Ankara faces some hard decisions in its effort to alter Israeli behavior. No easy solution exists, but both diplomatic and military options worth exploring are available, should Ankara wish to go beyond rhetoric and take the kind of actions that will earn Tel Aviv’s respect. Ankara’s best option would seem to be the designing of a common position with Moscow and Tehran. Ankara may even persuade Washington to join.
Washington has already made it clear that it will not defend its own citizens. It long ago excused Tel Aviv’s attack on the U.S.S. Liberty, would not even protect a former presidential candidate (Cynthia McKinney) when she was arrested by Israel for joining the June 2009 flotilla to Gaza, and is evidently paying no attention to the murder by Israel (with, reportedly, five shots!) of an American on this week’s flotilla. It is hard for Washington to stand up to Tel Aviv when Tel Aviv’s bullying seems to be Washington’s model, as suggested by the similarities between Israeli treatment of Palestinians and U.S. treatment of Iraqis and Afghanis as well as the copying by Washington of the Israeli right’s anti-Iran propaganda.
Ankara is now being subjected to the same treatment that the U.S. has received, but Turkey’s new leaders—Erdogan, Gul, Davutoglu—appear to have more pride than any the U.S. has been able to find this century. The Turkish leaders do not seem prepared to kowtow. Those Turkish leaders claim to be working for a new type of politics. According to Erdogan [Today’s Zaman, 6/4/10], “This is to stop bloodshed and bring peace to the region. We are not after fame. We just want humanity, law and justice.” So Ankara has a problem: exactly what can it do in response to Israeli bullying?
Ankara’s first move was immediately to make an official protest to the U.N., with the result that Ban Ki-moon is now negotiating with the concerned parties his proposal of an independent investigation [Hurriyet 6/6/10]. Its second move was to send military transports to Israel, successfully demanding the release of all Turkish citizens from the flotilla [Coteret 6/2/10].
Clearly, these two moves, while impressive in comparison with the dithering West, still do not come close to making up for Israel’s killing of peaceful civilians. It may be worth noting, for those confused, that the raging debate over the precise actions of these civilians when Israeli soldiers attacked by air under the cover of darkness completely misses the point: they were behaving peacefully until attacked like any normal people before being mugged.
What might be next?
Rhetoric. Ankara is trying the rhetorical approach, but virtually no one seems to be listening, and Tel Aviv has demonstrated fairly clearly that it understands only “the language of force.”
Diplomacy. Ankara is also laudably trying the diplomatic approach. The U.N. responded to Ankara by calling for an investigation, though it is doubtful that any real pressure will be brought on Tel Aviv to cooperate. Cairo has opened its closed border to a few Gazans, at least temporarily, but essentially remains a partner of Tel Aviv in oppressing Gaza, and British U.N. Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant focused on the core issue [UNMID 6/1/10], stating:
the events cannot be seen in isolation. They show clearer than ever that Israel’s restrictive access to Gaza must be lifted.
No evidence so far suggests that Britain intends to take any action to back those words up. UN Assistant Secretary General for Political Affairs Oscar Fernandez-Taranco also termed Israel’s Gaza blockade “unacceptable,” though again without any indication of action to back up those words [UNMID 6/1/10]. Obama’s most recent remarks appear designed to split the difference between the Israeli nighttime attack and massacre of flotilla members and the effort to deliver medicine to Gaza were mere differences of opinion and on the same moral plane.
One diplomatic move that Ankara may perhaps now be considering is upgrading its ties with both Lebanese Hezbollah and Hamas. Such a move would catch attention, but Ankara would surely be punished by Washington and perhaps as well by conservative Arab dictatorships that it does not necessarily wish to irritate. More to the point, aside from angering and provoking Tel Aviv extremists, it is not clear what impact such a move—akin to, say, Switzerland in 1940 demanding the liberation of the Jews from the Warsaw ghetto–might have on the lives of Gazans. Nevertheless, Erdogan has already hinted at something along these lines, pointing out that Hamas won the last Palestinian election (in 2006) [Hurriyet 6/4/10] and adding:
I do not think that Hamas is a terrorist organization. I said the same thing to the United States. I am still of the same opinion. They are Palestinians in resistance, fighting for their own land.
