Friday, 26 April 2013

A four-way peace summit?

It's a well-known fact that rumours abound in the higher echelons of government, and however absurd some of them might appear to the casual observer, a proportion will, in the nature of things, turn out to be well-founded.

On 25 April 2013, the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, reported that US Secretary of State John Kerry is hoping to convene a four-way peace summit in June, which would see the participation of US President Obama, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas and Jordan’s King Abdullah.

The report also suggests that Egypt and Turkey would have some involvement in the meeting, and that the putative summit will be high on the agenda of upcoming visits to Washington by King Abdullah and Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

On 26 April, Ha’aretz reported that the Obama administration, in the person of White House spokesman Patrick Ventrell, had categorically denied the story. Bernadette Meehan, National Security Council Spokesperson, had said: “These reports are not true.” You could scarcely get more categorical than that.

However, neither rumour-mongers nor investigative journalists let a good story slip away as easily as that. Ha’aretz’s well-founded US sources quickly ascribed Washington’s formal denials to a suggestion that Israel may have been upset by the leak of the summit plan, leading the administration to back-track.

And despite the denials, Ha’aretz’s “well-placed American sources” continued to insist that a four-way summit, leading to renewed talks between Israel and the Palestinians, had indeed been discussed with Middle East leaders and foreign ministers. Ha’aretz reports that one diplomatic source told the paper that the sides had been encouraged to “come up with ideas” that would enable the summit to convene.

The sources said that Turkey, Egypt and other Arab countries may also be invited to participate in the summit, though it’s not clear yet at what level. Secretary of State John Kerry, according to these sources, discussed the planned summit in his meetings in Istanbul this past week with the Turkish and Egyptian foreign ministers, as well as with PA President Mahmoud Abbas.

The highly speculative, twice-denied, summit may also, Ha’aretz reports, be discussed at the White House meeting between President Obama and King Abdullah on 26 April, as well as in a mid-May Washington visit by Turkey’s Prime Minister Erdogan.

Moving on from speculation to speculation, it is confidently predicted that the summit would most likely take place in Washington in June 2013, although the exact date would avoid clashing with the Israeli Presidential Conference during the same month, which also marks the ninetieth birthday celebrations of Israel’s President Shimon Peres.

It is certainly true that since taking office, Secretary of State Kerry has sought to kick-start direct peace talks between Israeli and Palestinian leaders. He has been assiduous in his efforts, making frequent trips to the region, but not always avoiding a bloomer or two.

For example, the rapprochement he brokered between Israel and Turkey during Obama’s visit to the region was far from waterproof. Part of the deal was that the trial in absentia of four Israeli military leaders for their part in the Mavi Marmara incident would be discontinued. It is still being pursued.

During a further visit to Turkey last week, at the height of the furore in the States over the terrorist bombing of the Boston marathon, Kerry referred again to the Mavi Marmara incident. The Mavi Marmara was a Turkish ship that sailed to Gaza in May 2010 in an attempt to break Israel’s blockade against Hamas. Militants attacked Israeli soldiers as they boarded, and the soldiers shot and killed eight Turkish citizens and one Turkish-American.

“I particularly say to the families of people who were lost in the incident,” said Kerry, “we understand these tragedies completely and we sympathize with them. I have just been through the week of Boston and I have deep feelings for what happens when you have violence, and something happens, and you lose people that are near and dear to you. It affects a community, it affects a country. We’re very sensitive to that.”

Israel’s Deputy Minister of Defense, Danny Danon, rejected Kerry’s attempt to draw a moral equivalence between terrorists and the victims of terror. Republican Jewish Coalition Executive Director, Matt Brooks, said: “Secretary Kerry should retract these remarks as soon as possible. It’s unconscionable to compare the loss of life resulting from an act of self-defence to the results of cold-blooded, premeditated murder by terrorists.”

Nevertheless, it seems clear that John Kerry is deeply committed to achieving results in the Middle East peace process in general, and an accommodation between Israel and the Palestinians in particular. He recently emphasised that urgency is needed over the next two years in order to realise a two-state solution.

Reverting to the rumoured, and denied, summit, it is unclear whether it would be dependent on Kerry having already achieved a breakthrough to pave the way for direct Israeli-Palestinian talks. Kerry has met with Abbas five times in recent weeks in an effort to circumvent the Palestinian leader’s insistence on a settlement freeze as a precondition to resuming negotiations.

