Opinion: Turkey should de-escalate


Turkey's Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu at a news conference in Ankara on Sept. 2, 2011. Turkey expelled the Israeli ambassador and suspended all military ties with its one-time ally after a U.N. report condemned excessive force used by Israel on a Gaza aid flotilla.



WASHINGTON — On May 31, 2010, a violent clash with Israeli naval responders broke out on a Turkish ship in a flotilla bent on penetrating Israel’s blockade of Hamas-controlled Gaza.

In response to a subsequent demand by Turkey, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon formed a “panel of inquiry” into the incident. Last week, the probe’s conclusions were made public, and they offer some key takeaways.

First: though the activities of too many U.N. agencies, controlled by an organized majority, are shamelessly politicized — the mandate for a Human Rights Council “fact-finding mission” on the flotilla had prejudged Israel as guilty — constructiveness is still occasionally possible at the world body. Both Israel and Turkey were represented on Ban’s panel.

The panel, led by former New Zealand Prime Minister Geoffrey Palmer found that Israel’s current closure on Gaza complies with international law and is “a legitimate security measure” to curb the smuggling of weapons into a territory from which thousands of rocket attacks have been carried out against civilian areas inside Israel.

Moreover, the panel upheld Israel’s right to “search … and to capture” a vessel in violation of the blockade, also finding that Israeli personnel faced “significant, organized and violent resistance” planned “in advance” by flotilla organizers, particularly the Turkish Islamist group IHH.

The Palmer report added that “more could have been done” by Turkey to prevent this irresponsible provocation.

The report did opine that the force utilized in response to the flotilla was “excessive” — a characterization with which we disagree not least in light of the fact that Israel proved willing, when allowed, to redirect other ships without bloodshed.

Additionally, though Israel had appealed in advance to receive and deliver genuine humanitarian goods to Gaza, the panel asked Israel to show goodwill by expressing regret over the loss of life that resulted from the flotilla activists’ refusal of this offer. Indeed, Israel has repeatedly expressed its regret.

Despite this, Turkey has now rejected the Palmer report, and Israel’s overtures. It has instituted a cascading series of diplomatic threats and punitive measures against the Jewish state, including the detention and interrogation of 40 Israeli tourists traveling through Istanbul last week.

Turkey says that it is prepared to restore “friendship” with Israel, but only upon receipt of an outright apology — implying an acceptance of liability — as well as discontinuance of the already limited embargo on Gaza. Officials in Ankara know that these conditions are unreasonable.

Having long fiercely battled its own adversaries, Turkey undoubtedly understands the Israeli government’s duty to protect its citizens against sworn assailants.

It is clear, then, that Turkish conduct has a different motivation. For several years now, predating the flotilla incident, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has shifted away from Turkey’s longstanding partnership with Israel, instead investing in ever-closer ties with Iran and, until the most recent atrocities there, Syria.

When Israel was finally compelled to launch counterterrorism strikes in Gaza in early 2009, Erdogan accused Israel of “inhuman actions which would bring it to self-destruction,” adding, “Allah will sooner or later punish those who transgress the rights of innocents.” He defended and engaged with Hamas leaders, while accusing Israel of “state terrorism.”

Months later, he forced Israel out of collaborative NATO defense exercises. At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Erdogan went so far as to storm off-stage after publicly informing Israeli President Shimon Peres, “When it comes to killing, you know very well how to kill. I know well how you hit and kill children on beaches.”

Peres responded by quickly reaching out to the Turkish premier, but Erdogan’s rhetoric would become echoed in incendiary Istanbul billboards telling Israelis: “You cannot be the sons of Moses.”

Of course, it need not — and should not — be this way. Beyond mutually important military cooperation which is now suspended by Ankara, Israel and Turkey have been significant economic partners; Israelis have visited Turkey in large numbers.

The Arab Spring, meanwhile, may tempt Turkey to spread its influence through anti-Israel populism, but regional instability can hurt Turkey as well as Israel. In sum, Turkish-Israeli reconciliation is in the interest of both parties, and their wider neighborhood.

Israel has tried to make amends for a confrontation it did not seek; the U.N. report, in advancing its findings, has given Turkey the opportunity to finally respond in kind.

Daniel S. Mariaschin is executive director and David J. Michaels is international director of U.N. affairs at B’nai B’rith International, a worldwide Jewish community service organization that fights antisemitism and anti-Israel bias.