Monday, September 05, 2011

Turkey doesn't deserve an apology

Eli Avidar

Long before the Palmer report was released, initial leaks made it clear why Turkey was demanding an apology from Israel and trying to forestall the report's publication. Even then, everyone understood that the Palmer report's committee had unequivocally accepted Israel's position that the naval blockade of Gaza is legal. The report even established that Turkey had done too little to stop extremists aboard the Mavi Marmara from setting sail in the first place. Turkey understood that once the report was published they would have no chance of squeezing an apology out of Israel, so instead they launched a diplomatic offensive. Israel commendably withstood the pressure. There was nothing to apologize for. Turkey should be satisfied with the fact that the U.N. Palmer Commission gave their country a pass by disregarding its government's relationship with the IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation, as well as that organization's role in the election of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Still, the bottom line is obvious. Despite some criticism of IDF conduct, the report takes Israel's side. It's difficult to describe how humiliating this is for Ankara. For the past few months, Turkey has been proclaiming in every international forum that Israel violated international law. In light of this comeuppance, it is no surprise that Erdogan chose to declare our ambassador in Ankara a persona non grata.

Some have proposed that despite the fact that Israel's position was justified, it would have been better to end the crisis with an apology, if only for the sake of broader geopolitical considerations. This would have constituted a grave mistake. No apology would have ended the crisis. Turkey demanded that we lift our blockade on Gaza, a step that would have earned Erdogan the status of Leader of the Arab World. This would have come at the expense of Israel's citizens, who would have then found themselves under an even greater threat of missile and terror attacks. The analysts who continually harped about Israel's need to ingratiate itself with Turkey are the very same people who helped Turkey paint itself into a corner.

The best way to improve relations with Turkey, using language that Middle Easterners understand, is to exact a heavy diplomatic price. Israel must attack the portion of the Palmer report that downplays Turkey's responsibility in the flotilla crisis, as well as make it clear to the world that Erdogan's government has a negative influence on the Middle East. We must make it clear that Turkey is not a stabilizing force in the region or part of the solution. Rather, it is a provocateur that undermines stability.

Expelling the Israeli ambassador from Ankara is a move that will likely hurt Turkey in the end. Erdogan could learn a lesson from Oman and Morocco, both nations that hosted international conferences and leaders from all over the world in the 1990's, but disappeared from the diplomatic map after severing ties with Israel in 2000. Likewise, Turkey is a former key player that has been taken over by radical, irresponsible ideology. Not only has Turkey failed in its efforts to join the European Union, but its latest steps are pushing it further away from moderate Muslim states and closer to extremists like Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas. The deterioration of its relations with Israel is tantamount to a public confession that this is, in fact, the case.

In Ankara's view, no counterweight currently exists in Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan and certainly not in the Gulf states. The rejuvenated Arab world views Erdogan as an impulsive leader in the cast of Moammar Gadhafi. The loss of its alliance with Syria and the latter's weakening are liable to cause the long-forgotten Kurds to rise up and force Turkey to deal with its internal problems before it can continue to sow chaos internationally.

Israel must shift from a policy of absorbing blows to taking the diplomatic offensive. While the most natural thing for Israelis to do is wait out the storm, in the Middle East, diplomacy doesn't work that way. Relations with Turkey will improve only once Israel realizes that the current crisis is exacting too high an international price and condemning it to isolation and irrelevance in the region.

The Palmer report has shed light on the extremism and isolation Erdogan has brought to Turkey. Only continued diplomatic pressure will propel Ankara to change direction and, in the long run, restore its former friendly relations with Israel.

Eli Avidar is currently the managing director of the Israel Diamond Institute Group and a former official in the Foreign Ministry.

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