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Behind Obama’s Turkey Win

How Bibi Netanyahu handed the American president a big trophy—and got what Israel wanted all along

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President Barack Obama walks alongside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a welcome ceremony at Israel’s International Ben Gurion airport on March 20, 2013. (Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images)
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In the week since President Barack Obama left Israeli soil, the White House and pundits across the political spectrum have hailed the commander in chief’s first visit to the Holy Land as a phenomenal success, focusing especially on the reconciliation deal the president brokered between Israel and Turkey. Since the May 2010 Mavi Mamara incident—in which Israeli commandos boarded the Turkish-sponsored ship set out to break Israel’s maritime blockade of Gaza and killed nine Turkish citizens who attacked them—relations between the two countries have been strained. Yet in a matter of days, Obama seemed to mediate a resolution to a three-year-long dispute that has set these once strategic allies at odds.

According to Obama’s senior advisers quoted in the New York Times, the president “prodded” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to apologize to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, with Obama “raising the importance of a makeup phone call every day he was in Jerusalem.” Netanyahu’s apology, according to the Washington Post, was “bowing to a long-standing Turkish demand.”

The reality is somewhat different than the official administration account. Jerusalem has long been looking to mend relations with its onetime strategic ally in Ankara. Contrary to popular narrative, it was Erdogan who was intransigent—not Netanyahu. Nor was Obama the prime mover here, “prodding” the Israeli prime minister to do his bidding. If anything, it was Netanyahu who used the commander in chief as something like a blunt instrument to force Erdogan to accept the same deal that his government had first put on the table at least 18 months prior: Israel would apologize; it would pay compensation; but it would not, as Erdogan had demanded, end the maritime blockade of the strip.

From Netanyahu’s perspective, it’s all to the good that Obama is getting the credit for the reconciliation. Bibi got what he wanted from Erdogan and gave Obama a big trophy to put on his shelf. The Turkish premier, despite his bluster, has little choice but to swallow it, and the American president now owes Bibi a favor. Netanyahu—often denigrated as a clumsy politician and preachy ideologue—is in fact a much more adroit statesman than he is typically believed to be.

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As Israel’s ambassador to the United States Michael Oren told Newsweek’s Eli Lake, Israel and Turkey, “along with the United States had long been working to resolve the dispute.” Israel made overtures as early as the summer of 2011.

But two years ago there were two problems standing in the way: Erdogan and Avigdor Lieberman, then Israel’s foreign minister. Lieberman didn’t want Israel to apologize, condemning Netanyahu publicly for his inclination to make up with the Turks. That hardline position cost Lieberman little since he knew as well as Erdogan that there was never going to be a deal as long as Ankara demanded that Israel end the naval blockade.

The contours of the agreement, including some of the specific wording, that was finally struck last week were worked out as early as that same summer. “The broad outlines of the deal,” wrote analyst Efraim Cohen in August 2011, “suggest that Israel would offer a limited apology for ‘operational errors,’ and would pay compensation to the families of those who died.” As for Erdogan’s third demand—that Israel lift the blockade of Gaza—Israel was not going to comply.

For some 18 months Erdogan continued to reject the deal that he came to accept last week, insisting that Israel meet Turkey’s demands, belittling Israeli envoys as “very weird,” and claiming that any country mediating had to ensure that his three main conditions were met.

Clearly Erdogan’s three conditions were not met, a disappointment that he apparently came to terms with last month, when Turkish and Israeli negotiators hammered out the exact terms of the deal that came to pass last week. As the Turkish newspaper Radikal explained, Israel would apologize for “operational mistakes,” pay compensation, and Ankara would drop the demand that Israel lift the blockade. Thus, the stage was set for Obama’s entrance as mediator and his exit as peacemaker. In pocketing the deal until Obama’s visit, Netanyahu’s timing was perfect: He handed an American president a truly wonderful souvenir of his all too brief stay in the Holy Land.

It’s true that Erdogan now seems to be backsliding, claiming that he never accepted a deal without Israel agreeing to end the blockade, though Israeli officials insist that he did. The Turkish prime minister is also now promising to go to Gaza to “monitor” the situation to ensure that Israel fulfills its obligation to lift the blockade. However, this will only make him vulnerable on two fronts.