Two regional diplomatic coups are potentially within reach, however. Now that Cairo has unilaterally opened its border with Gaza, Ankara should vigorously pursue an agreement with Cairo for a permanent opening. Is there anything Ankara could offer Cairo in return?
The second regional diplomatic option is to reopen nuclear discussions with Tehran pursuant of an agreement that Tehran will voluntarily choose not to exercise its legal right to enrich uranium to the 20%-level required for medical research. Although this does not directly address the Gaza issue, it would significantly strengthen Ankara’s diplomatic position by giving the whole world something it really wants. With skill, Ankara could maneuver so as to allow Moscow to share the credit; indeed, the trade-off to entice Tehran might well be the delivery of modern Russian ground-to-air missiles, enabling Moscow to take the initiative as regional peacemaker even as it earns some useful foreign exchange and minimizes the likelihood of nuclear fallout landing on its territory. The emergence of a Russian-Iranian-Turkish entente would be a Mideast game-changer that would for the first time significantly restrict Israel’s freedom of military maneuver.
Military Moves. If substantive military moves prove to constitute the only language that will have any real impact on the situation, however, what options does Ankara have short of provoking a existential threat to itself?
The obvious answer is Lebanon, which is being denied the weaponry to defend itself against not only Israeli invasions but even Israel’s regular aerial violations of Lebanon’s border. Lebanon is a struggling democracy that has been making progress recently and that certainly deserves the right to defend itself. Whether or not Ankara has the capability to alter this situation is a question that Turkish national security officials should now be asking themselves.
The second most obvious answer is one that Ankara has clearly been considering for at least the past year: upgrading security ties with Damascus. Ankara could further upgrade such ties and send Tel Aviv yet another message, but what long-term benefit Ankara would derive is uncertain. Would closer military ties with Damascus do more harm, by pulling Ankara closer to a dictatorship, than good? Would this end up constraining Ankara’s options and isolating itself? More to the point, it is not clear that either of these moves would have much immediate benefit for the people of Gaza. It might eventually if it had a sobering impact on the Israeli people, and much sobering Israeli commentary has already been published in Israel. However, the opposite reaction, given the intensity of both political rhetoric and right wing media commentary in Israel, is also a real risk.
The third military option is one that is already in motion: the longstanding resistance by Washington to Moscow’s desire to sell Iran S-300 ground-to-air (i.e., by definition defensive) missiles has evidently ended. The new U.N. Iran sanctions draft explicitly permits the Russian sale of these missiles, which are normally described as sufficient significantly to hinder any potential Israeli air attack (whether or not they would defend Iran against Israeli nuclear-armed cruise missiles [Timesonline 5/30/10] is less clear). Sometimes termed “controversial” by Western proponents of Israeli militarism, the sale of these missiles is in fact precisely what is needed to reassure a threatened Iran and to signal it that its interests can be accommodated—without its policy of nuclear ambiguity. Tehran has now been given something it has been denied for at least the last decade: the right to defend itself. Removing defensive missiles from the sanctions also makes the Western case more logical, by shifting the focus from an effort to humiliate Iran to an effort to prevent militarization of Iran’s nuclear technology. Thus, both sides stand to gain from such a sale. Only extremists hoping for a war against Iran and politicians in Iran, the U.S., and Israel attempting to exploit international tensions to consolidate their domestic political control lose.
Should Moscow go through with this sale, Iran would be more secure and thus have less need of its policy of nuclear ambiguity. That, in turn, would give Ankara a powerful new argument when making its case to Tehran for further compromises on the nuclear dossier. Further, it would raise the possibility of the same missiles being provided to the Lebanese government, perhaps brokered by Ankara; If Iran is entitled to defend itself, why not Lebanon?
Ankara’s immediate reaction shows impressive determination to defend its citizens and punish Israeli extremism. While its way forward is far less clear, an array of interesting options does exist, the most promising of which may be the idea of building a Russian-Turkish-Iranian entente designed to lower nuclear tensions, reassure Iran about its own national security, and send a message to the Israeli people that their current government is doing them no favors. Washington’s quiet but fundamental adjustment to its policy on Iran raises the possibility that Washington might even be persuaded to look with favor upon such a multilateral effort to lower Mideast tensions.