President Obama was already basking in the good review of his trip to Israel when he added what is being seen as yet another bold stroke to his list of accomplishments. Just before he left Israel, he brokered a phone call between Prime Minister Netanyahu and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in which the two seemingly resolved the long running dispute about the Mavi Marmara incident. The president is being praised for his persistence in pushing Netanyahu to make the call and for persuading his good friend Erdoğan to accept it. This has caused Obama’s cheerleaders at the New York Times to say that his “talent for arm-twisting” has “raised hopes” that the president might have similar success in making peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
Though the Times is sober enough to note that the Israel-Palestinian tangle is sufficiently complicated as to resist even the president’s magic touch, it did accept the claim that the call “healed the rift between the two countries” at face value. But other sympathetic observers were not able to restrain their enthusiasm. Writing in Canada’s National Post, Jonathan Kay not only noted with satisfaction my appreciation for the improvement in Obama’s stand on Israel but also extolled the president’s efforts to achieve “a resumption of the Israel-Turkish alliance.”
But apparently the hosannas about the president’s achievement are a little premature. Less than a day after the supposed reconciliation Erdoğan was already backtracking, saying that the resumption of normal relations, let alone the old alliance between the two countries, was still on hold. It is to be hoped that a dose of reality will cool the ardor of those, like Kay, who believe Obama’s “much mocked faith in diplomacy and human rationality” has been vindicated.
Erdoğan’s double dealing on normalization even after Netanyahu’s call is hardly surprising. This is, after all, the same person who recently compared Zionism to fascism and whose regime has encouraged anti-Semitism as it transformed a secular republic into an Islamist regime in all but name. The Mavi Marmara incident, in which a flotilla of ships sponsored by Turkey attempted to run the Israeli blockade of Hamas-run Gaza, was intended to provoke an Israeli attack. While, as Netanyahu admitted, the raid on the ship appears to have been botched by Israeli forces, Ankara’s purpose was to create a pretext for a complete break. This was the end of a process begun years earlier by Erdoğan, not a spontaneous reaction to anything Israel had done.
Thus, no one should be holding their breath waiting for Turkey’s ambassador to return to Israel anytime soon. As for resuming the alliance, it needs to be understood that all those Turks that worked to create the formerly warm relations between Ankara and Jerusalem are no longer involved in the government. Indeed, the main constituency for close relations was secular military officers, and Erdoğan has jailed many of them.
As for what Kay termed a “pride-swallowing apology,” it should also be understood that it didn’t take any “arm-twisting” or diplomatic skill from Obama to force Israel to express regret for the Mavi Marmara incident. Netanyahu had done so years ago. He had also previously offered compensation for the families of those killed while attacking Israeli soldiers on the ship. Netanyahu’s government has made several efforts to solve the impasse over the incident but had been repeatedly rebuffed, not just because of insufficient contrition on Israel’s part but because Erdoğan had no interest in ending the dispute. Indeed, in the day after the phone call, Erdoğan reiterated his determination to make a state visit to Gaza solidifying his alliance with the Hamas terrorists.
So long as Turkey is committed to supporting Hamas, normal relations will be difficult, if not impossible. While there may be issues on which the two countries may be able to cooperate, such as the crisis in Syria, a resumption of the alliance between the Jewish state and Erdoğan’s Islamist state is a fantasy.
To point this out is not a criticism of Obama so much as it is reality check for those who are so besotted with the notion that American diplomacy can remake the Middle East in the image of America’s hopes. What little good the president may have done in brokering the Netanyahu-Erdoğan call should not be represented as a blueprint for a new diplomatic offensive from Obama or Secretary of State Kerry. The president’s faith in and friendship for Erdoğan calls his judgment into question. The same is true about his assertion that Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas is a partner for peace. The president didn’t solve the differences between Turkey and Israel because they are the product of a shift in Turkish politics that cannot be undone by anything Americans say or do. The same is true of any ideas about bridging the gap between Israel and Palestinian leaders who have no interest in signing a peace accord.