Given the current climate, the fanfare in Israel surrounding President Isaac Herzog’s historic trip to Turkey on Wednesday is both disconcerting and puzzling.
Since the February 24 invasion of Ukraine, there has been a tendency among pundits to prioritize morality over interests when discussing Russian President Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked aggression against the populace of a neighboring sovereign state.
There’s no doubt that the tragic refugee crisis he created has pressed emotional buttons that make debate about Jerusalem’s ostensibly mild response inevitable. Nor is it the least bit surprising that Israeli hospitals and humanitarian organizations have been rushing to provide aid to the displaced people of Ukraine.
Though there’s a controversy among government ministers about the number of refugees that the country can or should take in, much of the Israeli public wants the borders open, at least temporarily, to as many as wish to come.
Meanwhile, the argument over the wisdom of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s quick visit to the Kremlin last weekend hasn’t been resolved. Whether he should have inserted himself in a conflict unrelated to Israel is a matter of opinion. But Jerusalem’s need for cooperation with Moscow on the IDF’s freedom to act against Iranian targets and proxies in Syria is not.
The latter fact hasn’t prevented most Israelis from coming down squarely on the side of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, whom they’re depicting as a heroic, modern-day David battling an obviously evil Goliath. Some have even echoed Zelensky’s comparing of Putin to Adolf Hitler – though Joseph Stalin would be a more apt analogy.
IT’S HARD to fault the press or the public for framing the Ukraine war in such terms when Bennett and his ministers continue to do so. Following his meetings on Saturday with Putin in the Russian capital and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Berlin, interspersed with phone calls to Zelensky, he opened the weekly cabinet meeting by saying it was Israel’s “moral responsibility to make every attempt” to help end the suffering.
Critics of his pilgrimage to Putin are saying the opposite, but using the same language, claiming that it was immoral of Bennett to engage in any dialogue with him whatsoever. A common refrain has been that it’s Israel’s moral obligation to remember the Holocaust and not turn its back on the victimized Ukrainians, regardless of geopolitical interests.
Stunningly, the moral outrage directed at Putin has overtaken that, warranted in relation to the fast-approaching nuclear agreement in Vienna. Led by the United States, the P5+1 countries are pushing the regime in Tehran to accept a new version of the disgraceful 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). And it’s a “much, much worse” one, according to former US State Department Special Advisor for Iran Gabriel Noronha, who’s been informed by sources in the know of many of the details being ironed out in Austria.
In an ironic twist, Russia is now placing a spoke in the wheels of the deal, demanding that Iran be exempt from any US trade sanctions imposed on Moscow over its Ukraine invasion. Given how anxious the administration of President Joe Biden is to hand over billions of dollars to the ayatollahs in exchange for false promises, that obstacle is likely to be removed in the very near future.
However, it’s astonishing that Biden is calling Putin a “pariah on the world stage,” while kissing up to the regime of Iranian President Ebrahim “The Butcher” Raisi. After all, unlike Russia, the Islamic Republic actually does deserve the Nazi label. Not only does it openly seek and vow to carry out the annihilation of the “Zionist entity,” but it continues to attack the Jewish state through the terrorist proxies that it funds, trains and arms.
THIS IS a concrete danger that directly affects Israel. Yet, there’s little mention of Israel and the West’s moral obligation to rise up against Tehran. On the contrary, the signatories to the original JCPOA keep insisting that it’s in the world’s interest to appease Iran into signing another useless document.
Having learned from decades of experience, Israelis don’t tend to hold with that view of Middle East diplomacy. Even the current coalition, which boasts of such warm relations with Team Biden that it promised not to take any action without receiving Washington’s blessing, has warned that it won’t sit by and let Iran obtain nuclear weapons.
At an event organized for the Mossad on March 1, Bennett stated that Israel won’t be bound by the imminent deal in Vienna. He stressed that Israel would do what it takes to safeguard its own interests.
Defense Minister Benny Gantz made similar comments this week on social media. In a Facebook post on Monday, he urged the world to mobilize against Iran. Still, neither Bennett nor Gantz uttered a word about morality.
THE DISCUSSION of morality was also absent ahead of, during and in the wake of the Herzog-Erdogan summit. Israeli correspondents on the scene, as well as their in-studio counterparts at home, have been too busy hailing the happening almost breathlessly, expressing shock and awe at the greeting that President Isaac Herzog and his wife, Michal, received upon their arrival at the Presidential Complex in Ankara – replete with Israeli flags and a military band playing the national anthem, “Hatikvah.”
Due to Erdogan’s record as a radical Islamist, anti-Semite, Muslim Brotherhood ally and patron of Hamas – which has a command center in Istanbul that plots, recruits Palestinian for and executes terrorist attacks on Israelis – these journalists have included the caveat in their commentary that Israel must tread carefully and not simply grab Erdogan’s olive branch unconditionally. Even they realize that his hand is outstretched for a reason: To reap financial and other sorely coveted benefits.
In other words, one thing on which Herzog and all observers of this sudden turn of events agree is that Erdogan is acting on behalf of his interests. The only question being asked, by both optimists and skeptics, is what Israeli interests will be served by following his lead.
Not a peep about the moral stand that Israel should be adopting towards this evil autocrat who, since becoming president in 2014 after an 11-year stint as prime minister, has imprisoned tens of thousands of citizens for the crime of insulting him.
Not a whisper about Israel’s moral obligation”to shun Turkey as long as it’s ruled by Erdogan, who foments riots on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, champions rocket barrages from Gaza on Israeli cities, accuses Israeli of Nazi-like war crimes and a mere four months ago arrested and jailed an innocent Israeli couple vacationing in Istanbul on bogus espionage charges.
When he finally intervened to have the middle-aged husband and wife released, after groveling appeals by Bennett, Herzog and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, Israeli officialdom thanked him profusely, rather than warn him to watch his step.
Erdogan probably wasn’t surprised. He is versed in capitalizing on crises of his own creation. It’s how he managed to exact an apology from Israel, and bundles of cash, after the deadly 2010 Mavi Marmara affair that he himself instigated.
MEANWHILE, TURKEY has been occupying Afrin in Syria since 2018, when it launched Operation Olive Branch (of all misnomers) to ethnically cleanse the area of Kurds. It accomplished this through the brutality of militias that banded together, under Turkish auspices, to form the Syrian National Army (SNA).
Suffice it to say that the SNA doesn’t need lessons in cruelty from the Russian Armed Forces any more than Erdogan does from Putin. Herzog, like the government that gave the go-ahead for his jaunt to Ankara, is aware of this.
But it might not stop him or Israel’s actual political leaders from coming down with amnesia and imagining that the Turkish despot who fiercely opposed the Abraham Accords is now gushing to become a full partner in the genuinely historic normalization treaties.
A clue to the direction that the wind is blowing in Jerusalem on this score will lie in the discourse. A safe bet is that those in favor of embracing Erdogan’s courtship will refer to it as an Israeli interest, while the ones opposed will reject it on moral grounds.
Though the second group will have an easy time making a convincing case, the first is more likely to be made up of the policy-makers and their cheerleaders in the press.
From now on, Bennett and his crew ought to pay more mind to their rhetoric.