“We have two or three weeks left to see if this thing is doable,” one source is reported to have said.

Apparently, the rumour runs, if the summit does take place, terms of reference may be adopted in advance, including the principle of two states for two peoples, the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, which is aimed at facilitating a comprehensive peace across the Arab world, and economic aid for the Palestinian Authority.

The Israeli daily, Maariv, reported during the week that Kerry has secured agreement for the United States and other foreign powers to invest in large-scale economic initiatives in the Palestinian areas of the West Bank, designed to revive the ailing PA-run economy − undoubtedly a sweetener to help induce the reluctant Abbas to return to the negotiating table, whether or not the four-way summit ever sees the light of day.

Published in the Eurasia Review, 26 April 2013:

Monday, 22 April 2013

Israel and Palestine - that elusive peace

As the Obama administration sets out once again in pursuit of peace between Israel and the Palestinians − a prize that has eluded the grasp of generations of statesmen and politicians, including US President Obama himself in his first term − it is sobering to consider how close the parties have come in the past to concluding an agreement, only for it to fall at the last hurdle.

A plethora of dates are strewn across the recent history of the Middle East, marking the inauguration of well-intentioned efforts to reach a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. To list only some, there were the Madrid Conference in 1991, the Oslo Accord signed on the White House lawn on 13 September 1993, the Wye River Memorandum in 1998, the Camp David Summit in 2000, the Taba summit in 2001, the Arab Peace Initiative in 2002, the Road Map for Peace promulgated by the Quartet, and the Geneva Accord, both in 2003, the Annapolis process in 2007, and the Obama administration’s direct peace talks of September 2010.

But all those initiatives, involving so much time and effort on all sides, could have been rendered superfluous. History could have taken a quite different turn, and a sovereign Palestine could have been up and running some twenty-five years ago. For preceding them was the top-secret accord reached between Israel and Jordan at a time when Jordan exercised sovereignty over the West Bank and was in a position to negotiate a binding peace agreement establishing a sovereign Palestine alongside Israel.

Top-secret at the time, today the deal is a matter of public record. A single typewritten sheet of paper dated 11 April 1987 and headed “Secret / Most Sensitive” sets out what is described as: “A three-part understanding between Jordan and Israel” − in essence an agreement to convene and attend an international conference, under the auspices of the United Nations Security Council, charged with reaching a peaceful solution of both the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Palestinian problem “in all its aspects”.

The accord specifies that the invitation to attend the conference, as well as the terms of its remit, are to be “treated as US proposals to which Jordan and Israel have agreed.”

Despite the deliberately concise nature of the document, it can be assumed with some confidence that by the time it was signed on behalf of Jordan and Israel, the terms of a comprehensive peace deal had been virtually agreed by both sides.

“The agreement with Hussein,” said Shimon Peres in 2008, during an interview to mark his election as President of Israel the previous year, “was the best and greatest agreement Israel ever had. Alas, we torpedoed it. It was the greatest mistake in our history.”

It was Shimon Peres, then Israel’s foreign affairs minister, who negotiated with King Hussein of Jordan what became known as the “London Agreement” − it was signed in London on 11 April 1987, during a secret meeting held at the residence of Lord Mishcon, a leading UK lawyer and a prominent member of the Jewish community. Also present were Jordanian Prime Minister Zaid al-Rifai and Director General of the Israeli Foreign Affairs Ministry, Yossi Beilin.

The sting was in the tail of the document. “The above understanding is subject to the approval of the respective governments of Israel and Jordan.” With the king as signatory, the approval of the Jordanian government was a foregone conclusion. The problem − and a major problem it turned out to be − was Israel.

In 1987 Israel was ruled by a fragile and uncertain “national unity government” in which ministers were attempting − often unsuccessfully − to suppress diametrically opposite political beliefs in the interests of providing the nation with effective government. The prime minister was Yitzhak Shamir of the right-wing Likud party; Shimon Peres represented the left-wing Labor party in the cabinet. Chalk and cheese. Although Shamir permitted his foreign minister to undertake the secret negotiations and travel to London, he did not approve of the outcome, fearing that an international conference would force Israel into a solution that would be unacceptable to his party, and would prove divisive in the country as a whole.

