Commentary Magazine


Topic: Israel-Turkey relations

John Kerry’s Clinic in Diplomatic Futility

Secretary of State John Kerry is on tour this week, emulating the sort of frequent-flyer diplomacy that his predecessor Hillary Clinton prided herself on. With the help of an adoring press, Clinton managed to create the impression that roaming the globe was in itself an indication of success even if she didn’t accomplish much, if anything, by doing so. However, Kerry’s wanderings will be even more difficult to portray as a public relations bonanza. That’s because his stubborn refusal to face facts about intractable conflicts is leading him into the sort of fool’s errands that the more cautious Clinton avoided. Case in point is his visit to Turkey this past weekend that was followed by a trip to Israel, where he will engage in some shuttle diplomacy between the Netanyahu government and the Palestinians.

Kerry’s stay in Ankara was represented as a follow-up to President Obama’s supposedly brilliant triumph in brokering what is still widely referred to as a “rapprochement” between Israel and Turkey. But the details of the talks he held with the Turkish foreign minister gave the lie to the administration’s boasts about the benefits of its persuading the Israeli prime minister to apologize to his Turkish counterpart, since the Turks are making it clear they have no intention of abiding by any agreement to normalize relations with the Jewish state. Similarly, the idea of shuttling between Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority leader Abbas, when the latter has already demonstrated his lack of interest in the sort of talks without precondition that Obama said was the only path to peace, is, at best, a waste of the secretary’s time. That Kerry is inaugurating his tenure at the State Department by conducting two visits that give him no opportunity to succeed is bad enough. But it does more than illustrate how out of touch he is with reality. By diving into problems that he can’t fix but can make worse by raising expectations of American pressure on Israel, this will not only bode ill for his tenure in his new post but also offers him opportunities to create mischief where none need have been found.

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Secretary of State John Kerry is on tour this week, emulating the sort of frequent-flyer diplomacy that his predecessor Hillary Clinton prided herself on. With the help of an adoring press, Clinton managed to create the impression that roaming the globe was in itself an indication of success even if she didn’t accomplish much, if anything, by doing so. However, Kerry’s wanderings will be even more difficult to portray as a public relations bonanza. That’s because his stubborn refusal to face facts about intractable conflicts is leading him into the sort of fool’s errands that the more cautious Clinton avoided. Case in point is his visit to Turkey this past weekend that was followed by a trip to Israel, where he will engage in some shuttle diplomacy between the Netanyahu government and the Palestinians.

Kerry’s stay in Ankara was represented as a follow-up to President Obama’s supposedly brilliant triumph in brokering what is still widely referred to as a “rapprochement” between Israel and Turkey. But the details of the talks he held with the Turkish foreign minister gave the lie to the administration’s boasts about the benefits of its persuading the Israeli prime minister to apologize to his Turkish counterpart, since the Turks are making it clear they have no intention of abiding by any agreement to normalize relations with the Jewish state. Similarly, the idea of shuttling between Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority leader Abbas, when the latter has already demonstrated his lack of interest in the sort of talks without precondition that Obama said was the only path to peace, is, at best, a waste of the secretary’s time. That Kerry is inaugurating his tenure at the State Department by conducting two visits that give him no opportunity to succeed is bad enough. But it does more than illustrate how out of touch he is with reality. By diving into problems that he can’t fix but can make worse by raising expectations of American pressure on Israel, this will not only bode ill for his tenure in his new post but also offers him opportunities to create mischief where none need have been found.

In Turkey, the secretary was confronted by a Turkish determination to use the much-celebrated conversation between Netanyahu and Prime Minister Erdoğan as an opening to try and extract more concessions from Israel about their Hamas ally rather than a way out of a nasty quarrel. Kerry should not have gone to Ankara without a prior Turkish commitment to return their ambassador to Israel, as they had agreed during the call with President Obama. By leaving Turkey without anything near a promise to do so expeditiously, Kerry and the United States were humiliated. Having done so, it is difficult to imagine why the Turks will ever make good on their promises since the end of the embargo on the rogue Islamist state in Gaza is not something that either the U.S. or Israel can or should agree to even if it would make Erdoğan happy.

As far as the shuttle diplomacy between Jerusalem and Ramallah, any decision to engage in such a public exercise should have been predicated by foreknowledge that the Palestinians were willing to end a boycott of negotiations with Israel that has lasted for more than four years. But even after the president publicly chided Abbas that preconditions about settlements should be no obstacle to talks, the PA has followed up by coming up with a different reason for not talking. Now they are saying that Israel must commit to using the 1967 lines as the starting point for new talks on borders.

While one can’t completely blame them for resurrecting a precondition that Obama himself memorably called for in his May 2012 ambush of Netanyahu in Washington, doing so is the equivalent of a neon sign saying the Palestinians don’t want to talk and wouldn’t agree to a peace deal even if they did.

Kerry has often been accused of being too close to the Europeans in his worldview, but the problem here is not his mindset so much as competence. No secretary of state ought to place themselves in these kinds of foolish positions. Say what you will about Clinton, but it is hard to think of any series of meetings that were as futile as those conducted this week by Kerry. That Kerry has done so on his maiden voyage to the region shows that the man who openly campaigned for the position of chief U.S. diplomat is only good for conducting a clinic in how not to represent his country. 

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Should Bibi Have Said No to Turkey Talk?

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.

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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.

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Turks Illustrate Limits of Obama’s Magic

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.

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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. 

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