11 September 2011

Turkey and Israel: Is This For Real?

While I was away, my theory about Turkish Israeli tension being essentially a kabuki theater came under attack.

It became a tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury, signifying...well, let's see.

My Turkish friends are telling me that I have been wrong about the whole thing, as it has become clear that Lieberman is a belligerent idiot and Netanyahu is an empty suite who is only interested in being a Prime Minister. Neither of them cares about the long term interests of the Jewish state, they say. According to them, this dynamic duo is doing everything to alienate Israel's only friend in the region.

My Jewish and Israeli friends are telling me that Erdogan is clearly an out-of-control antisemite playing a dangerous game. They say that he began by asking for an apology, he escalated it to a demand for lifting of the Gaza blockade and now he is pretending to be the Sultan of the Middle East. They claim that he is doing all that on purpose to make it impossible to normalize Turkey's relations with Israel.

I will grant that Lieberman is probably a belligerent lightweight and as Netanyahu is likely a poseur. And Erdogan looks and sounds like an antisemite with delusions of grandeur.

But there is a big jump from these observations to a conclusion that these two countries are at each other's throat.

One of the ways I can spot an antisemite in a conversation is through the "positive" bias discourse. You know, Jews are good with money or Israel largely controls world events, type of generalizations, which they presume to be flattering to Jewish people. Israel is behind this or Israel would never allow that or Jews control the world type of rubbish.

As you know by now, I never assume a country has the power to run things and I don't generalize on people or countries. I simply look at each player's objective interests and try to see how their actions help protect those interests. It is a crude modernist approach (I remain a Marxist at heart), which would give post modernity crowd "positivism" fits, but it is better than "he said vs he said" discourse analyses the same post modernity folks favor.

My question is this: If one percent of the antisemitic attribution to Israel's stately intelligence were true would they be acting like everyone wants us to believe they do?

Let's start with the situation in the Middle East.

Syria is about to explode. Assad and his goons have gone beyond the point of no return. When Syria goes up in flame Lebanon will be next to be thrown in chaos. Not just because Hezbollah will have lost its main benefactor in the region but also because Syria controls large parts of Lebanon. Very little happen there without Syria being involved in some way.

Second Egypt is erupting.

After the border incident where Egyptian security forces were killed by Israelis, the Egyptian government flip flopped, announced that they were going to recall their envoy and then decided against it. In the ensuing mood of anger, the famed Arab Spring crowds took on the Israeli embassy. The Egyptian Spiderman, or the Flagman as he is known locally, a guy by the name of Ahmet Shahat scaled the building and took down the Israeli flag to replace it with the Egyptian one.
"The previous regime managed to ignore public opinion. This cannot be done anymore. Any government - this government or any future government - will have to pay more respect to what the public wants," Fishere, a career diplomat and writer, said. (...)
"The Egyptian army would be mistaken to think the relationship with Israel will remain a pure security matter, that the people have no right to discuss or approach," political analyst Khalil Anani wrote in al-Hayat newspaper. 
"We can only imagine what the reaction would have been if this crime was committed on Israeli soil by Egyptians," he adds.

Then the famed Arab Spring crowds attacked the Israeli embassy and the ambassador had to be whisked away from Cairo.

Moreover, Palestinians are about to go to the UN to ask their statehood be recognized.

And within Israel protest marches continue unabated as Israelis realize that behind the "security above all" discourses it was the ordinary people who have been shouldering the lion share of sacrifice.

So, it is not an exaggeration to say that things are looking very precarious for Israel.

Yet, we are asked to believe that Israeli government looked at that situation, analyzed it carefully and decided that it needed to pick another fight, this time with the emerging super power of the region. Because they said, apologizing to Turkey would send a message of weakness.


This is one of the silliest explanations I have ever heard in international affairs.

Somehow, promptly apologizing to Egypt for shooting five security agents was not a sign of weakness but doing so for Turkey might have been construed as such.

I mean, really?

Consider the repercussions for Israel of a real crisis between these two countries:

-Militarily, Israel would be unable to use the Turkish air space to train its air forces (the country is too small for this).
-Also, Israel would have to forgo several billion dollars worth of military contracts. Currently, it provides maintenance and modernization services to Turkish planes and tanks.
-Economically, Israel stands to lose as well:
As well as wide political ramifications, a breach with Turkey could have serious economic consequences, Stanley Fischer, governor of the Bank of Israel, warned this week. Trade between the two countries is worth $3.5bn-$4bn a year. The breach "will affect tourism, trade, culture and sport" as well as diplomatic relations, said Liel.
-Politically, it would lose its only friend and long term ally in the region. The two countries have a long history of cooperation: they share intelligence, they work closely on countries like Syria and they assist each other in a variety of forums.

