Analysis: For Israel, symbolism is the substance

The key diplomatic loss from Operation Cast Lead was that the ties with Ankara have taken a severe beating.

Olmert and Erdogan 248.88 (photo credit: GPO)
Olmert and Erdogan 248.88
(photo credit: GPO)
In this land replete with photo-ops of visiting dignitaries talking about "windows of opportunity" and of too-well choreographed peace-making ceremonies leading nowhere, more photo-ops and ceremonies naturally engender a degree of cynicism. And so it was natural that this cynicism accompanied Prime Minister Ehud Olmert playing host Sunday night to the leaders of France, Britain, Germany, Italy, Spain and the Czech Republic. The cynicism was reinforced by German Chancellor Angela Merkel's opening line in her statement: "We are here today on a symbolic journey." "Great," one could be excused for thinking, "More symbolism, when substance is needed." But in this case, at least from an Israeli perspective, the symbolism was the substance. After three weeks of taking a severe beating in many of the world's capitals and media outlets, after numerous accusations that Israel committed war crimes, after Muslim groups and left-wing radicals demonized Israel in protest marches, the leaders of six states in which much of this activity was taking place - especially Spain and Britain - came to Jerusalem and expressed support for Israel. True, they might not have come here had they not been on their way back from a Hosni Mubarak peace production in Sharm e-Sheikh, but they did make the stopover, and that in itself - considering the atmosphere in Europe - is no small achievement. Likewise, although it is not exactly clear what concrete steps Europe can and will take to combat arms smuggling into Gaza - though Britain, Italy, France and Germany have pledged both technical assistance to the Egyptians and maritime help to Israel - the very fact that the international community now recognizes the seriousness of the arms smuggling issue, and that it now seems to appreciate the degree to which those arms can destabilize the region, is considered an important achievement in Jerusalem. Three weeks ago the world was unconcerned about this issue, one senior diplomatic official said, but now it realizes the danger. "They came here to give a commitment that says to the world and to Israel that the arms smuggling issue is a clear danger, and that they want to help us keep more missiles from coming in to hit our citizens. That is a commitment that didn't exist in the past." That new appreciation is widely considered Israel's main diplomatic achievement of the Gaza operation. The key diplomatic damage done to Israel was to its image abroad, and the harm that the operation has caused to Israel's strategic ties to Turkey. Regarding Israel's image, the Gaza operation triggered the worst spate of protests and anti-Israeli statements and articles around the world since the Second Lebanon War in 2006. Israel's claim that eight years of restraint in the face of Kassam rocket fire or the 2005 disengagement from Gaza would give it international legitimacy to act very forcefully inside Gaza to stop the attacks was proven to be vacuous. The concern in Jerusalem is that the anti-Israel sentiment that exists in the public square in certain countries will filter upwards and have a gradual impact on governmental policy toward Israel. The key diplomatic loss, however, was not that Venezuela, Bolivia, or even the increasingly radical Qatar or Mauritania cut off ties with Israel, but rather that the ties with Ankara have taken a severe beating. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's chief foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu offered his country's services on Monday to mediate between Hamas and Fatah factions. Which is pretty much all that is left for Davutoglu, because his previous mediating role - between Israel and Syria - is now over. While Israel has not responded publicly to Erdogan's vicious anti-Israel comments, the most recent being that Israel should be barred from the UN, officials in Jerusalem are fuming privately. Erdogan, who was at Mubarak's summit in Egypt, was not invited by Israel to join the other European leaders in Israel (it is also likely that were he invited, he would not have attended). But if Erdogan, over the last few years, has tried to build up his country's status internationally by playing a mediating role in the Middle East, that gig is over - at least for now. "The indirect Israel-Syrian track through Erdogan is dead," one senior diplomatic source said bluntly. Privately, both Israeli and Turkish sources say that Erdogan's rantings about Israel are motivated largely by domestic considerations. His AKP party is facing municipal elections in March, and by playing the Gaza card, Erdogan is giving his Islamic grassroots-base in Turkey what it wants to hear. Likewise, the Turkish prime minister continues to be engaged in a battle with the secularist establishment - the army and the courts - for control of the country, and two weeks ago arrested 40 people, including three generals and nine active officers, for suspected links to a plot to overthrow the government. Keeping Gaza in people's mind helps both divert attention from this simmering story, and rally the grassroots around him. But for domestic partisan reasons, Erdogan is causing problems for a relationship that is not only important for Israel, but equally for Turkey. Israel needs Turkey, but Turkey also needs Israel. Ankara needs Israel for hi-tech trade, for weapons sales, for access to Washington, and - perhaps most importantly for Erodgan - for international stature. Erodgan has gained a lot for Turkey by being viewed as someone who can mediate in the Middle East. But to mediate, you have to have good ties with both sides. His comments about Operation Cast Lead may have endeared him to Hamas, but left a very bitter taste in Israel's mouth. Which is why all Davutoglu has left at present is trying to mediate between Hamas and Fatah. A Turkish role in mediating between Israel and anybody else right now is simply not an option.