First, while Erdogan is reportedly one of the world leaders closest to Obama, the reality is that Bibi comes off as the helpful partner in this case—not Erdogan. Any more noise out of the Turkish prime minister and he may find out what’s like to have chilly relations with an American president, which, as Netanyahu can tell him, is not where you want to be.

Second, and perhaps more important, Erdogan’s support of Hamas will expose him to criticism from his domestic rivals. Why is the prime minister of Turkey so eager to show his love for an Iranian client in Gaza when his opposition to Iran’s ally in Syria threatens Turkey’s security?

Indeed, it seems Erdogan’s Syria policy is largely responsible for his turnaround and willingness to accept Israel’s apology. It’s perhaps true, as some analysts argue, that given the situation in Syria, including Assad’s use or potential use of chemical weapons, the Turks’ need for intelligence cooperation with Israel helped change Erdogan’s mind. But there’s a much larger strategic issue at play here as well.

As I argued earlier this month, Erdogan’s Syria policy has proven unpopular at home and has also demonstrated the limits of Turkish power. Erdogan was not able to stop Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s killing machine, nor was he even able to prevent Assad from launching artillery rounds at Turkish towns across the border or shooting down a Turkish jet.

As long as Erdogan and Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu believed that Turkey was a rising regional power, Ankara could afford to hold its ground, making ridiculous demands of Israel that no state could possibly agree to. It was only when Assad and Syria shattered the Neo-Ottoman dream that Turkey started to see the wisdom of scaling back its regional ambitions and its demands on Israel.

What Obama truly deserves credit for—and it’s no small thing—is realizing that an ally in whom he’d invested so much confidence was essentially a blowhard. Moreover, he saw that Israel, with whom he’d had contentious relations, was an ally he could count on. And that’s a very big win in Netanyahu’s column.

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PhillipNagle says:

Cogratulations! The agreement brokered by Nobel Peace lauriate Obama fell through almost immediately and proved as phony as Obama’s peace prize. Turkey and their Islamist government quickly came through with new demands and Israel-Turkey relationship is right back where it started before Obama forced the totally unwarranted appology from Netanyahu. Now Israel has another reason to distrust Obama. As for Lee Smith, please no more articles by such a foolish and fawning Obama appologist.

Sox TheCat says:

So, by apologizing, and paying money, Turkey stops demanding the blockade end. Woo hoo. Not seeing the win here. It isn’t like Turkey is going to grow up anytime soon. So Israel pays a Jizya to Turkey and apologizes with money – for Turkey’s vile act. I see no win here, just an act of weakness that creates an incentive for other bullies to abuse Israel.

    Jacob Arnon says:

    It’s a huge win in the world of diplomacy. Turkey’s standing in Europe and in the US just went down a few degrees. Only people ignorant of how the world works would think that it wasn’t a diplomatic win for Israel.

      The only people who think this is good are naive.

      This ‘good-will’ gesture will be forgotten in 6 weeks and Israel’s standing will be back in the sewer. If Turkey imprisoning so many journalists and officers can’t dent its mainstream or even diplomatic image, then Israel’s policies are irrelevant. This is the point.

      Please explain to me how this is a win for Israel? While you’re at it, explain also the diplomatic victory of UN Resolution 1701, the pogrom at Amona, the expulsion from Gaza, and — my favourite — the Oslo Accords?

      You need to learn that political and diplomatic spin (or “the world of diplomacy”) doesn’t substitute for the REAL-WORLD, and it certainly doesn’t make you clever. Did you know it is easier to brainwash well-educated people? Perhaps its time for you to wake-up and to stop deceiving yourself.

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        I don’t think it was a good will gesture on Israel’s part,Bob. I think that this one had ‘real-politik’ written all over it.

        Erdogan had his bubble burst by the last minute tarmac phone call.

