Diplomacy: The politics of principles

Officials in Jerusalem are worried about repercussions for Israel's relations with Turkey.

abe foxman adl 88 (photo credit: )
abe foxman adl 88
(photo credit: )
The political work of the mainstream American Jewish Organizations is, for the most part, seen in Jerusalem as a valued asset - often as an extra "man" on the diplomatic playing field. These groups help open important doors and clear high hurdles in Washington. In fact, Jerusalem turns to some of these organizations from time to time to deal quietly with issues that Israel doesn't formally want to dirty its hands with - such as protesting anti-Semitic manifestations in various countries, or dealing with Holocaust restitution issues - due to a concern about negatively impacting various bilateral relationships. But every so often the extra "man on the field" not only doesn't effectively run interference, he just gets in the way - from an Israeli diplomatic perspective. The flap this week over the Anti-Defamation League's reversal of its policy on whether to characterize Turkish actions against the Armenians in World War I as genocide is a case in point. It's fascinating, actually, how a seemingly local brouhaha in a Boston suburb called Watertown could conceivably have an impact on Israel's relationship with what is arguably its most important strategic ally after the US - Turkey. The incident sheds light on the relationship between the Jewish organizations and Israel, and illustrates how their interests sometimes collide. Watertown, home to a large Armenian population, withdrew last week from the ADL's "No Place for Hate" anti-bigotry program because of the organization's long-standing refusal to recognize the massacres of the Armenians as genocide. The issue snowballed after ADL head Abe Foxman fired the organization's regional director, Andrew Tarsy, for saying in a Boston Globe article that he strongly disagreed with the ADL's position. Although unpleasant, this was as yet of no great interest to Israel. But the firing created controversy in the Boston Jewish community, with some questioning how an organization dedicated to fighting bigotry and anti-Semitism could refuse to recognize the massacres of Armenians as genocide. ADL board members quit, others threatened to resign, and there were calls for Foxman's head. He then issued a statement reversing ADL policy. "We have never negated but have always described the painful events of 1915-1918 perpetrated by the Ottoman Empire against the Armenians as massacres and atrocities," Foxman said in his statement. "On reflection, we have come to share the view of Henry Morgenthau, Sr. [the US ambassador to the Ottoman Empire at the time] that the consequences of those actions were indeed tantamount to genocide. If the word genocide had existed then, they would have called it genocide... Having said that, we continue to firmly believe that a congressional resolution on such matters is a counterproductive diversion and will not foster reconciliation between Turks and Armenians and may put at risk the Turkish Jewish community and the important multilateral relationship between Turkey, Israel and the United States." This is when the matter moved from being an internal ADL issue, or an issue between ADL and Watertown, to becoming an issue with ramifications impacting heavily on Israel. DIPLOMATIC OFFICIALS in Jerusalem contacted Tuesday night to react to Foxman's reversal were stunned by the announcement. "Unbelievable," one official said, after muttering a curse. Another senior Foreign Ministry official, who deals daily and intimately with the Turkish-Israeli relationship, wouldn't respond because he couldn't believe it, doubting the very veracity of the statement. Well, it was true. And the reason for the stunned response to what an American Jewish organizational leader had to say about a historical event 90 years ago is because of its ability to cause problems in the Israel-Turkish alliance. This is a clear case of principles vs. politics, with the American-Jewish community having the luxury of opting for principle, and Israel living very much - too much, some would argue - in the world of real politics. "I think the ADL should support the congressional bill. As much as I understand taking into consideration relations between Israel and Turkey, this is something you have to do even though it is politically difficult," Samuel Mendales, director of Hillel Council of New England, was quoted as saying this week in the Jerusalem Post. Mendales was not alone in saying that this was a clear case of principle trumping politics. The problem with this, however, is that it is relatively easy to say this in Massachusetts, bordered by Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Vermont and New York. American Jews can take the high moral ground on issues such as these, because there is no real consequence; they don't have to pay any tangible cost. Not so in Israel, where taking the high moral ground often comes with paying a real political price. And in the cost-benefit analysis on this issue, Israel's position - and that of the key Jewish organizations active in Washington up until this point - has been that the profit of a close strategic relationship with Turkey outweighed the benefit of taking what some argue is the right and principled stand on the issue. This is why the Knesset, like the US Congress, consistently shoots down attempts to pass a Congressional resolution on this matter, something that is a red flag for the Turks. But just as the American Jews don't see things through Israel's realpolitik