Consequently he opposed the agreement, and Peres failed to get the cabinet’s endorsement. The signatories had agreed that their accord would be presented to US Secretary of State George Shultz so that it could be promoted as an American initiative. Shamir sent Moshe Arens, his Minister Without Portfolio, to meet Shultz and block the concept of a UN-hosted peace conference.

King Hussein, disappointed by Peres’s failure to obtain Israel’s endorsement of the agreement, disengaged from the peace process. Yassir Arafat, then Chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, launched the first intifada in December 1987, and in July 1988 Hussein withdrew Jordan’s claim to sovereignty over the West Bank. The London Agreement was dead − but the initiative was not without positive consequences. Peres developed and maintained a special and secret relationship with King Hussein of Jordan for many years, leading eventually to negotiations under Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, and the peace agreement with Jordan signed in 1994.

"King Hussein and Prime Minister Peres have played extraordinary roles, over many years, in pursuing peace and liberty in the Middle East,” ran the encomium, when both men were presented jointly with the Liberty Medal in Philadelphia in 1996. “The 1994 accord between Jordan and Israel is remarkable because it goes beyond the cessation of belligerency and focuses on the normalization of relations. It is a model for the Middle East and a stimulus for the world."

Shimon Peres is now President of Israel. His belief in the desirability of reaching a peaceful accord with the Palestinians remains as firm as ever.

“The peace process with the Palestinians already has an agreed beginning and an agreed solution,” he said, addressing the European Parliament on 12 March 2013. “Two states for two nations. An Arab state – Palestine; a Jewish state – Israel, living in peace, security and economic cooperation. The remaining disputed issues can and should be negotiated. Together with my partner Yitzhak Rabin, we laid down the foundations for peace with the Palestinians. Now it is time to continue − to renew the peace process.”

Hopeful and encouraging words with which to mark the start of yet another journey − long and tortuous as it will doubtless be − in search of that elusive peace.

Published in the Eurasia Review, 21 April 2013:

Thursday, 18 April 2013

Obama's second try

“If at first you don’t succeed,” runs the old maxim, “try, try, try again.”

You have to hand it to President Barack Obama for persistence.

He came to office in 2009 clearly determined to give a good deal of priority to the Middle East in general, and the Arab-Israeli dispute in particular. To the new administration it must have seemed that this new President, with his black power background, could do things no previous US president could have contemplated. Perhaps an unprecedented approach to the Muslim world, holding out the hand of friendship, would engender a new cooperative atmosphere in which old deeply-ingrained suspicions would dissipate, and peace would stand a better chance than ever before?

“It’s worth a try” must have been the prevailing mood, as Obama made his trip to Egypt in June 2009, and delivered a speech in Cairo best remembered, by some, for passages like this:

“I have come here to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world; one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect; and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition.”

What is usually forgotten about Obama’s Cairo speech, and is rarely quoted, are passages like this:

“America's strong bonds with Israel are well known. This bond is unbreakable... Tomorrow, I will visit Buchenwald, which was part of a network of camps where Jews were enslaved, tortured, shot and gassed to death by the Third Reich. Six million Jews were killed – more than the entire Jewish population of Israel today. Denying that fact is baseless, ignorant, and hateful. Threatening Israel with destruction – or repeating vile stereotypes about Jews – is deeply wrong, and only serves to evoke in the minds of Israelis this most painful of memories while preventing the peace that the people of this region deserve.”

So it is undoubtedly true that at the same time as Obama tried to match his “let’s be friends” approach to the Muslim world with conciliatory gestures − to Iran, to Syria, to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, all of which failed − he tried also to press ahead with reviving the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

A very early move was to appoint George Mitchell as his special envoy to the Middle East, charged with bringing the parties back to the negotiating table. Mitchell strove mightily − and with some success − to achieve just that, for in September 2010 Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, did sit face-to-face with Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian Authority (PA) at the same negotiating table in Washington, and both talked peace.

The issue that supervened to frustrate this worthy effort, and consequently to freeze the peace process for the next two-and-a half-years, was unfortunately compounded by another of Obama’s mistaken policies.

As Israel’s prime minister, Netanyahu was heading a fragile coalition. Back in November 2009 he had managed to persuade his colleagues - many sceptical of, if not downright opposed to, the idea -  to go along with Obama’s request for a 10-month freeze on construction in the West Bank. Obama’s hope was that the PA would use this window of opportunity to get peace discussions well under way. In the event most of the 10 months was frittered away by an Abbas reluctant, or fearful, to commit himself to negotiating peace, and it was only in the final few weeks that, with the agreement of the Arab League and supported by the presence of Egypt’s President Mubarak and Jordan’s King Abdullah, he finally agreed to face-to-face talks. Then, when the 10-month building moratorium drew to a close, he demanded that it be extended if he was to continue with the discussions.