        Bibi said what he said Israel would say all along; ‘there were operational mistakes, and Israel regrets those mistakes’. Very grown up diplomatic-speak done in private, as Israel said it was willing to do for the past three years. Same thing with the reparations. Israel acknowledged that it would pay compensation (no matter how little the IHH thugs truly deserve it).

        So, no photo-op for the Turks of Israel kow-towing to its bombastic bully of a Prime-Minister. Erdogan does the spin-meister moves trying to play up the ending as a ‘win’ declaring victory for what Israel said it would do all along. Combine that with his foot-in-mouth racism from a few weeks ago, coupled with his begging for NATO aid and getting hammered by Syria (it was a Turkish jet that was shot down, not Israel’s) and with the Tamar field coming on line, Netanyahu was able to put this headache away and shut Erdogan up at the same time.

        Now, Israel has better access to NATO training maneuvers and meetings like the one in Chicago that Erdogan got them blackballed from. It gives Israel some time to bulk up its navy to help fortify its very valuable economic resources for the next decade+. Add to that the bonus Israel will get from the return of relationships between the Turkish and Israeli intelligence and military, which can be used domestically against the AKP as Erdogan attempts to become a Putin mini-me.

        All of this is especially key because Syria is turning into a growing into the equivelent of a HAZMAT ‘Superfund site’. That situation, including the considerable biological and chemical weapons that could fall either into the hands of Hizballah or Sunni Salafist Jihadists, is more important to Netanyahu and Israel by magnitudes.

        Netanyahu proved to be the grownup and Erdogan the spoiled brat on this one.

          ott198089 says:

          Jacob, your optimistic assessment of Bibi’s apology is, to put it mildly, wishful thinking. There are absolutely no reasons to think that Erdogan will permit resumption of military/intelligence cooperation with Israel, put an end to demonizing Israel, normalize relations, and stop cooperating with the likes of Hamas even if Israel agrees to ALL of his unacceptable conditions. It’s also unclear if Erdogan stops objecting to the Israel’s participation in NATO activities either.

          By the way, the countries in the Balkans and Black Sea region are also affected by this apology. They understand that it was made because of the US pressure, and they see it as the US stamp of approval for neo-Ottoman ambitions in the region. These countries suffered horribly from the murderous Ottoman colonialism for about 500 years, and they saw ties with Israel as the insurance policy against resurgent neo-Ottomans. This is why the Israelis had to assure the Greeks, after the apology was made, that nothing changed in their relations, but of course, a lot has changed, and these countries are now going to look somewhere else, most likely towards Russia.

          This has tremendous implications not only for Israel, but also for the USA.

          The idea that Erdogan will forbid Israel from participating in NATO drills or meetings seems dubious. Turkey now has a major war on its southern border with refugees flowing in by the 10’s of thousands. Despite Erdogan’s entreaties, military aid has been limited to Patriot missile batteries and NATO has declined to set up ‘no-fly zones’ for Turkey’s benefit. Meanwhile, Syria as an export market has evaporated and Iran’s is becoming strained.

          Contrast Turkey’s position to not just a year ago, when Turkey put the kibosh on Israel participating in the NATO meetings in Chicago, but two years ago when Israel was blackballed by Turkey from joining NATO naval drills in the Med. Sea. Turkey’s now on the receiving end of NATO aid and it is Israel, that is providing intelligence and assistance, not just to the US, but helping Jordan as well. Turkey’s Prime Minister can throw his temper tantrums and wave his banner about getting Israel to kow-tow, but reality is far different than his made-for TV bluster.

          Does Israel become BFF’s with Turkey now? No. The Islamists in the AK Party led by Erdogan are not about to return to the 1990’s. But NATO is greater than Turkey and the Turks position is weaker. By the same token, just as Egypt’s Mubarak had no love for Israel and treated it poorly, Israel’s government and military was able to work with his regime. So too, do I see this happening with Turkey.

          But my argument does not deal just with Turkey, but Israel’s wider diplomatic relationships.

