkey as an independent regional force in the Middle East that has achieved enormous influence in recent years by relying on its own brand of soft power diplomacy. A dramatic indicator of this influence is the great popularity of Erdogan throughout the region, including among the youth who brought about the uprisings against authoritarian rule throughout the Arab world. It is an encouraging sign of the times that these new Arab champions of democracy are coming to Ankara and Istanbul, not Washington, Tel Aviv, or Paris, for guidance and inspiration.  Whether through the NATO intervention in Libya or the crude efforts to intimidate Iran, the West under faltering American leadership remains addicted to hard power statecraft, which no longer achieves its goals, although it continues to cause great suffering on the ground. It is time that the West stops lecturing Turkey, and starts to learn better what succeeds and what fails in 21st century foreign policy. A good place to start learning and listening might be Ankara!

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A Shameless Secretary General versus Freedom Flotilla 2

2 Jun


             It is expected that at the end of June, Freedom Flotilla 2 will set sail for Gaza carrying various forms of humanitarian aid, including medical, educaional, and construction materials. This second flotilla will consist of 15 ships, including the Mavi Marmara sailing from Istanbul, but also vessels departing from several European countries, and carrying as many as 1500 humanitarian activists as passengers. If these plans are carried out, as seems likely, it means that the second flotilla will be about double the size of the first that was so violently and unlawfully intercepted by Israeli commandos in international waters on May 31, 2010, resulting in nine deaths on the Turkish lead ship.

 

            Since that shocking incident of a year ago the Arab Spring is transforming the regional atmosphere, but it has not ended the blockade of Gaza, or the suffering inflicted on the Gazan population over the four-year period of coerced confinement. Such imprisonment of an occupied people has been punctuated by periodic violence, including the sustained all out Israeli attack for three weeks at the end of 2008 during which even women, children, and the disabled were not allowed to leave the deadly killing fields of Gaza. It is an extraordinary narrative of Israeli cruelty and deafening international silence, a silence broken only by the brave civil society initiatives in recent years that brought both invaluable symbolic relief in the form of empathy and human solidarity, as well as token amounts of substantive assistance in the form of much needed food and medicine. It is true that the new Egypt has opened the Rafah crossing a few days ago (but not fully or unconditionally), allowing several hundred Gazans to leave or return to Gaza on a daily basis. At best, this opening even if sustained provides only partial relief. Rafah is not currently equipped to handle goods, and is available only to people and so the blockade of imports and exports continues in force, and may even be intensified as Israel vents its anger over the Fatah/Hamas unity agreement.

 

            As the Greek coordinator of Freedom Flotilla 2, Vangelis Pisias, has expressed the motivation of this new effort to break the blockade: “We will not allow Israel to set up open prisons and concentration camps.”  Connecting  this Gazan ordeal to the wider regional struggles,” Pisias added, “Palestine is in our heart and could be the symbol of a new era in the region.” Such sentiments reinforce the renewal of Palestinian militancy as exhibited in the recent Nabka and Naksa demonstrations.

 

            A highly credible assessment of the Israeli 2010 attack on Freedom Flotilla 1 by a fact finding mission appointed by the UN Human Rights Council concluded that the Israelis had violated international law in several respects: by using excessive force, by wrongfully attacking humanitarian vessels in international waters, and by an unacceptable claim to be enforcing a blockade that was itself unlawful. Such views have been widely endorsed by a variety of respected sources throughout the international community, although the panel appointed by the UN Secretary General to evaluate the same incident has not yet made public its report, and apparently its conclusions will be unacceptably muted by the need to accommodate its Israeli member.

 

            In light of these surrounding circumstances, including the failure of Israel to live up to its announced promise after the attack in 2010 to lift the blockade, it shocks our moral and legal sensibilities that the UN Secretary General should be using the authority of his office to urge member governments to prevent ships from joining Freedom Flotilla 2. Ban Ki-moon shamelessly does not even balance such a call, purportedly to avoid the recurrence of violence, by at least sending an equivalent message to Israel insisting that the blockade end and demanding that no force be used by Israel in response to humanitarian initiatives of the sort being planned. Instead of protecting those who would act on behalf of unlawful Palestinian victimization, the UN Secretary General disgraces the office, by taking a one-sided stand in support of one of the most flagrant and long lasting instances of injustice that has been allowed to persist in the world. True, his spokesperson tries to soften the impact of such a message by vacuously stating that “the situation in the Gaza Strip must be changed, and Israel must conduct real measures to end the siege.” We must ask why were these thoughts not expressed by the Secretary General himself and directly to Israel? Public relations is part of his job, but it is not a cover for crassly taking the wrong side in the controversy over whether or not Freedom Flotilla 2 is a legitimate humanitarian initiative courageously undertaken by civil society without the slightest credible threat to Israeli security and in the face of Israeli warnings of dire consequences.

