Sunday 7 April 2013

Is the Time Right?

US Secretary of Sate John Kerry is back in the Middle East this weekend to try to progress peace talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians.  This is clearly an attempt to capitalise on the recent visit of President Barack Obama, and to try to maintain the momentum which the president tried to ignite when meeting with the parties a few weeks ago.

While any effort that may progress the peace process is welcome, there is also a question about the timing of the current round of shuttle diplomacy.  Is this simply an attempt to force the American foreign policy agenda onto the Middle Eastern parties to prove that the US administration had tried its best, or is there a genuine feeling that the talks could work out this time where they have failed in the past?  A simple assessment shows that, while there have been some changes on both sides of the political divide in the Middle East, the fundamental issues that led to failure in the past still remain unchanged.  This begs the question as to why the Americans are bothering to spend time and effort on this challenge, when the prospects for success seem no better than before?

President Barack Obama managed to turn a negative public image in Israel into a much more positive one during his recent visit.  He had been roundly criticised for not having visited Israel during his initial term in office, despite the fact that the conflict with the Palestinians was a relatively high priority on the US foreign policy agenda.  The US president was viewed by many in Israel as being more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, and the Muslim cause in general.  This was evidenced by his decision to visit Egypt so early into his presidency, where he made an important foreign policy speech.  His visit to Israel was his first foreign trip in his second presidential term, and has succeeded in convincing at least some of the sceptics that he does have a sympathetic ear for the Israeli side of the story.  He may even have managed to convince some of the Israeli leadership that he understands Israel's position in the conflict.  Perhaps he thinks that he may be able to cajole some of those Israelis who were opposed to his position, into cooperating with him now that they are more convinced of his genuine concern?

The Middle East conflict is far too deep-seated and fundamental to have its path changed on a whim.  There are substantial issues which underly the conflict, that cannot be altered on the strength of people suddenly believing that Obama has their best interests at heart.  The matter that halted the discussions at the previous attempt still very much remains an obstacle today.  This is the important requirement on Israel's part for the Palestinians to be prepared to recognise Israel as a Jewish state.  If Obama's USA is able to give this recognition along with many other countries around the world, there is a real question as to why the Palestinians feel that they cannot.   This reluctance simply gives greater strength to the argument that the Palestinians have a master plan to take over the entire State of Israel, and that this is what is preventing them from recognising it as a Jewish country today.

Over the years that the peace process has been stuck, the Palestinians have succeeded in inching their way up their list of demands without making any real compromises in return.  Their unilateral action at the UN last year is one example of this, but there are many others.  Progressively, they have been able to get the world to recognise them as a state amongst the nations, their main stated requirement from peace talks, without entering into negotiations, making compromises or quid-pro-quo.  It is perhaps for this reason that the Israeli government has been hanging on so tightly to the other bargaining chips it has in its hands, such as the status of Jerusalem and the settlements.  There is an argument to suggest that turning the screws on these critical points is the only way to return the Palestinians to conduct meaningful peace talks.  Why should the Palestinians choose to negotiate and compromise with Israel when the world is granting them their wishes on a platter, even while they continue to behave in a way which is contrary to any peace arrangement?

Perhaps Obama spotted an opportunity to extract a slightly softer negotiating position out of Israel with the formation of the new government, and the inclusion of Tzipi Livni with primary responsibility for peace talks.  This may be his driver for sending Kerry to the region now.  The situation within the Palestinian Authority is also different from before, with Mahmoud Abbas finding himself in a much a weaker position now than was previously the case.  He is ageing and less enthusiastic about his role, and has an uphill battle to counter the tide of popularity that arch-rivals Hamas are riding at the moment.  It is my belief, however, that even these changes are not enough to create the environment that is needed to move peace talks forward.  It is my prediction that this round of talks is doomed to failure, in the same way as previous rounds have failed. There are those who argue that it is better to try and fail, than not try at all.  I do not agree with this.  The current situation on the ground is fairly neutral in terms of relations between Israel and the Palestinians - nothing good and nothing particularly bad.  Instigating a new round of talks that end up on the trash heap will probably create negative feelings, thus causing a deterioration in the overall situation.

President Obama's visit to Israel was vitally important in terms of redressing the imbalance that was created by his special attention to the Muslim side during his first term.  This does not automatically create an opportunity for peace to suddenly break out.  In politics, and especially in Middle Eastern politics, timing is everything.  All indications are that now is simply not the time.

Monday 1 April 2013

An Apology Too Far?

The Marvi Marmara incident from 2010 has dominated the relations between Israel and Turkey over the past three years.  Israeli Defense Force (IDF) soldiers were attacked by the activists after the soldiers boarded the ship in an attempt to redirect its passage away from its intended destination of Gaza, and towards Israel's Ashdod port.  In defending their own lives, the IDF soldiers killed nine Turkish activists.  Despite clear evidence that the activists on the ship came looking for blood if there was intervention from IDF soldiers, the Turkish government has insisted that the blame for the deaths of the activists rests with the IDF and the Israeli government.  As a result of this, relations between Israel and Turkey have been at a crisis point.

