Gaza Flotilla Apology May Have Ramifications Beyond Israel-Turkey Relations

March 25, 2013 11:23 am 7 comments

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. 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. Photo: Avi Ohayon/GPO/Flash90.

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 armed Mavi Marmara flotilla 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.

“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—toldJNS.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 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. His party doesn’t have the votes to change the constitution, so Erdogan decided to make concessions to the Kurdish party in 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.

“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.

7 Comments

  • I’m not too keen on the Israeli apology to Erdogan. Rhode himself says that expressions of this kind have a certain influence on the players in the Middle East. “Turks ‘generally do not like or respect supplicants.’”
    This fact makes the whole difference in the outlook to the conflict between Muslims and Jews in the region. Western leaders perceive Israel to be hard-heads. Do a little to meet those who want to wipe you out, they seem to utter. The West general don’t understand the Muslims. A main ingredient in National Socialism is Contempt for Weakness. An ingredient contained in the ideology, as well.

  • As usual, Netanyahu is more bark than bite. Remember that idiotic prisoner swap; one soldier for over ONE THOUSAND terrorists. And he’s going to be surprised when Hamas kidnaps more Israelis? As for this Flotilla apology, what will he do the next time this happens? Or will he just leave Gaza open for Hamas to be supplied with more rockets to murder Israeli civilians with? Some “victory” for Obama getting Netanyahu to knuckle under like that. The only “winner” here is that bonehead, Erdogan.

  • Aurora Aronsson

    Israel must be on the side of freedom for oppressed people: the historical alliance with the Kurds must be re-established, it will help also as far as Syria, Iran and Iraq are concerned. Millions and millions of Kurds are oppressed by Israel’s enemies: Syria, Iraq, Iran and Turkey.
    Turkey has always been and still is the spearhead of Islam onto the heart of Europe.

  • jerry hersch

    Not so sure tha Erdogan is more moslem than Turk..He certainly is more Ottoman.
    From North Africa to Central Asia -from the balkans to the Comoros-Turkish diplomatic,trade and cultural delegations have been busy.
    Reestablishing on a previous footprint is difficult..s is actual suzerainty or occupation.
    Two doors could open ..an agreement with the Kurds that would extend Turkish influence even more to the doorstep of Baghdad.
    And taking the millions of Syrian Arabized-Turks under its ‘full’ protection..which could possibly only be achieved with Israeli cooperation.

  • Jill Skriver

    The full story? 78% of the original land grant stripped to create Jordan for the Palestinians? Repeated wars by Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria etc, over and over again? Attacks that gained them land they kept illegally yet Israel is forced to give up land that is legally Israels. Gaza attacks show what happens when you give this group concessions; never mind the entire Gaza strip yet there wasn’t an immediate negative reaction to the blockade being lifted?

  • David Sabghir

    Turkey, as an ostensible member of NATO is critical if Israel and/or the US are to take any military action against Iran.

    In any event, the situation is so fragile, that even with Erdogan “on board”, it may mean very little on the ground.

  • What will Israel get in return for its concessions? What does it usually get. Nothing. The cover up for acts of idiocy is the argument that you don’t know the full story.

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