Obama went to Israel, and, as expected, gave some bland speeches and didn’t suggest putting anything new on the table in the now-defunct-in-all-but-name “peace process.” To the question, “Why now?” the answer is that he is building a putative pro-Israel narrative for the 2014 congressional election (Jeff Dunetz has a nice piece on that).
The one thing that did come out of Obama’s trip is a pseudo-apology from Israel to Turkey on the Mavi Marmara incident in May 2010. That leads to the first observation.
The history: Turkish terrorists embarked with anti-Israel activists on the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara and attempted to break the blockade of Hamas in Gaza. The terrorists attacked the IDF boarding party, injuring several and taking two hostage; the IDF used force to subdue the attackers and ended up killing 9 people on the ship. (I wrote about the IDF’s chief planning mistake at the time.)
Turkey cut off diplomatic relations with Israel, and has in the years since demanded an apology from Israel and a payment of reparations to the families of the slain. Four IDF generals are accused of war crimes in Turkish court. In addition, Turkey has demanded that Israel lift the embargo of Gaza, which is intended to prevent arms from flowing to Hamas. Israel has always declined to do the latter, but has been willing to express “regret” about the loss of life in the 2010 incident, and provide humanitarian assistance to the families, but not reparations (which have a particular meaning – an acknowledgment of culpability – in law).
As Barry Rubin lays it out, during Obama’s visit, Israel essentially agreed to do what she has been offering to do. Netanyahu did not offer the apology Erdogan has demanded: an apology for the Israeli action in the incident. The official Israeli government press release summarized the apology as follows:
“[Netanyahu] made clear that the tragic outcome of the Mavi Marmara incident was not intended by Israel and that Israel regrets the loss of human life and injury,” Netanyahu’s office said in the release. “In light of Israel’s investigation into the incident which pointed to a number of operational mistakes, the Prime Minister expressed Israel’s apology to the Turkish people for any mistakes that might have led to the loss of life or injury and agreed to conclude an agreement on compensation/nonliability.”
In other words, no apology for Israeli policy or self-defense, but for “any mistakes” which might have led to loss of life. As expected, Netanyahu did not agree to change Israeli policy on Gaza.
The media, of course, are uniformly presenting the “apology” as an apology, with no parsing of the fine points. There has been much speculation as to why Netanyahu agreed to do this, but I doubt that it is much more complicated than that it was a relatively easy policy move, and Obama was pushing for it. Netanyahu knows that the apology will not usher in a new era of good feeling with Turkey.
I’m pretty sure Bibi could foresee, specifically, that Erdogan would pocket the “concession” without changing his behavior. Although Erdogan and his foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, have both touted the apology as meeting Turkish demands, the Turks are in no hurry to restore their diplomatic representation in Israel, nor will the war-crimes charges be dropped against Israeli generals. Erdogan put it this way, after the apology phone call with Netanyahu:
We will see what will be put into practice during the process. If [the Israelis] move forward in a promising way, we will make our contribution. Then, there would be an exchange of ambassadors.
The difference between this formulation and that of Palestinian Arab negotiators since Oslo is nil.
Bad optics for Israel? Probably – due to media bias – but there is a larger dynamic at work here, and we’d better get used to it. Everyone involved in this episode has put his cards on the table. Netanyahu acted according to Israeli policy, which often manifests itself as the art of the possible; pressed during the Obama visit for an “event,” he offered the deal his government had been proposing anyway. He has taken a hurdle, finished some business.
Obama, acting from his particular perspective on international relations, urged a showy reconciliation moment on both parties. He may or may not have understood that the moment wasn’t going to be meaningful to the prospects of U.S. policy goals.
Erdogan, an anti-liberal Islamist with his own vision and bigger fish to fry, began back-pedaling on any sense of Turkish obligation from the “deal” as soon as it was concluded. Duh.
Bibi is a (classical) liberal pragmatist. Obama is a Western hard-left ideologue. Erdogan is an Islamist autocrat. Could have written this script in advance. Remember it, though, because this is what we’re going to be seeing in the coming days: everyone reverting to type, and American-brokered diplomatic “moments” having little or no meaning for the future of American policy objectives. The structure of the Pax Americana is no longer in force.
And with it has gone the firebreak on radical visions. Erdogan feels free to act more like Yasser Arafat than like an accountable negotiating partner. He doesn’t perceive himself to be constrained by the status quo, but only by how hard others will push to preserve it. At some point, he will have to either break with NATO or subvert it; my bet right now is on “Cyprus” as the focusing agent for that watershed juncture.
To the extent that he can solidify his position on all matters “Eastern Mediterranean” by cooperating with Israel on other things – such as preventing overspill from Syria, or trying to neutralize the Kurds – he will do that. The “apology” has reopened the door to such opportunities for him. “Playing nice” with Israel may well redound to his credit as NATO considers its security perspective on the resolution of the Cyprus issue. Now he has the option again, courtesy of Netanyahu and Obama.
But Erdogan is playing a different game from that in which the U.S., Israel, and the EU are engaged. We are trying to make marginal changes within the status quo (e.g., with the “peace process” and a resolution in Syria); Erdogan’s ultimate objective is to change the status quo itself. If we keep that in mind, we won’t misread either his actions, or what, in his view, constitutes success or failure.
Part 2 is here.