This all changed very dramatically a few hours after President Obama boarded Air Force One on his way to Jordan following his visit to Israel.  Prime Minister Netanyahu called Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan to offer Israel's apologies for the deaths of the Turkish activists, and offered to pay compensation to the families of those who died.  This represents a 180 degree U-turn from the position that the Israeli government had taken until that moment.  There was never any intention that an apology would be offered, even if this came at the price of diplomatic relations between the countries.  There was certainly no talk of compensation being paid.  Israelis went into the weekend feeling quite dazed at the sudden turn in events, and wondered how this happened without any prior indication or warning.

No secret has been made of the fact that this apology was all the idea of President Barack Obama.  Even though the phone call was made only after he left Israeli soil, there has been no attempt to conceal the fact that Obama "brokered" this call.  Many are interpreting "brokered" to mean that PM Netanyahu was coerced into doing so, against his will and better judgement.  The official reason for the about-turn which has been given by the Israeli government, relates to creating a united front against the threats posed by the Syrian civil war.  While it is true that it would be better for Israel and Turkey to be standing united against threats from Syria (and by extension, threats from Iran), there has not been a sufficient threat coming from Syria until now to fully justify the grovelling apology to Turkey.  Perhaps the apology was offered in the interests of keeping on good terms with Obama and his team?  A united Turkey - Israel front would certainly be in America's interest.  The United States would never wish to be forced to make a choice between Israel and Turkey in the event that this spat continued.  Forcing Netanyahu to back down on this issue has made life a great deal easier for the USA, and its national security interests.  Netanyahu has proven himself to be a tough customer on issues of principle in the past, so why has he seemingly collapsed in the wake of pressure from Obama?

The price for this climbdown has been heavy, and this is only one week after the apology has been issued.  The Turkish government was quick to rush out billboard advertisements depicting a strong, victorious Erdogan against the backdrop of a weak Netanyahu.  This is reminiscent of the victories that were declared by the Arab armies after the Yom Kippur War (which they lost), and by Hamas following Operation Cast Lead and Pillar of Defense.  Despite the fact that this is not a real victory for Turkey, the apology sends completely the wrong message to the Turkish government and to the Turkish people.  Having been involved in the funding of the organisation behind the Gaza flotilla and having allowed the flotilla to set sail from a Turkish port despite knowing full well that the Israeli government planned to stop it, the Turkish government has questions to answer about its own role in the deaths of these nine activists.  Instead, they have issued statements that they will continue to support their "Palestinian brethren", and will be taking further steps to break the "Gaza blockade".  In addition, they have opened a Turkish bazaar in the media about the value of compensation that will be paid for each victim.  They have opened their bidding at $1m per victim, when the Israeli government has given the public to understand that $100,000 is nearer the mark.  The actions of the Turkish government do not reflect a willingness to create a united front in the face of the threats from across the border in Syria.  The Israeli public remain confused as to what lies behind Netanyahu's actions.

In my attempts to understand Netanyahu's motivations a little more deeply, I have conjured up a scenario which I hope is close to reality.  We all know that the main topic for discussion between Netanyahu and Obama during the recent visit was the threat from Iran, and its burgeoning nuclear program.  We also know that Netanyahu has tried his best over a number of years to convince the international community, especially the USA, to be prepared to take earlier preemptive action against Iran to prevent it from constructing a nuclear missile.  Perhaps, maybe Netanyahu succeeded in convincing Obama to come closer to the Israeli position in terms of being prepared act earlier against Iran, and in being prepared to commit US forces to share in the front-line tasks.  In return, Netanyahu agreed to eat humble pie in its diplomatic crisis with Turkey.  This reconciliation also represents a more united front against Iran, with the Iranian forces and weaponry being used by the Syrian government in the Syrian civil war.  I wonder whether the Israeli public may be more understanding of the Turkish reconciliation if they knew that this has come in exchange for US agreement on Iran?

The Turkish tourism industry whispered a quiet cheer when news of the diplomatic reconciliation was announced.  The Israeli package holiday-maker felt equally as good.  Since the diplomatic crisis, thousands of Israeli families have been forced to pay more for their package holidays, or even give up on their holidays, due to the fact that Turkish resorts were removed from their map.  Activities between Turkish and Israeli businesses will also be given an opportunity to recover to their previous levels, and perhaps beyond.  Much of this will depend on sensible behaviour on the part of the Turkish government.  The government would be much better advised to gloat less, and not to cause the Israeli government and Israeli citizens to regret their reconciliation approach.  In so doing, it will make all parties feel better about the restoration of diplomatic relations.

I really want to believe that the real benefit to Israel of making these substantial concessions is being concealed from the glare of the public at the moment.  I hope that whatever quarter was given by the US will ultimately justify the substantial concessions that Israel has been forced to make.  As always in the Middle East, only time will tell.