23 March 2013

On the Israeli Mavi Marmara Apology

I have read many reports regarding Netanyahu's call to Erdogan to apologize about the Mavi Marmara incident. Most of them were convinced that it was Obama who forced that apology. BBC's breathless headline read: US Extracts Last-Minute Israeli Apology. It sounds like Obama tied Netanyahu to a chair and made him an offer he couldn't refuse. Where is Mario Puzo when you need him?

Even the setting was pure Hollywood.
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made his phone call of apology to his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan from a trailer on the tarmac at Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv. 
Air Force One stood idling while the call was placed. Barack Obama sat in the trailer with Mr Netanyahu and is understood to have intervened in the call at one point. 
Another point that most commentators emphasized was the fact that Lieberman, Netanyahu's combative former Minister of Foreign Affairs, was no longer in the cabinet (he is fighting corruption charges). He was the public face of Israel's refusal to apologize for the incident. And the understanding is that, if he were still present, he would never have allowed it.

Being a contrarian, I am not persuaded that easily.

This presentation of the affair is pure spin. This was not a last minute deal, something Obama pushed before Air Force One was about the take-off for Jordan. Nor was it something they had to do quickly before Lieberman could make a come back. It was a significant undertaking that was part of a larger process.

Let's go back to the beginning. What was the deal after the Mavi Marmara incident? Turkish government asked for three things. Israel should apologize, pay compensation to the families of the dead activists and lift its decade-long embargo in Gaza.

When you think about it, the package was hardly about an apology (Israel offered regret over loss of life) or the people who died in the incident. It was about providing Turkey with the image of a country that can stand up to Israel (and by proxy its protector, the US) to protect the rights and lives of Palestinians.

In short, the whole incident and its aftermath was designed to give Turkey street creds and to make it appear as the only country in the region that can redress the staggeringly one-sided balance of power between Israel and Palestinians.

Since his nomination, John Kerry was on the phone with Davutoglu almost on a daily basis and he visited him in Ankara at the beginning of March. A couple of weeks ago, despite Erdogan's incendiary comments about Zionism, Kerry called Davutoglu and asked for Turkey's help and assistance in the Palestinian peace process. And Davutoglu (in a widely leaked rebuff) told him off and ruled out any Turkish involvement unless Israel apologized for the incident.

Now, here is the interesting part. After the apology (which was promoted as a last minute, spur-of-the-moment thing with Air Force One idling in the runway), Davutoglu told the Turkish media that the package was something they had been working on for three years. And just the actual text of the conversation was prepared by the US, Turkish and Israeli diplomats working around the clock in the last six days. He was on the phone with Kerry every day. The text they hammered out was so sensitive that not one word was changed during the conversation (which took roughly 30 minutes).

And, here is the kicker, before he took Netanyahu's call, Erdogan called the leaders of Hamas and Fatah and informed them of the content and got them to give their agreement what was going to be said during that conversation. He then talked to the Egyptian President and Lebanese Prime Minister.

In other words, what media outlets left out in their breathless commentary is that Turkey has silently dropped its key demand, you know, the lifting of the embargo. Instead it simply accepted an apology and compensation. Moreover,  it did so after it informed Palestinian leaders and got their blessings. Not to mention other potential partners and participants in the peace process.

To me, that means only one thing. The Turkish side was informed that insisting on the embargo clause was no longer necessary, as pretty soon this issue was going to be resolved through a comprehensive peace process. They passed on the message to the relevant parties and the package became something that everyone could accept. Incidentally, Israel have been saying, for some time now, that they would apologize and pay compensation, it was the third demand that prevented further progress. Suddenly, this became a non-issue.

This reading of this situation is further strengthened by the spin that was put on the apology. By presenting it as something Obama forced upon a reluctant Netanyahu (something he "extracted" from him, as the BBC put it) the Americans were able to present their efforts under a different light. Until now, people in the region viewed the US as a steadfast ally of Israel who will always support anything and everything Israeli governments do. This (largely accurate view) made people suspicious of US intentions and interventions. And it made the peace process pretty much impossible. When the power imbalance was so great and the failure to achieve peace was cost-free, there was no incentive for Israel to make any effort to stay at the table or to make any concessions.

With this symbolic gesture Obama sent two signals. One, the peace process is no longer between the powerful alliance of Israel and the US on the one side and powerless and divided Palestinians on the other. By asking for Turkey's direct involvement and by appearing to force Israel to make Turkey's participation possible, they changed the equation behind the balance of power. From Erdogan's calls to Egypt and Lebanon it looks like other regional actors will be part of the new equation as well.

Secondly, by putting out the spin of a forcibly extracted apology, he signaled that the peace process was so important to the US that they might occasionally distance themselves from Israel. And the US might even force Israel to make some concessions every now and then.

Together, these signals project a different setting for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

I concede that it is a small opening but, from where I stand, it is indicative of bigger things to come.

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