prism, Israelis might not fully understand the position of American Jews, for whom taking the high moral ground is key to their sense of identity - a deeply ingrained sense that because of Jewish history, they have a responsibility to take ethical stands on these types of issues. Someone looking on from the outside could reasonably ask, "Who cares what Jewish organizations say about this? Why does it matter?" Which brings us back to the idea of Jewish organizations as an additional player on Israel's diplomatic field. It matters because, in the constellation of Israel's diplomatic relations with Turkey - as well as in its relations with some other countries, such as India - the mythical power of the "Jewish lobby" in Washington is central. This perceived power is not only fodder for Israel-bashers and anti-Semites, but also an asset in dealing with foreign governments. Since the 1990s, Turkey has turned into a key strategic ally. What Israel gets from Turkey is clear: a friendly Muslim face in a sea of hostility; a geographical asset; a huge market for military wares and other products; a nice place to vacation. We are a country that longs for acceptance by our neighbors, and have found it in Turkey. And what do the Turks get? Firstly, they benefit from our geography, just as we do from theirs. Both countries box in Syria for the other, and Syrian-Turkish relations, put mildly, have known their ups and downs. Secondly, they buy our arms. Because of Turkey's conflict with Greece, and its image in the West as a tentative democracy with the military lurching menacingly in the background, Ankara has not always been able to find vendors for state-of-the-art military equipment. While US arms sales to its NATO ally has often been bogged down in congressional riders and amendments, Israel could provide the goods with fewer hurdles. Over the last few years Turkey has undergone an enormous military modernization program, with Israeli arms playing a substantial role. Another component of the military relationship is intelligence cooperation. It is widely believed, for instance, that Israeli intelligence helped lead to the capture in 1999 of Abdullah Ocalan, head of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, who led a terror campaign against Turkey in the 1980s and '90s And the final thing the Turks "get" from Israel is access to the Jewish lobby in Washington. Talk candidly to Turkish academics, politicians and journalists and they will say that one of the reasons Israel is valuable to Turkey is because of the ADL, the American Jewish Congress, B'nai Brith and similar organizations. Without a strong lobby of its own in Washington, Turkey looks to these organizations to put in a good word in Congress or with the administration when issues of importance to Ankara - such as issues regarding the Armenians or Cyprus - make their way to those bodies. The relationship has even grown in importance recently, since Turkish-US relations have become strained as a result of the war in Iraq. In addition, the issue is playing itself out at a less than fortuitous time from Israel's point of view. The ADL reversal, which played prominently in the Turkish press, comes as Israel's best friends in Turkey - the army and the secular foreign policy bureaucracy - are largely in retreat. The Islamic-based AKP party is very much on the rise, and its foreign minister, Abdullah Gul, whose wife wears the traditional Islamic headscarf, is poised to become Turkey's president next week - something of huge symbolic importance in a country that has zealously guarded public trappings of secularism. An impression that the Jews have reversed course on the Armenian issue could give ammunition to those voices in Turkey already calling for a reassessment of ties with Jerusalem, even as Israel's staunchest friends there are losing some of their clout. WHICH EXPLAINS why there is concern in Israel following Foxman's statement. Granted, the Jewish groups are just one of the pillars supporting strong Israeli-Turkish ties, but even when one pillar of a building weakens, action is taken to strengthen it. In the coming days and weeks, therefore, the aim will be to reinforce this pillar. Turkey's ambassador to Israel, Namik Tan, rushed back here on Thursday, cutting his vacation short by two weeks, to deal with the matter. He will speak to Foreign Ministry officials and seek clarifications, and - most likely - also seek Israel's help in ensuring that Foxman's statement remains just that: a statement, and not one that is used by other Jewish organizations to change their opposition to a US congressional resolution on the matter. Foxman himself said that the ADL would continue to oppose as "counterproductive" efforts to bring this to Congress. The diplomatic moves in the coming weeks will likely be aimed at enshrining that as the policy of all the main US Jewish organizations. For the Turks, however, this commitment is little consolation. Ilnur Cevik, a columnist for the English-language New Anatolian newspaper, wrote, "The fact that the ADL said it will continue to oppose the congressional bill accepting the 'Armenian genocide' is little comfort. Because the ADL said it took the decision to reverse its former position because it consulted historians and experts and came to the conclusion that what happened was actually genocide. Now many people in the US Congress who had doubts will start thinking in a different manner. This is bad news for Turkey." Israel's efforts in the coming days will be to ensure that what is "bad news" for Turkey is not necessarily deleterious to the Israeli-Turkish relationship.