Gaza flotilla apology may have ramifications beyond Israel-Turkey relations

By Alex Traiman/JNS.org 

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reversed Israeli policy last Friday, offering an apology to the Turkish people for the deaths of nine Turkish citizens aboard the Gaza flotilla, the armed Mavi Marmara flotilla that headed toward Gaza in 2010. But that apology may have had less to do with Turkey itself than with guarantees relating to Iran or Syria.

Click photo to download. Caption: Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert meets with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the Elysee Palace in Paris during a summit aimed at breathing new life into the existing Euro-Mediterranean region on July 13, 2008. Turkey-Israel relations have been strained since the 2010 Gaza flotilla incident, for which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu apologized to Erdogan in a telephone call last Friday. Credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO/Flash90.

“Apologizing to Turkey may clear the deck on one issue to get free reign on other issues,” Dr. Harold Rhode—who worked for 28 years in the Pentagon, including from 1989-90 as the head of the Turkish Desk at the U.S. Department of Defense—told JNS.org. “In almost every case there is more to such diplomatic announcements than meets the eye.”

The apology took place during a phone call between Netanyahu and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan that was brokered by U.S. President Barack Obama during the final hours of his visit to Israel.

Reports have stated that in return for Israel’s apology, along with compensation to the families of the victims and an easing of the blockade on Gaza, Turkey would restore diplomatic relations with Israel, including the formal exchange of ambassadors.

While the apology may have indeed given Obama a diplomatic victory that provides benefits both to Israel and Turkey, there may be additional factors to consider, according to Rhode, who retired from the Pentagon in 2010—just a few months before the Mavi Marmara incident.

“There might be more to this agreement than what is currently being reported,” Rhode said.

During his time at the Pentagon, Rhode specialized in looking at the wider context and cultural cues of any given situation in the Middle East.

“While much of the attention in the region has focused on Syria, Egypt, Iraq and Israel, the situation in Turkey is actually quite fragile,” Rhode said. 

“Turkey has enormous internal problems,” he said. “And many people there believe that Erdogan is ruining the future of their country.”

Erdogan is seeking to move up to become Turkey’s president, but wants to expand the powers of the presidency, making it almost into a monarchy and sultanate, according to Rhode. His party doesn’t have the votes to change the constitution, so Erdogan decided to make concessions to the Kurdish party in the Turkish Parliament, offering them more cultural rights within Turkey, in exchange for their votes to change the constitution.

Turkey has the largest Kurdish population of any country in the world. As in northern Iraq and Syria, Turkey’s Kurdish population seeks to control its own destiny. On many levels, the Kurdish push for control of its destiny may be among “the most important developments taking hold in the Middle East,” Rhode said. 

According to Rhode, Erdogan doesn’t want an independent Kurdistan; he instead wants a Sunni-Muslim state or commonwealth, in which Sunni Turks, Kurds, and Arabs rule.

“Erdogan considers himself a Muslim before a Turk,” Rhode said. “What he wants is to become somewhat like a King, Sultan, or Supreme Ruler of Turkey, and not merely a Prime Minister.  And his vision is to unite all of the country’s Muslims behind his rule—in essence to reestablish his own version of the Ottoman Empire.”

In Rhode’s view, uniting Turkey’s diverse ethnic factions, in some form of alliance with the Sunnis in Syria and Iraqi Kurdistan will ultimately prove too difficult.

Click photo to download. Caption:  Dr. Harold Rhode, who worked for 28 years in the Pentagon, including from 1989-90 as the head of the Turkish Desk at the U.S. Department of Defense. Credit: U.S. Department of Defense.

“Erdogan is juggling a lot right now, and needs to demonstrate that he is powerful,” said Rhode. “He needs ammunition to prove how strong he is.  This apology from Israel helps him to do that.” 

“Israel essentially obliged Erdogan by appearing to be bending at the knees,” he said. “But we do not know what Israel got in return.”

Rhode explained that Turks “generally do not like or respect supplicants.”

“The apology will be taken by the Turks as well as the Iranians and other regional players as a sign of weakness,” he said. “And in the Middle East, whenever somebody sees weakness, they pounce. They punch.”

According to Rhode, it is extremely important that Israel now take efforts to appear strong in the wake of the apology.

“It is essential that Israel will remind its enemies who’s boss,” said Rhode.  Newly appointed Israeli Defense Minster Moshe Ya’alon “has been doing just that in both Syria and Gaza,” he said.

“It is very important for Israel to look very strong here,” Rhode said.

Ya’alon has already reduced the Mediterranean fishing boundaries of the Gaza Strip from six miles to three in the wake of rocket fire on the Israeli town of Sderot. He similarly ordered a crushing retaliatory strike on a Syrian missile-launching site that fired into Israel.

Ya’alon said that he supports Israel’s apology to Turkey.

“Netanyahu made a responsible decision,” he said.

“The deal reached with Turkey does not conflict with Israel’s position on the matter over the past three years,” Ya’alon said. “The recent regional developments and the American involvement facilitated a resolution to this crisis. This is in the best interest of both Israel and Turkey.”

America considers both Israel and Turkey to be among its closest allies in the Middle East. Obama is reported to have an especially close relationship with Erdogan, while having an often-tense relationship with Netanyahu.

“Unfortunately, President Obama’s friendship with Erdogan is consistent with a pattern of cozying up to anti-Western dictators, as we have seen him trying to do in the early months of his Administration. He tried to appease Venezuela’s with Hugo Chavez (who died recently), and later with Egypt’s Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood,” Rhode told JNS.org.

“Erdogan is clearly aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood.  “Together with the Saudis and Qataris, Erdogan has been supporting Sunni fundamentalists in the region, particularly in Syria,” said Rhode. (But even here, the Saudis, Qataris and Erdogan disagree about which Sunni fundamentalist factions within the Syrian opposition they support.)

“All three are supplying and arming the fundamentalists that hate America and hate Israel,” Rhode said. 

While Erdogan is reported to have accepted Israel’s apology on behalf of Turkey’s citizens, he may already be backtracking in an attempt to further solidify his position in the Muslim world. Less than 48 hours after the apology, Erdogan stated that a return to normalized diplomatic relations is contingent upon Israel fulfilling its commitments in the deal.

One of the major questions, according to Rhode, is “whether both sides consider this apology to be real, or whether this is merely window dressing.”

“Given Erdogan’s reaction today, this may be window-dressing, but that remains to be seen,” Rhode said.

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Posted on March 25, 2013 and filed under Israel, News.