Diplomacy: Rocking the boat

Ankara has made it impossible to ignore Gaza.

By
June 11, 2010 16:58
Turkey Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Turkey PM Erdogan 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Imagine orchestrating a chess match between two enemies where – through pressure, guile and persistence – you have finally gotten each side to move their pieces to roughly where you want them to be.

And then imagine that, seemingly out of the blue, someone comes from the sidelines and, in addition to the 32 chess pieces already in play, slams down a huge, 33rd piece that significantly alters the ebb and flow of the entire game.

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Now you can imagine how the US administration must feel today about Turkey.

Forget for a second all the noise surrounding the flotilla episode: The questions about the way the raid was planned and carried out; the international outrage; the ensuing isolation of Israel; the internal debate over what type of probe should be set up. What is emerging, and what many inside the government’s policy-making apparatus will be keen to shine a light on in the coming days, are questions about Turkey’s role in all this and what ramifications that role will have on the wider diplomatic process.

In a space of two weeks – first by obviously backing the Mavi Marmara in its effort to break the naval blockade on Gaza and by fanning the flames through vitriolic anti-Israel rhetoric afterward, and then by voting against US-backed UN Security Council resolutions against Iran – Turkey has done its utmost to disrupt key Obama administration initiatives on Iran and the Middle East.

On Iran the US was hoping to create a perception of wall-to-wall international unity against Teheran’s nuclear ambitions. However, since both Turkey and Brazil voted against the sanctions, cracks have clearly emerged in that wall, cracks Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will now try to widen and exploit.

And regarding the Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic process, the US was lining the pieces up in such a way that – after years of restrictions on what could and could not go into Gaza – Israel would begin easing up on the limitations within the context of the indirect negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. As a result, PA President Mahmoud Abbas stood to both get the credit for, and be strengthened by, the move. And strengthening Abbas on the Palestinian street has long been a key US policy objective here.

Along comes the flotilla, and instead of Abbas benefiting from the lifting of restrictions on what is allowed into Gaza, Turkey and Hamas will get the credit.

“What is perhaps most unsettling about the flotilla incident,” one European diplomat commented this week, “is that Egypt and the Palestinian Authority see [Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdogan favoring the Hamas agenda. And this is placing them in a difficult position.”

It is also introducing a 33rd piece on the chess board, a piece that will necessitate a great deal of recalibrating. Turkey is a player, and from an Israeli perspective and increasingly from an American one, it is a player with a disruptive agenda since its actions are strengthening Hamas – the party that Israel, the PA and the US all believe needs to be weakened.

MUCH HAS justly been written in recent days about how the current venom toward Israel coming from Ankara is not a sudden eruption, but rather a symptom of significant, deep changes that have taken place inside Turkish society over the last decade, and how Turkey – spurned in its advances toward the EU – is now snubbing its nose at the West by turning east.

The flotilla crisis may have brought all this into sharp focus, but is obviously not the reason for the shift.

Israel is not the reason Ankara refused to let the US troops enter Iraq through its territory in 2003; nor the reason why Turkey, along with Brazil, wanted to take Iran’s coals out of the fire and came up with a proposal a few weeks ago to transfer some of Teheran’s low enriched uranium abroad; nor why Ankara’s ambassador to the UN voted Wednesday against UN Security Council sanctions against Iran. And as a result of these developments, many – and not only in Israel – are now questioning Turkey’s reliability as an ally, at least a Turkey under Erdogan.

One aspect of the flotilla story that has been overlooked to a certain extent is what Turkey’s meddling is doing to Egypt, an Egypt increasingly worried about he confluence of a Muslim Brotherhood gaining popularity and an aging and obviously not immortal President Hosni Mubarak.

Because of the pressure from the whole incident, Egypt has indefinitely opened up the Rafah border, something that can’t be good for an Egyptian regime concerned lest Gaza’s Hamas links up with its own Muslim Brotherhood.

Cairo’s closing of the Gaza border was not because it wanted to do Israel any favor, but because it was in Mubarak’s interest to keep Egyptians out of Gaza, and vice versa.

Egypt’s relatively muted response during the aftermath of the flotilla crisis was also worthy of note, as was the fact that Israel – beleaguered by a world damning it for a “blockade” of Gaza – never publicly tried to share the blame with Cairo, never pointing a finger at Egypt and saying it was also responsible for the blockade.

Israel clearly didn’t want to embarrass the Egyptians or make their position any more difficult. The level of cooperation between Mubarak and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, one diplomatic official pointed out, is often far greater than it appears.

For all the damage the flotilla incident has caused Israel, and the damage is not inconsiderable, one positive side effect may be the placing of Gaza on the international agenda, and not only the Gaza that the Turks and the Palestinians want the world to see: the Gaza of deprivation, the Gaza without coriander seeds or soda pop.

The incident has also brought into focus the Gaza ruled not by the grandfatherly Abbas, or the Western technocrat PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, but rather by Hamas terrorists.

One of the inexplicable dimensions of the diplomatic efforts since the Annapolis conference in late 2007 has been the degree to which the international community continues to talk about a two-state solution, and a peace process, without taking into consideration that there are two Palestinian authorities: One in the West Bank and the other in the Gaza Strip, and that these two groups loath each other, don’t recognize the other’s authority and – after months and even years of trying – have not been able to reconcile their differences.

Everyone talks about two states, one for Jews, and the other for Palestinians. But what about Gaza? Who rules there? How do you wrest control of Gaza from Hamas? Those are crucial questions representing a huge elephant in the negotiating room, and are questions the international community has consistently ignored.

“The flotilla presents a clear image problem for Israel,” said the European diplomat quoted above. “We in the West were looking away from Gaza and the blockade, as long as there were not hiccups in the implementation of the blockade. But because of the flotilla we cannot ignore it anymore, because there is growing pressure from our public opinion.”

But by the same token, if the Europeans can’t ignore the blockade anymore, they – and the US – can also no longer ignore the place of Gaza, or the problem it presents, in the diplomatic process.

Or, as a high level Israeli government official pointed out this week, the issue now is much broader than the flotilla, it is on Gaza and how that impacts on the diplomatic process.

“If there is going to be an easing of the blockade,” he asked rhetorically, “how will that change Gaza, how will that strengthen Hamas, how will that impact on the Palestinian Authority? This all touches on the Palestinian talks. Everything is connected.”

Had Abbas met US President Barack Obama in Washington two weeks ago, before the botched raid on the Turkish-flagged ship, the focus of those talks and the questions afterward would have been on Jerusalem and continued Israeli construction in the settlements. And, from Abbas’ perspective, that would have been comfortable, because if the world is focused on building in Ramat Shlomo in northern Jerusalem, it means few are wondering with what authority he can negotiate a peace agreement while unable to speak for a good portion of his people living under his rival’s rule.

But when Abbas met Obama on Wednesday, the focus of the meeting was reportedly on Gaza – granted on how to allow more goods into Gaza – but still on Gaza. That, from an Israeli point of view, may in the long term not be an entirely bad thing, since any real diplomatic process is going to have to factor in Gaza, something up until now most people just wanted to avoid.

It is no longer possible to go along with a diplomatic process and pretend that somehow Hamas will magically disappear from Gaza, and that the situation there will work itself out. It won’t, and the flotilla crisis, with the odd interplay it has caused among Israel, Turkey, Egypt, the US, Hamas and the PA, is indirectly reminding many of that uncomfortable fact.


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