Netanyahu found it impossible to persuade his Cabinet colleagues to renew the freeze on construction, and so the new-born peace process expired. From that moment, however, the Obama administration repeatedly urged Israel to re-impose its moratorium on building in the West Bank. Secretary of State Clinton said more than once that the US regarded continued building within the settlements as an obstacle to peace. But the real obstacle was this attempt of Obama’s to appease Arab opinion. Once the US had urged Israel to desist from West Bank construction, President Abbas was boxed into a corner and it was impossible for him to fudge the issue – as it had been consistently fudged in the past. Construction within the West Bank had never constrained the many previous peace negotiations between Israel and the PA. This time it was an immovable obstacle.

It is, in reality, a non-issue. Both parties accept that in any final agreement the larger West Bank settlements will remain in Israel’s hands. Expanding the infrastructure within these townships, therefore, can have no bearing on any final peace agreement. As for the rest, it is generally agreed that, following the precedent of Israel’s withdrawal from Sinai and Gaza, as part of a final agreement smaller settlements will be evacuated and handed over to a new sovereign Palestine. In which case the more new construction there is within them, the better the deal, from the Palestinians’ point of view.

Which is doubtless why, in his second attempt to grapple with the formidable Israel-Palestinian issue, Obama is playing a quite different hand.

First he found an opportunity early in his second term to visit the Middle East and to repair his fences with the Israeli public, among whom a certain scepticism about his intentions had been developing. Then, in a signal of the importance he devoted to the matter, he by-passed his Middle East special envoy − George Mitchell’s successor − and nominated his newly-appointed Secretary of State, John Kerry, to carry forward plans to revive the peace process.

Kerry began his new effort with a vigorous succession of visits to the region - three in as many weeks − and brokered a somewhat shaky rapprochement between Turkey and Israel. Early indications that he intended to base his new peace effort on reviving the 2002 Arab League peace plan were quickly discounted. Instead, the US has quietly unblocked almost $500 million in aid to the PA which had been frozen by Congress for months, and Kerry promised further economic assistance in developing the Palestinian economy, presumably as a sweetener to the PA to return to meaningful negotiations. Israeli construction in the West Bank has been given no prominence in US pronouncements thus far − mild disapproval of “continued settlement activity” is as far as Obama went in his major speech in Israel during his recent visit.

However, a new spanner thrown into the works is the resignation on 13 April of the PA’s prime minister, Salam Fayyad – which Kerry urged President Abbas not to accept. However Fayyad, greatly respected internationally, has indeed gone – and with him a fair degree of PA credibility. His plan to build Palestinian state institutions from the bottom up received much international support. Fayyad was a symbol of good governance and opposition to the financial corruption within the PA that has still not been fully eradicated. As Barak Ravid wrote in Ha’aretz, “Senior Fatah party members saw Fayyad as an obstacle toward their political and economic ambitions. The Palestinian prime minister refused to transfer funds to them or to appoint them as ministers.”

Fayyad's resignation is a setback to Obama’s plans to promote the peace process. Fayyad was not directly involved in negotiations with Israel, but Washington regarded him as a responsible and trustworthy figure within the PA administration. Regardless of reverses like this, Obama clearly intends to pursue his objective of achieving an Israeli-Palestinian agreement within his second term, if at all possible.

Unfortunately, the facts of American political life mean that if he does not succeed this second time around, there is no third try available to him.

Published in the Eurasia Review, 15 April 2013:

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Kerry and the Arab-Israeli peace process

The new US Secretary of State, John Kerry, has tentatively dipped his toe into the murky waters of the Arab-Israeli dispute, and has already had it nipped rather badly − not once, but several times.

Barack Obama returned to the White House at the start of his second presidential term clearly determined to make headway in the struggle for an accommodation between Israel and the Arab world. His personal visit to the Middle East shortly after his return to office was an obvious signal of his intention to engage his administration in a new peace-making effort. Back in 2009, on his first time around, Obama had appointed a special Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, to carry forward his attempt to bring Israel and the Palestinians to an agreement. This time he by-passed Mitchell’s successor, David Hale, and − emphasising the importance of the task − has charged his newly-appointed Secretary of State, John Kerry, directly to head it.