          The idea that Israel was going to be the buffer between Turkey is another argument that is also weak, especially when you’re going to pit Israel’s strength against that of the United States. Same thing with Russia. Both the US and Russia are great powers, while Israel is a regional power at best. Israel just doesn’t have the size to be a global force like the US, Russia, China, India, or the big three in Europe (UK, France, and Germany). Israel’s economy is growing and its military can hold its own, but Israel’s population at best is going to grow from 8 million up to maybe 9 million over the next decade. That’s still a drop in the bucket globally in a land mass that is still small. Come back in a century, if Lebanon, Syria, and parts of Jordan have vanished and Israel’s population is upwards of 20 million or more. But there’s a whole lot of ‘what if’s rolled into that forecast.

          And Greece? It too, is a member of NATO and the European Union. You think that it’s going to be Israel that is Greece’s saving grace? Really?!?

          ott198089 says:

          Israel had excellent ties with Turkey when it was ruled by secular politicians, but even then, for cultural, religious, and historical reasons, the majority of Turkish people instinctively sympathized with Israel’s enemies. The Turkish people didn’t change overnight after the Islamist AKP came to power, the rampant Anti-Semitism was there all along, and the AKP politicians didn’t have to go out of their way to promote it. Unlike the secular elites, the AKP was happy to exploit Anti-Semitism for both internal and external reasons.

          There’s no question that the AKP leaders made a strategic decision to downgrade ties with the Jewish state right after the AKP came to power. At the same time, because Turkey is a member of NATO, the AKP couldn’t afford to do it unilaterally. In short, the AKP wanted have its cake and eat it too! That explains why they staged one provocation after another. After all, the IHH thugs were fully supported and even financed by the AKP, and there’s no question that the Turkish government knew that breaching the Gaza Strip blockade was a hostile act.

          You are right that Turkey would love to drag NATO into the Syrian civil war, and, if the Turkish economy tanks, it’s also quite possible that Erdogan and his ilk will stop the anti-Israeli rhetoric altogether and even agree to improve relations with Israel, but you have to keep in mind that it will be only a temporary measure, and in any case, the ties will never be the same. After Erdogan successfully emasculated the pillars of the secular Turkey, (Army, judiciary, educational system, and free press) the Islamization of Turkey became irreversible, and the existence of the Jewish state in the heart of Dar-al-Islam is an affront to everything the Islamists stand for. Erdogan and his ilk are committed Islamists and enemies of the West and Israel. At the same time, unlike the Iranian Islamists, they’re willing to be flexible.

          I don’t think anybody in his right mind expect Israel to be a protector of the Turkish European neighbors, but there’s no question that Israel’s standing in the region is based on her perceived military, economical, and political strength, and this standing isn’t going to improve if Israel submits to the Turkish blackmail no matter how the Israeli politicians rationalize and spin it. To paraphrase Talleyrand, Israeli apology was worse than uncalled for, it was a mistake.

          Lynne T says:

          The Turks may have been inclined to sympathize with fellow Muslims, but make no mistake about the control/influence Erdogan and the AKP had at the time the AKP came to power and how much more they have added since and how this has contributed to the animosity toward Israel.

          ott198089 says:

          Erdogan and his ilk had to purge the secular military, media, and judiciary before they could openly show their true faces. Practically the whole Turkish Army’s high command is in jail on trumped up charges (only tin-foil hatters could believe them!), and there are more journalists languishing in Turkish prisons than in the Communist China!

          Erdogan had to secure the AKP’s grip over Turkey, and that’s why it took a while before he began to openly bait Israeli leaders, embrace Hamas, and finally sponsor the Mavi Marmara terrorist act.

          By the way, the Turks in general were more than “inclined” to sympathize with their fellow Muslim/Arabs. There’s absolutely no even-handedness there.

      ott198089 says:

      Let the good Lord save Israel from such diplomatic victories.

      Lynne T says:

      Unfortunately, there is no shortage of ignoramuses who will see this as a victory for Turkey, particularly the sort of ignoramuses who also thought Hezbollah “won” the 2006 war they provoked with Israel. This is not to say that I think it was unwise for Israel to agree to this “burying of the hatchet” or that a message has not been received by Erdogan vis a vis more Gaza-bound flotillas launching from Turkish ports carrying money and volunteers likely to help out HAMAS.

        ott198089 says:

        There facts, and there are perceptions. There’s no question Israel won the Yom Kippur war although she was caught by surprise, and in the end, the Egyptians had to beg the the USSR and USA to save them, but Egypt spins it as a great victory over the “Zionist entity”.

