Much of the commentary about President Obama’s brokering of a supposed reconciliation between Israel and Turkey has broken down into two categories: those extolling the president’s supposed diplomatic magic and those who have castigated Prime Minister Netanyahu for going along with the charade. I tried to pour some cold water on the former on Sunday when I wrote that Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan’s hasty backtracking on the agreement as well as the entire character of his Islamist government rendered the exercise pointless. Michael Rubin, who knows far more about Turkey than almost anybody you can think of who comments about it in the American press, is right to point out how dangerous Erdoğan is and the malevolent nature of his regime.
But I think it’s a mistake to portray Netanyahu’s decision to accede to Obama’s desire for the call as something that will materially harm Israel’s security, as some on the right have asserted. The apology over the Mavi Marmara incident is being portrayed in some quarters as a dangerous dereliction of duty on Netanyahu’s part that potentially opens up Israel’s armed forces to future legal attacks, as well as a sign that the prime minister is acquiescing to banana republic status with respect to the United States. While I share the cynicism about Turkey’s goals and Obama’s naïveté, Netanyahu doesn’t deserve the abuse he’s taking on this issue.
As much as I share the sentiments of those who would prefer that Israel tell Erdoğan to stuff it, Netanyahu’s decision was not a craven collapse or merely the function of unconscionable pressure by Obama.
Israel had, after all, made several previous attempts to put the Mavi Marmara dust-up in the past. It’s not clear that the “apology” delivered last week went any further than previous expressions of Israeli regret. Nor was there anything new about offers to compensate families of those Turks killed when Israeli soldiers boarded the ship.
It bears repeating that Israel was in the right in defending the blockade of Gaza and that the Turkish supporters of Hamas who, with the connivance of their government, were staging this provocation were doing nothing to help the people of Gaza or advance the cause of peace. But that does not mean that Netanyahu was wrong to admit that the operation was “botched” or that his government was sorry that civilians, no matter how wrongheaded or malevolent their motives might have been, were killed. When Netanyahu ordered the seizure of the ship he did not intend for any of its passengers or crew to be killed, even if they did violently resist. There is a difference between asserting that Israel had every right to stop the ship and saying that the seizure went as planned, since it obviously did not.
The fears that this admission will open up Israel to lawsuits in international courts or undermine its right of self-defense are similarly mistaken. Israel was already under siege in such forums and Netanyahu’s limited measure won’t advance or retard any efforts to turn it into a pariah.
Nor did the phone call transform Netanyahu from a thorn in Obama’s side to the status of a client state lickspittle, as some of his critics would have it.
The phone call took place in the context of a state visit in which Obama went farther than any of his predecessors in making the case for Zionism and Jewish rights. As much as it is difficult for some of his critics to admit it, after years of acting as if he cared nothing for Israel, it was Obama who gave ground last week, not Netanyahu.
Obama virtually endorsed Netanyahu’s demands that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state and, in a major shift in U.S. policy from that of the previous four years, peace negotiations must come with no preconditions. No less a conservative critic of Obama than scholar Daniel Pipes noted that this “broke new ground and cannot be readily undone.” While many who have rightly assailed the president for his policies toward Israel during his first term focused on his foolish embrace of Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas and his call for Israeli youth to pressure their government to make peace, those empty words pale in significance when compared to Obama’s other comments while in Israel.
If, in exchange for these unexpected and important concessions on Obama’s part, Netanyahu had to suffer through a phone call with the likes of Erdoğan, that seems a paltry price to pay.
This sort of thing grates on the sensibilities of some Israelis who resent their nation’s dependence on the United States. Such feelings are understandable, but if some on the right think the country would really be better off on its own, they need to get their heads examined. As much as Israel prides itself on its right to defend itself by itself—an important phrase that was also echoed by Obama last week—that ability is based in no small measure by the strategic alliance with the United States.
Netanyahu has already demonstrated that he is not so intimidated by the need for U.S. support as to allow Obama to force him to give way on issues that were matters of principle or security. Contrary to the claims of some of its critics, Israel has the right to say no to Washington and has done so several times in the past.
But a leader has to be able to distinguish between those requests by its ally that ought to be rejected as dangerous and those which, however misguided, should be accepted for the sake of goodwill. Though I don’t disagree with the concerns being expressed about Turkey—whose efforts to bolster Hamas and to force a unity government on Abbas will undermine the already remote chances for peace—and think Obama deserves to be critiqued for his inexplicable friendship with the Turkish leader, I can’t agree with those who think Netanyahu made a mistake in going along on the Erdoğan call.