An early success, initiated by Kerry three weeks before President Obama arrived in the region, was brought to an apparent triumphant conclusion a few minutes before the president boarded Air Force One for his flight back home. Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, had been persuaded to offer his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, as much by way of an apology as he could, diplomatically and politically, for Israeli operational failures during the Mavi Marmara affair. Meanwhile, Secretary Kerry had been conducting intensive negotiations with Turkey for some three weeks, aimed at ensuring that the apology, when tendered, would be accepted.

The apology by Netanyahu was made on the understanding that Turkey would abandon its intention of putting four senior Israeli officials on trial, in absentia, charged with war crimes, while Erdogan’s acceptance was made on the understanding that Israel would pay compensation to the families of the nine Turkish citizens who were killed during the skirmish. It seemed like a acceptable deal for both parties.

The apology was duly made, and apparently accepted, although with a good deal of triumphalist bragging on Erdogan’s part about this “victory” over Israel − an aspect of the affair diplomatically glossed over by John Kerry on his return to Turkey, his third visit to the Middle East in as many weeks. What Kerry cannot ignore, however, is the fact that the lawsuit being heard in absentia in an Istanbul court against four of Israel's most senior retired commanders, including the ex-army chief, has not been dropped and apparently will not be, according to Turkish participants, even if the terms for compensation are agreed. A first sharp lesson to Kerry of the realpolitik that rules in the Middle East − and little assurance that his bid to normalise Turco-Israeli relations will be successful, at least in the short term (“We would like to see the relationship get back on track in its full measure,” said Kerry after meeting with Turkey’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu) .

A second rebuff to Kerry followed swiftly, administered as a double-whammy by the Palestinian Authority (PA).

There had been reports that the Obama administration is once again − as at the start of Obama’s first term − pinning its hopes on the Arab Peace Plan of 2002 to provide some sort of template to kick-start the Israel-Palestinian peace process back into life. Israel has never agreed to the Arab League plan, though it has never formally rejected it. Putting it back on the table, it was surmised, was meant to galvanize Arab support and draw in Turkey.

The Arab Initiative offers Israel a comprehensive peace and a renunciation of further Arab land claims in exchange for an Israeli withdrawal from land it captured in 1967. In all subsequent discussions between Israel and the PA it has been taken for granted by both sides that in any final agreement the 1967 boundaries would be modified by “agreed land swaps” to account for major Israeli settlements. In addition, the United States was reported to want more security commitments between Arab states and Israel.

In a first brush-off by the PA – which was not enamoured of the Obama-Netanyahu love-in during the US President’s visit to Israel − chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told the Voice of Palestine radio station last week − “Kerry asked us to change a few words in the Arab Peace Initiative, but we refused.”

Subsequently, Kerry has denied that the US does, in fact, intend to base future negotiations on the old Arab initiative.

And then, before Kerry arrived back in the Middle East, he had asked the PA to refrain from any action that could harm efforts to restart talks on an eventual two-state solution − such as pursuing claims against Israel in the International Criminal Court. All the PA would offer was to do so for a period of eight weeks. “We are not canceling those efforts,” said an official, “but we are freezing them.”

Not the most promising of starts to Obama’s well-intentioned efforts to reactivate the peace process, especially given the other pressing problems in the region − Iran’s nuclear ambitions and what to do about them, the worsening situation in Syria, the knock-on effect of the flood of refugees into Jordan and Lebanon, and the effort to prevent Syria’s stockpile of weapons, both conventional and chemical, from falling into the hands of Iran, its terrorist protegés like Hezbollah, or any of the jihadist groups that hope to come out on top when Syria finally collapses. All of which, compared to 2009-2010, provides a very different backdrop to this current peace effort by Obama.

One western diplomat is reported as saying: "It's too early to be optimistic."

That’s putting it mildly.

Published in the Eurasia Review, 10 April 2013:

Monday, 8 April 2013

NATO and the Israel connection

Israel is, of course, fairly remote from any part of the north Atlantic, so it would be reasonable to wonder why it should have any sort of connection with the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). But then NATO has itself travelled a fair distance since 1949 when, after much discussion and debate, the North Atlantic Treaty was signed by ten western European nations plus the United States and Canada, with the aim of deterring Soviet aggression at the very start of the Cold War.