The question is: does this make sense? And, unless you are a neocon who genuinely sees the world through "showing weakness" lenses, my answer is that it makes no sense.

Let's take a closer look, shall we?

Turkey declared that it is suspending all military contracts with Israel and that it is planning to take Israel to International Court of Justice over Gaza blockade.

But when you look at it closely you realize that:
However, most of the deals with Israeli companies, like the upgrading of Turkey's US-made jets and tanks, have already been completed.
The last of 10 advanced drones, or unmanned aircraft, have been delivered, and Turkey does not plan to buy any more. 
They say timing is everything, don't they?

As for the ICJ, well, as far as I know, unless Israel consent to the jurisdiction, these proceedings cannot be binding. The final opinion would be as symbolic as the two UN report that triggered this move.

Let's take a look at the Israeli threats of retaliation as published in Yediot Ahronot. Apparently, Lieberman wants to talk to PKK leadership and he is planning to form an alliance with the Armenian lobby in the US.


As anyone call tell you, neither of these threats entail serious consequences for Turkey at this point in time. PKK is already fighting an insurgency there and, as I have been maintaining, a Kurdish state is one of the two critical solutions that will come out of this whole convoluted process.

As for the Armenian lobby, well, I don't mean to be cynical, as I am in favor of correcting the historical record, but I doubt that US oil and gas distribution interests in the region are less important than a symbolic victory of passing a non-binding resolution in Congress. With the whole region up in the air, Syria on the verge of civil war and Egypt increasingly unable to control its citizens, going after Turkey now would mean strengthening Iran's ambitions to become the regional superpower. I submit that, even if Lieberman was serious, this would be the last thing the US would want to do at this point.

To me, the whole thing makes more sense as a kabuki theater. Syria will experience a regime change soon and Turkey will play a critical role in that. Anybody who believes in Arab Spring and Freedom chants should watch Rumsfeld declare Libya as a sideshow and Syria as the key (as I consistently claimed). In that context, it is critically important to have anti-Israeli street cred, as it were, to be able to continue to have a legitimate superpower role in the region after such an incident.

Of course, in the near future, things will escalate further.

Erdogan is scheduled to go to Egypt this week. Ever since Davos (the starting point of this play) he is a hero to ordinary Arabs (the so called Arab street). I suspect he will ask to go to Palestine to show his solidarity. Now that Rafah crossing is wide open, Tantawi has a thorny problem in that respect. He was known earlier as Mubarak's poodle and if he stops Erdogan from crossing, he will be seen as Israel's poodle. Tahrir Square crowds who have been watching him suspiciously could come after him. Especially the Brotherhood will enjoy this.

If he doesn't, Erdogan will overshadow him in a huge way in Gaza and Hamas will put on a show for Erdogan to pay back decades of what they see as Egyptian complicity. Either way Tantawi will have a serious political legitimacy problem. Already Mubarak's trial and his postponed testimony is causing him sleepless nights. With Erdogan appearing as the only leader in the region capable of standing up to Israel will not help him in this volatile country.

Remember when Egypt flip flopped after the border incident about recalling its envoy to Israel, Turkey upstaged Egypt by expelling the Israeli ambassador. Nice timing, don't you thing?

Hence, it is a win-win for Erdogan and lose-lose for Tantawi.

And Erdogan will not stop there.
According to Yossi Alpher, an Israeli analyst and co-editor of the BitterLemons website, Erdogan "is flexing Turkey's muscles. He's now trying to project Turkish influence into Egypt. There's concern that he will offer financial aid to Egypt, which needs it desperately, and that will give him a degree of influence. 
In short, I realize that things could get out of hand as the players are human (euphemism for stupid).

And I know that things will look much worse before they get better but if in the next little while Syria experiences a regime change, and in a couple of years a Palestinian and a Kurdish state are formed with the grudging assistance of Turkey and Israel (their peculiar politicians notwithstanding), remember you read it here first.

In the meantime, if you think I am human and fallible (again, euphemism for stupid), this is the alternative explanation:
Israel's refusal to apologise for the deaths was in contrast to its swift statement of regret three weeks ago after the fatal shooting of Egyptian security personnel in the aftermath of a militant attack near the Egypt-Israel border in which eight Israelis were killed.
"The mistakes that Israel is making are much more evident in the case of Turkey than in the case of Israel," said Alpher. "Damage control was relatively more forthcoming with the apology to Egypt than in the case of Turkey, where we basically allowed ourselves to walk right into repeated traps that Erdogan has set for us."
Hey, why not? Right?

The only upside of this cartoonish explanation with Erdogan as the incredibly clever actor who sets up the Jewish state time after time and Israel as the Road Runner who falls for it every time, is the possibility that it could finally discourage antisemites from using omnipresent and omniscient Jewish stereotypes.

We'll see.

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