ישראל נאמן | Lectures, Articles, Tours: Israel | Mideast onTarget | Elliot Chodoff & Yisrael Ne'eman | New Ottomanism Taps the Palestinian Venue

New Ottomanism Taps the Palestinian Venue

06 September 2011

By Yisrael Ne'eman

Everyone promised September was to be an interesting month in the Middle East and there are no disappointments so far. Libya is shaping up for its last battles with Qadaffi forces, unrest continues in Syria, Egypt is said to have elections, the Palestinians are expected to declare their state with UN support and Israel on Saturday night had its largest socio-economic protest demonstration ever. But the biggest crisis is brewing with PM Recip Tayyip Erdogen's Turkey. Ankara expelled the Israeli ambassador when Jerusalem refused to apologize for the deaths of nine Islamist IHH Islamist activists during last year's attempt by the Turkish registered Mavi Marmara to break the Israeli naval blockade of the Gaza Strip. The UN investigated and its Palmer Report declared the blockade "legal" while chiding Israel for using excessive force by its naval commandos when seizing control of the vessel. The report also cast doubt on the innocence of the IHH militants.

Over the past year Israel and Turkey engaged in talks to clear up the issues but to no avail. Israel was willing to express regret over the loss of life but refused to issue an apology. The Turks are furious, sent Israel's ambassador packing (there is no Turkish ambassador in Tel Aviv), are threatening a full break in diplomatic relations, have stated in general that Ankara supports the national rights of all peoples in the region and are considering turning to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) at The Hague to declare Israel's blockade of Gaza illegal. Two points before moving on: Do the Turks include the Kurds when speaking of the rights of all peoples? And if so why the Turkish intensification of attacks against them in southeast part of the country and bombings of Kurdish forces in northern Iraq? Continuing in the same vein, will the Turks acknowledge the rights of Greek Cypriots to full independence and end their occupation of northern Cyprus begun in 1974? As for the second point, the International Court can be expected to side with Ankara against Israel no matter what the evidence and in spite of what the Palmer Report advises.

Turkish foreign policy in the last several years can be described as a new Ottomanism – an attempt to re-unify the Middle East around a bold activist Turkish outreach. Call it a throwback to the 400 years of Ottoman imperial sway in the Middle East (and the Balkans) but without military conquest. Only a few years ago Erdogen hoped to rally the Sunni Arab states around the Turkish lead (hegemony?) said to be for the benefit of all. Obviously neither Israel, the Kurds nor the Cypriots can fit into such a scheme but to succeed would be a major diplomatic, regional and global success for Ankara. The Iranians are also a problem, Erdogen preferring to keep them engaged with one hand while holding them off with the other. Since the beginning of 2011 his policy became more of a shambles with each passing month. Tunisia, Egypt and Libya faced uprisings while the nurtured ally, Bashar Assad's Syria, is repressing its citizenry with overwhelming military force, bringing condemnation not only by the West, but by Erdogen himself.

The Palestinians remain the only real flashpoint whereby the Turks can score points, yet here the Turkish leadership, themselves considered "moderate" Islamists, must decide between the Jihadist Hamas in Gaza or the secular western leaning Palestinian Authority led by Fatah's Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank (Judea and Samaria). The Turks want both. Contradictions do exist since Hamas fully opposes a permanent two-state solution and will accept only a "hudna" or Islamic cease-fire for a specified amount of time and then proceed to Israel's destruction. Abbas is said to be committed to a two-state solution attesting to Israel's legitimacy, but the conditions for such are still to be negotiated – most importantly the Palestinian demand for full refugee return, including descendents, leading to Israel's practical destruction as a Jewish State. It is just not clear if the PLO/Fatah would agree to recognition of Israel's legitimate right to national expression as the nation state of the Jewish People.

The Turks are apparently gearing up to support both Palestinian movements simultaneously, they are insisting on breaking the naval blockade on Gaza and can be expected to begin a diplomatic offensive in demand of Palestinian statehood within the framework of the two-state solution. Israel as the adversary of both Hamas and the PLO is a unifying "bad guy" and here the Turks have an opportunity to gain influence with both the Islamic and more secular nationalist Palestinian movements at the same time. Ankara's policy is to outmaneuver and then lead the Arab world. Egypt is still hunting Islamist terrorists in Sinai whether they be Hamas, the Islamic Jihad or Al-Qaeda types while the Jordanian regime wants moderation for all, fearing for its own stability. Turkey no longer has a Syrian policy, the pro-Iranian Assad regime being so brutal that Erdogen can find little common ground with them and is demanding regime change, one that may bring the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and should that be so, an accompanying civil conflict/war. In Iraq Turkish moves are interpreted as anti-Kurdish and not particularly pro-Shiite as that religious faction generally leans more towards Iran.

Supporting the Palestinian client at the expense of Israel scores points in the Arab World. The risk is minimal, none will oppose the move. The question is "How far to go?" Breaking diplomatic relations with Israel and projecting a naval show of force in the Mediterranean will be bad enough but what options does Israel have should Erdogen decide to send the Turkish navy to breech the internationally legal Gaza blockade and/or decide on a visit himself to the Strip as he has threatened to do on occasion. How would he get there? Would he pass through the border crossing at Rafiah or prefer one of the tunnels? (And how would the Egyptians feel about this?) Or would he be part of a Turkish naval flotilla on its way to Gaza? Israel would need to decide whether to physically confront the Turkish navy with PM Erdogen on board, or not. Either way Jerusalem loses, at least in the short run.

The Erdogen government backed itself into a corner with the failed new Ottoman foreign policy initiative at the time of Arab World uprisings. To be fair, they like everyone else were surprised and cannot be blamed as such. They did however overplay their hand with the Mavi Marmara by acting as its patron. Hoping to get an Israeli apology and the lifting of the Gaza blockade never happened and now Ankara finds itself limited with one way out, the Palestinian route at Israel's great expense. Not that this appears to be such a terrible option.

Could such an outcome have been avoided by Israel? Apparently the Americans worked on a formula with a less than full apology, PM Netanyahu was inclined to accept but Foreign Minister Leiberman and others persuaded him to decline. But even with such an apology and compensation for those killed the Turks continued to insist on Israel's lifting of the Gaza blockade. Would they have backed down in light of an agreement? Most are doubtful but it certainly would have been more difficult for the Turks to press their claims on the diplomatic front and appeal to the ICJ in The Hague. Internationally the case would be seen as closed although Erdogen could push an adversarial line whenever he deemed it necessary. Any which way this scenario would turn out leaves Israel as the loser.

Now the question is one of degree. How much will Israel lose in its relationship with the Turks and as a result much of the Arab/Muslim World. Defending one's sovereignty has its costs and at times payment must be made. But the Turks are also exposed. Their NATO allies and especially the US may attempt to call them to order and/or begin a re-evaluation of policy towards the "moderate" Islamic regime in Ankara. They too may have an outstanding bill to settle, but only after the dust settles in the more distant future.