The kaleidoscope of political change in the past 65 years has radically altered NATO’s nature and scope. Two landmarks define these changes: the end of the Cold War, which rendered NATO’s defensive strategy against the Soviet Union obsolete, and the 9/11 terrorist attack on the US in 2001, which redefined the enemy and the nature of the battle and which, incidentally, shifted the focus of NATO’s attention from Europe to the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and beyond − which is where Israel enters the picture.

NATO, which has on seven occasions added new members and now comprises 28 nations, has also broadened its operations to encompass both a “Partnership for Peace” programme with states of the former USSR, and also a number of “dialogue programs”. Among these is the Mediterranean Dialogue, set up in 1994 and intended to link Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Mauritania, Morocco, and Tunisia in security discussions.

Of course, this group of countries lacks any culture of cooperation in security matters, so the programme as such is pretty much a dead letter. Except that out of it, Israel alone has forged extremely close links with NATO. For example, recently Israel became the first country to conclude an individual cooperation programme. Through this it conducts an ongoing strategic dialogue with NATO covering, among other items, terrorism, intelligence sharing, nuclear proliferation, procurement and rescue operations. Israel is also a partner in NATO’s naval control system in the Mediterranean. By joining NATO forces in patrolling the Mediterranean. Israel contributes on a regular basis to Operation Active Endeavor, which was established after 9/11 and designed to prevent the movement of terrorists or weapons of mass destruction.

Given the close relationship that has developed between Israel and NATO, should Israel apply, or be invited, to join as a full member? The question has been raised on more than one occasion, and Avigdor Liberman, while he was Israel’s foreign minister, was convinced that joining NATO would act as a vital deterrent against Iran. But would membership be in Israel’s best interests? Israel’s defence doctrine has been always based on self-reliance and freedom of manoeuvre in security matters. Israel’s unwritten alliance with the United States is, perhaps, a more convenient alternative.

In any event, NATO’s “all for one, one for all” doctrine has acted against any attempt to pull Israel into full integration with the alliance. Other members − especially Turkey − have consistently blocked any such attempts, either on ideological grounds or because Article 5 of the NATO charter would oblige its members to fight for Israel if it were attacked by any of its many potential enemies.

All the same, despite the deterioration in Israel’s international standing in recent years, NATO and Israel have been strengthening their cooperation by leaps and bounds. For example, Israel has recently received approval to participate in NATO activities in 2013 that had been held up amid tensions with Turkey. The approval coincided with NATO agreeing Turkey’s request for Patriot missile batteries to be deployed along its border with Syria. It looks suspiciously as though NATO used this opportunity to induce Ankara to thaw its relations with Israel.

And now it seems as though the ties that bind NATO and Israel are to be strengthened even further. On 7 March 2013 NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen and Israel’s president Shimon Peres met at NATO headquarters in Brussels to discuss enhanced military cooperation focused on counter-terrorism − enhanced, that is, well beyond the so-called “Mediterranean Dialogue”.

Peres offered to assist NATO in counter-terrorism operations directed not only against Hezbollah and Iran, but against terrorism generally in the Middle East, stressing Israel’s ability to provide technological assistance based on the vast experience Israel had gained in the field of counter-terrorism.

“Israel will be happy to share the knowledge it has gained and its technological abilities with NATO,” Peres told Rasmussen. “Israel has experience in contending with complex situations, and we must strengthen the cooperation so we can fight global terror together and assist NATO with the complex threats it faces including in Afghanistan.”

Their joint statement points to an Israel-NATO partnership “in the fight against terror and the search for peace in the Middle East and the world. Israel and NATO are partners in the fight against terror.”

What this undoubtedly suggests is the participation of Israel in active theatre warfare alongside NATO. In other words, in all but name Israel looks set to become a de facto member of the Atlantic Alliance − a win-win situation both for NATO and for Israel.

Published in the Eurasia Review, 7 April 2013:

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line edition, 5 June 2013

Friday, 5 April 2013

How Turkey accepts an apology

The Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has managed to convince himself – and is doing his best to convince the entire Turkish population − that he has won a great psychological victory over Israel.