        The bottom line is that for the Islamist goons, the Mavi Marmara terrorist act is a great victory, and Israeli apology and compensation will encourage them to stage more proocations. Hopefully, the Israelis will be better prepared to deal with them next time.

        ott198089 says:

        There facts, and there are perceptions. There’s no question Israel won the Yom Kippur war although she was caught by surprise, and in the end, the Egyptians had to beg the the USSR and USA to save them, but Egypt spins it as a great victory over the “Zionist entity”.

        The bottom line is that for the Islamist goons, the Mavi Marmara terrorist act is a great victory, and Israeli apology and compensation will encourage them to stage more proocations. Hopefully, the Israelis will be better prepared to deal with them next time.

    ott198089 says:

    This is only the beginning of the problems caused by this ill-conceived and completely unjust “apology”, and unless there’s some vigorous damage control, Israel reputation in the Southeastern Europe will take a huge hit. Relations between the countries in the Balkans and the Black Sea region and Israel were based on respect for Israel’s strength, and Israel’s friends in these countries were sorely disappointed.

    The bottom line is that this “apology” wasn’t just morally wrong, it is also counterproductive.

The political explanation of the Israeli apology to Turkey is well stated. But there is more to consider. The area around Syria affected by the civil war includes not just Turkey and Jordan whom will bear the most responsibility for 2 million refugees and growing but Iran, Lebanon along with their Iranian client Hezbollah, and Gaza controlled by another Iranian client, Hamas. Of course Israel is in the center of all this and their help in intelligence and military muscle is necessary to limit expansion of Shia Iran in the area for Sunni nations in the area. The objectives sought for Sunnis, western nations and Israel are to prevent the war from escalating in a WWI scenario, curtail Iranian influence, and limit the refugee problem. The objective for Iran is to prevent losing its alliance in their neighborhood.

    ott198089 says:

    If Erdogan had cared for the political objectives you so eloquently stated, he would’ve never allowed the IHH thugs to sail on Mavi Marmara in order to breach the Gaza Strip blockade.

    Let us not patronize our enemies. It so happened that they mean what they say, and if they fail to act, it’s not because they suddenly see advantages of being friends of the Jewish state, but because they know that the Jewish state is too strong.

Dang ! Obangos ears are huge. Too bad the big eared punk didn’t stay in turkey .

bob brown says:

Erdogan’s dream is to ressurect the Ottoman Empire, this time not in terms of land aquisition, but in influence. When he was finally rebuffed in his attempt to enter the European Union, he was angered and felt humiliated as he was portrayed as groveling before the Europeans, only to fail in his bid. So, he turned his gaze from west to east. His goal is to be seen as the de facto leader of the Muslim world in general, and the Muslim greater Middle East in particular.

Why else would Erdogan send a boatload of terrorists from the IHH organization (on the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations). He knew full well that the Israeli Navy interdicts all ships heading to Gaza to search for weapons and other contraband. His only conceivable motive was to stir up a crisis and be seen as standing up tp the Zionist entity – seizing the spotlight for himself. I disagree with Mr. Smith. Receiving an official apology from israel plays directly into his hands. He is now seen by the neighbors as a strong and respected leader. He will strengthen his image when he travels to Gaza later this month. As a non-Arab trying to be seen as a great leader to the Arabs (Saladin-like), he must throw in his lot with the most militant of the two major Palestinian groupings, Hamas, to continue burnishing his credentials.

There is little doubt that he will soon manufacture another crisis. Gaza just might be the place to do it. The correct response would have been to not apologise for Israeli commandos defending their lives. Feeding the lion is a dangerous mistake – it will keep demanding more.
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Behind Obama’s Turkey Win

How Bibi Netanyahu handed the American president a big trophy—and got what Israel wanted all along

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