 

            Appropriately, and not unexpectedly, the Turkish Government refuses to bow to such abusive pressures even when backed by the UN at its highest level. Ahmet Davutoglu, the widely respected Turkish Foreign Minister, has said repeatedly in recent weeks when asked about Freedom Flotilla 2, that no democratic government should ever claim the authority to exercise control over the peaceful initiatives of civil society, as represented by NGOs. Davutoglu has been quoted as saying “[N]obody should expect from Turkey…to forget that nine civilians were killed last year..Therefore we are sending a clear message to all those concerned. The same tragedy should not be repeated again.” Underscoring the unresolved essential issue he asked rhetorically, “[D]o we think that one member state is beyond international law?” Noting that Israel has still not offered an apology to Turkey or compensation to the families of those killed, Davutoglu makes clear that until such reasonable preconditions for diplomatic normalization are met, Israel should not be accepted “to be a partner in the region.”

 

             In the background of this sordid effort to interfere with Freedom Flotilla 2 is the geopolitical muscle of the United States that blindly (and dumbly) backs Israel no matter how outrageous or criminal its behavior. And undoubtedly, this geopolitical pressure helps explain this attempted interference by the UN with a brave and needed humanitarian initiative that deserves to be strongly supported by the UN rather than condemned. Despite the near universal verbal objections of world leaders, including even Ban Ki-moon, to the Israeli blockade, no meaningful action has been yet taken by either governments or the UN. Israel’s undisguised defiance of the requirements of belligerent occupation of Gaza as set forth in the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949, and the First Additional Protocol appended thereto in 1977, is an unacknowledged scandal of gigantic proportions.

 

            Liberating Palestine from oppressive occupation and refugee regimes should become a unifying priority for peoples and leaders during this second stage of the Arab Spring. Nothing could do more to manifest the external as well as the internal turn to democracy, constitutional governance, and human rights than displays of solidarity by new and newly reformist governments in Arab countries with this unendurably long Palestinian struggle for justice and sustainable peace. It would also offer the world a contrast with the subservience to Israel recently on display in Washington, highlighted by inviting Benjamin Netanyahu to address an adoring U.S. Congress, a rarity in the country’s treatment of foreign leaders. Its impact was heightened by the pandering speech given by President Obama to AIPAC, the notorious Israeli lobbying organization, at about the same time. It is unprecedented in the history of diplomacy that a leading sovereign state would so jeopardize its own global reputation and sacrifice its values to avoid offending a small allied partner. It is in the American interest, as well as in the interest of the peoples of the Arab world, particularly the Palestinians, to end the conflict.

 

             The United States Government has long discredited itself as an intermediary in the conflict. Its partisanship, driven mainly by domestic politics, represents a costly sacrifice of its own interests, but is also objectionable as lending support to intolerable Israeli policies of apartheid occupation and colonialist expansionism. It is time to shift the locus of diplomatic responsibility for resolving the conflict from Washington to the far more geopolitically trustworthy auspices of Brazil, Turkey, Nordic countries, even possibly Russia or China, and to encourage a more active regional role. If the encouraging recent Fatah/Hamas unity arrangements hold up and move forward, Palestinian representation will be regarded as increasingly credible, and hopefully will actively incorporate elements of the refugee communities in the bordering countries into their diplomacy. It is time for the world to realize, and the Palestinians to highlight, that the conflict is not just about territory (‘land for peace’), or even to ensure an adequate Palestinian presence in Jerusalem, it is most fundamentally about people. Insisting on respect for the moral, legal, and political rights of Palestinian refugees is the litmus test of a people-centered approach to the conflict, and our concern for the future of these long entrapped refugees should not be allowed to drift off into peripheral space, as has happened in the past.