Obama, Turkey and the Palestinians

The US president has shown that when he is determined and personally involved, he gets results

Obama and Netanyahu521 (photo credit: Jason reed / reuters)
Obama and Netanyahu521
(photo credit: Jason reed / reuters)
The apology Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu read over the phone to his Turkish counterpart on March 22 was essentially the same text the Turks were ready to accept in 2011. So why did we have to go through more than two years of scorched earth in relations with Turkey and then make the apology at a most inopportune moment – less than a month after Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan’s despicable definition of Zionism as a crime against humanity? The answer lies partly in the Byzantine labyrinths of Israeli politics and partly in the delicate nature of Jerusalem’s relationship with Washington. Over the past four years, Israel’s foreign policy was conducted according to two contradictory principles: Turning Israel into a European rather than a Middle Eastern-oriented country, while, in true Middle-Eastern style, placing national honor above all else.
Netanyahu’s apology to Turkey is essentially a double-blow to this policy and to the man who devised it, former Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman. The apology suggests that Israel is, at least to some extent, returning to the diplomatic environs of the Middle East, while at the same time jettisoning the puerile notion that honor is the most important national interest.
Nevertheless, the apology would not have occurred without the physical presence of American President Barack Obama. Liberman is still Netanyahu’s chief political ally, and to betray him the prime minister needed someone of Obama’s stature to force his hand. Indeed, for two years pressure exerted by then-secretary of state Hillary Clinton was offset by Liberman, and no apology was forthcoming.
Of course, Liberman’s current absence from the Foreign Ministry also helped.
Although the Israeli leadership was slow in recognizing the need to apologize from an American regional point of view, the Americans are still the big winners. Obama showed that when he is determined and personally involved, he gets results.
Indeed, is there a beginning of a new momentum here? In other words, will the American president use his weight on other issues he believes in – for example, the Palestinian question? I was present during Obama’s electrifying speech at the National Convention Center in Jerusalem. In it, the president showed that both the Israeli and Palestinian narratives flow through his veins, and have even comingled to form an impressive compound of justice, human rights and common interests.
True, the impression during the visit was that Obama does not intend to exert direct pressure on the Palestinian issue. The reason is not lack of belief in the imperative of Palestinian statehood, but rather doubts over whether he has the power to initiate a successful move in that direction. On the Turkish issue, Obama reckoned he could succeed. But when it comes to peace negotiations with the Palestinians, he is afraid of failure.
Here the American role in extracting the apology to Turkey could serve as a model. You spoke so eloquently, Mr. President, about justice and the need to pursue it on the Palestinian track, and you promised Israelis that they are not alone. Please do not leave us alone in the pursuit of justice because we, the Israelis, will not go for it, much less attain it, on our own.
On the other hand, it is a well-known fact of Israeli politics that sustained pressure on the prime minister works. For a recent example, see the gains made by neophyte politicians Naftali Bennett (Bayit Yehudi) and Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid) in the coalition negotiations.
Israel has an impressionable prime minister. I am not saying this as a criticism, rather as a compliment. A pliable prime minister who acts in new constructive ways is infinitely preferable to one impervious to all pressure. The probability that Israel will respond to pressure, especially from its closest and most important ally, is a source of hope for the country and the region as a whole.
Alon Liel, an expert on Israel-Turkey relations, is a former director general of the Foreign Ministry.