As a parting shot in his recent tour of the Middle East, President Obama persuaded his host, Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to issue an apology for failures that occurred in the course of the Israeli military operation during the Mavi Marmara affair in May 2010, when nine Turkish citizens were killed in an attempt to run the blockade of Gaza. The careful wording was as far, politically and diplomatically, as Netanyahu was prepared to go. He made his phone call to Erdogan from the airstrip, while Obama waited to board Air Force One for his return flight to the US.

It is obvious that the President must also have exerted no little pressure on the Turkish prime minister to accept whatever it was Netanyahu was able to say by way of apology, and in addition to withdraw his threat of putting four Israeli military officials on trial in Ankara in absentia, provided Israel financially compensated the families of those who were killed.

They say that the darkest hour is just before the dawn. Perhaps the darkest hour in Turkish-Israeli relations was Erdogan’s outburst in late-February declaring Zionism to be a “crime against humanity”, on a par with fascism. Admittedly, on seeing the general outrage that his remarks had caused, he hastened to soften their impact, but as Alon Liel observed in the Jerusalem Report, speaking for many observers at the time: “Erdogan crossed a red line no Israeli government can ignore. With this slander he has destroyed any hope of an Israeli apology.”

Lo and behold, in the very week that Liel’s prediction appeared in print, the apology was made and – it is presumed – accepted. The acceptance has to be presumed, because instead of any gracious acknowledgement of Netanyahu’s gesture, instead of extending a “thank you” or indicating pleasure in the fact that Netanyahu had made a considerable personal and diplomatic effort to heal relations between Israel and Turkey, Erdogan reacted by trumpeting the apology as a humiliation for Israel and a triumph for himself. Billboards in Ankara read: “Dear prime minister, we are grateful that you let our country experience this pride.”

No-one begrudges the Turkish people feeling pride, but one must ask: ‘pride in what?’ There is no cause for pride in having one’s arm twisted. It was Obama − working through his Secretary of State, John Kelly − who had masterminded three weeks of covert negotiation with the Turkish prime minister and his colleagues, to ensure that the apology, when issued by Netanyahu, was accepted, and that, as a quid pro quo for Israel paying compensation to the families of the Turkish citizens killed in the Mavi Marmara incident, Erdogan agreed to drop charges he had intended bringing against four Israeli officials involved in planning and executing the operation. In short, it is difficult to perceive any Turkish victory over Israel since it was not Erdogan who persuaded Netanyahu to act, but Obama.

The triumphalist posturing adopted by Erdogan since the apology does not augur well for future Turco-Israeli relations. It would have been easy for Erdogan to accept the apology graciously, to grasp the hand of friendship extended to him, to have declared that the episode marked a new beginning in relations between the two countries. The way Erdogan did react makes it seem highly unlikely that his rabid anti-Israel rhetoric will be much modified in the future. He is engaged in a power play – a bid to trump both Iran and Egypt, still racked by its Arab Spring revolution − to achieve regional hegemony, if not leadership of the Muslim world. Erdogan dare not be seen to draw too close to the perennial enemy, even if he wished to – doubtful in itself.

However, a more covert Turco-Israeli rapprochement might develop – growth, perhaps, in sales to Turkey of Israeli defense equipment; possibly exports of gas to or via Turkey from the vast reserves off Israel’s coast just starting to be exploited; maybe restoration of old trade and tourism links. However, even optimistic observers agree that nothing will happen quickly. The re-establishment of confidence and of contacts will take time and patience. Recent reports indicate that negotiating teams charged with restoring ties between Turkey and Israel are to due to begin meeting this week. The Turkish team will be led by Foreign Ministry Under-Secretary Feridun Sinirlioglu, former Ambassador to Israel; the Israeli team by Joseph Ciechanover.

Meanwhile on 12 April an Israeli delegation will travel to Ankara to begin discussions on the extent of the financial compensation to be paid by Israel to the families of the Turkish citizens killed on board the Mavi Marmara. There is certainly a gap to be bridged here, if reports are to be believed. Turkey is said to be demanding that Israel pay $1 million per family of each activist killed, while Israel is currently offering each family $100,000 by way of compensation. Negotiations seem likely to be extensive.

Whether Netanyahu should have offered his apology in the first place, whether Erdogan should have responded to it as he did − these matters are now water under the bridge. The fact is that, even if extracted from both sides by American pressure, this unexpected political development is a fait accompli. What is needed now is for both Turkey and Israel to exploit it, taking account of their own interests. Do either have the will, desire or inclination to do so? Time will tell.

Published in the Eurasia Review, 2 April 2013: