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Dan Rozenson is a young professional in Washington, DC. Naturally, he assumes he is destined for greatness. The Compendium is an informal collection of his (mostly informed) opinions on policy, politics, and culture. Special focus on the Middle East.



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19 September 11

Is Israel blameless for its woes? Not quite.

Yossi Klein Halevi, writing from Jerusalem in The New Republic, shows what happens when Israel is once again under the world’s microscope. The tendency on the part of Israel supporters is to line up in defense of the outnumbered nation. More often than not — and this is no exception — outrage directed against Israel by the world community is done largely out of convenience, habit, and outright discrimination. Israel is right to still be deeply angered by the UNGA’s once-designation of Zionism as an inherently racist ideology.

But the title of Klein Halevi’s article, “No Apologies,” reveals another tendency slightly too well-practiced. The moral certainty with which he believes Israel has made the right decisions might prevent cognitive dissonance in his own mind, but it misses a larger point: Is Israel responsible for its current predicament? Klein Halevi wants to make it clear that Israel is not to “blame” for its growing isolation, but he seems to mean “blame” mostly in a moralistic sense — not in a causative sense.

Here is Klein Halevi:

This convergence of blame comes at a time of spiritual vulnerability for Jews. This is, after all, our season of contrition. As we approach Rosh Hashanah, the process of self-examination intensifies. And as Jewish tradition emphasizes, the basis for penitence is apology. Before seeking forgiveness from God, we are to seek forgiveness from those we have hurt, even inadvertently.

But in the present atmosphere Jews should resist the temptation for self-blame. Apology is intended to heal. Yet those demanding apologies of Israel aren’t seeking reconciliation, but the opposite—to criminalize the Jewish state and rescind its right to defend itself.

He refers in particular to the Egyptian and Turkish governments, who have called for apologies from the Israeli government over various (real and perceived) offenses. In the case of Turkey, the issue was the Israeli raid on the Mavi Marmara flotilla, and in the case of Egypt, an operation near the Sinai which accidentally resulted in the deaths of several Egyptian soldiers. The Turkish government has started a cold war of sorts with Israel, and a (paid) mob of Egyptians stormed the Israeli embassy in Cairo.

To listen to Klein Halevi, the appropriateness of Israel’s actions in each instance is only a question of the technicalities. Israeli soldiers were legally entitled and obligated to defend themselves from the lynch mob aboard the Mavi Marmara. The IDF was legally entitled to hunt down terrorists near the Sinai border. The problem is, those technicalities only matter in the context of what Israel’s broader policies are.

In the case of Gaza, it’s time for Israelis to admit that their policy, one which I have supported, has failed. Israel’s Gaza policy aims for two things: to limit the weapons acquisition of Hamas and other terrorist groups; and, implicitly, to convince the Gazan population to overthrow the Hamas regime. The first aim is one for which Israel never needs to apologize. The second is morally problematic, however, and it has not been successful. In that context, Israel has only made easier the fine-toothed comb examination its detractors seek to employ. Surely, there is an ounce of Israeli blame here.

The Egyptian mess is a bit more oblique. Israel’s handling of its relations with Egypt has not been the real problem; rather, it’s Israel’s general approach to everyone right now. At a time of huge uncertainty, Prime Minister Netanyahu has punted his powers of statesmanship to the very world powers he distrusts. He should be grateful that even the United States is by his side — the prime minister did not earn friends in the White House when he lectured President Obama over a mundane matter in May. Netanyahu has managed to bungle the Palestinian UN vote in every way possible — by alienating true allies, by fighting without making amends, and by simply refusing to outline a strategy. Is Israel blameless here?

If Klein Halevi were to think about the world outside Israel, I think even he would begin to see how damaging Netanyahu’s stubbornness is. Here is his one allowance:

Would Netanyahu offer the Palestinians a state along the equivalent of the 1967 lines? In exchange for Palestinian acceptance of a Jewish state and abandonment of the demand for refugee return to Israel: My sense is yes. I wish he would explicitly say so, even if that meant risking his coalition. [bold added]

This is a significant admission on Klein Halevi’s part, and I applaud his honesty. But if he thinks it would be nice for Israelis to hear Netanyahu say that, imagine how much everyone else would like to hear it. And imagine how much easier President Obama’s job becomes at the UN, and how much more difficult it becomes for Recep Tayyip Erdogan to posture against Israel, if Netanyahu were to take this step! The period of self-reflection before Yom Kippur, as he writes, is not just about assigning blame but about undertaking corrective actions. Bibi has not just made mistakes, he has learned nothing from them. That is the true sin committed here.

Turkey’s AKP is making clear moves — away from democracy, that is

The ongoing saga of Turkey’s democracy crisis continues. It seems every time I hear an AKP official these days, I am less and less convinced of their democratic intentions and their reliability as an ally of the U.S.

The latest incident happened two weeks ago, when the U.S. ambassador to Turkey criticized abuses of Turkish journalists. (The day prior, Turkish police raided a TV station.)

AKP officials have been none-too-pleased with the ambassador’s criticism, and their remarks have been translated and compiled by MEMRI here. For example, deputy AKP chairman Huseyin Celik said “Ambassadors cannot interfere in our domestic issues or design our internal policies.” Sounds an awful lot like China, no?

Turkish Interior Minister Besir Atalay remarked, “With regard to press freedom, it’s much better in Turkey than in the United States.” Not according to Reporters Without Borders’s annual Press Freedom Index. They ranked the U.S. 20 out of 178 countries in 2010. Turkey, meanwhile, has fallen to 138, just edging out Russia. Similarly, Freedom House ranked the U.S. 24 and Turkey 106 out of 196.

If the ambassador’s comments were truly out of line, you would expect non-AKP voices to say so. But on the contrary, the deputy leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) said the ambassador was being fair:

The mission of the envoys is to closely follow the developments in the countries they are appointed to and inform their governments. When needed, the ambassadors also express openly their opinions. Is it possible for him not to make any observations when these things are happening? …

We are a candidate country to the European Union. It’s very normal for the ambassadors of EU countries and other countries to speak out about the deficiencies in terms of democracy and human rights.

Coupled with Prime Minister Erdogan’s disheartening defense of Muammar Qaddafi, AKP leaders sound further removed from the West than ever before. I fear they are rejecting an East-West hybrid and instead embracing the unfavorable elements of the East.

P.S. It has been pointed out to me that Erdogan will likely be the final recipient of the Muammar Qaddafi International Prize for Human Rights.

A new authoritarianism in Turkey?

As I wrote several months back, Turkey’s political debate flows into several narratives. One, perpetrated by supporters of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), portrays their fight against the country’s old-guard secular institutions as Turkey’s first real attempt at sustainable democracy. AKP’s staunchest opponents say they are trying to make Turkey into an Islamic state. The real question, though, is whether the AKP is subverting democracy in the name of democracy — by attacking the old authoritarian elements and replacing them with AKP-inspired ones.

The AKP’s moral high ground continues to erode with stories like these:

Three journalists from a Web site critical of the government were jailed and charged on Friday as part of an investigation into accusations that the military plotted to overthrow Turkey’s pro-Islamic government in 2003. The moves came as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan sharply criticized the new American ambassador here for his comments on the case.

Charges of membership in an illegal network, disclosing state documents and inciting public animosity were filed against Soner Yalcin, an investigative journalist who is the owner of the Web site, OdaTV; Baris Terkoglu, the news editor; and Baris Pehlivan, a writer. After their initial detention on Monday the ambassador, Francis J. Ricciardone Jr., said that it was hard to square the action against them with the Turkish government’s professed support of press freedom.

Those who are looking to Turkey as a model for Egypt should take note.

Pro-this, anti-that. What matters is efficacy

As Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem encourages Turkey to act as mediator between Syria and Israel on peace talks, Foreign Policy's Max Strasser is skeptical that this will amount to anything. In addition recounting recent Israeli-Turkish hostility, he adds a much more important point:

Even when the Turkish mediated negotiations were going well, the closest Damascus and Tel Aviv ever came to success was nearing an agreement to sit down for direct talks. Once that happened, who knows how far those negotiations would have gone, but probably not far. Syria remains, at least rhetorically, committed to getting the Golan Heights back from Israel, which has been occupying the territory since 1967. Netanyahu has said unequivocally that Israel “will never withdraw from the Golan,” as has his foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman.

With Israeli-Palestinian peace talks on the precipice of collapse after only a month, it’s hard to imagine why anyone else in the region would choose to sign up for more ill-fated negotiations.

The mediator is really a low priority when it comes to the Israeli-Syrian peace talks. The U.S., even under Barack Obama, is considered pro-Israel by the Arab world, yet peace talks guided by Bill Clinton, Dennis Ross, and Martin Indyk got the Syrians and Israelis to within a micron of an agreement. Effectiveness as an interlocutor is much more valuable than “neutrality.” Once both sides are ready to talk peace again — actually ready — finding the right mediator will be a piece of cake.

What’s gotten into Turkey? (cont’d)

Following up on my post yesterday about Turkey’s constitutional referendum, a great deal of discussion has taken place in the last 24-48 hours that I wanted to sort through. As I tried to make clear yesterday, the fault line runs between those who think Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AKP is serving the cause of Turkish democracy, and between those who think he is more likely a shrewd populist trying to entrench his party in a government that has long resisted Islamism.

Let’s look at some of the discussion. Nuh Yilmaz writes over at Foreign Policy that the ‘yes’ vote is a rejection of the military coup as an instrument of internal regime change and a means of ensuring liberal democracy:

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s track record for dealing with the pressure of military elites shows that a strong civilian political leader can do away with the threat of a coup. However, with this vote, the strength of political leadership vis-à-vis the traditional state elites will not be restricted to Erdogan’s personal charisma. Instead, by eliminating the supremacy of military and civilian bureaucratic power over Turkish domestic and foreign policy, these amendments will give legal and structural guarantees to political figures, transforming Erdogan’s personal success against state elites into an institutional characteristic of the Turkish political system.

The next step is the establishment of a new democratic constitution as promised by Erdogan. Up until now, substantive changes in the constitution have not been possible because of the highly politicized structure of the Constitutional Court. By changing the structure of the Constitutional Court, Sunday’s vote will allow Turks to draft a new constitution after the 2011 elections. Sunday’s vote paves the way for (if not guarantees) a civilian constitution in Turkey for the first time in 50 years. [snip]

Overall, the referendum will make Turkey a more democratic and open society through the implementation of democratic reforms. Most importantly, it will make it clear that Turkey will be governed by civilian political leaders. Now, instead of delving into vicious ideological discussions of the ghosts of Turkey’s past, it is time to watch how democratic changes are implemented and a new constitution is drafted to establish the rule of law.

There is no doubt that this AKP victory is a rebuke of military intervention in politics — and that’s a positive development. But the democratic argument strains credulity. A civilian constitution is now guaranteed, but not necessarily a liberal one. (More on that shortly.)

In another FP article, Asli Bâli makes a similar argument, dismissing power-grab fears head-on:

The main objections[to the package] centered on two elements: procedurally, the amendments were offered as a single package rather than allowing the electorate to vote on each provision individually. More importantly, opposition groups saw provisions for changes to the composition and selection process of the constitutional court and a board to oversee judicial appointments as an attempt at court-packing that would undermine judicial independence. While procedurally it might have been preferable to offer the amendments for referendum individually, the substantive concerns about the judiciary are the core of the controversy and they are largely baseless.

The amendments in question increase the size of the Constitutional Court from 11 permanent and four alternate justices to 17 permanent justices. In addition, the democratically-elected parliament is accorded a role in the appointments procedure for the first time, enabling them to nominate candidates for three of the 17 seats on the expanded Court. With a parliamentary role in appointing fewer than 20 percent of the justices, this hardly amounts to court-packing even were the AKP guaranteed a durable parliamentary majority. Moreover, the transition to an expanded Court will occur by awarding the four current alternate justices — chosen under the pre-amendment procedures favored by the opposition — permanent seats. That leaves only two new seats to be filled on the expanded Court and they will be selected by the parliament from among nominations from the judiciary and bar associations. If there is to be court-packing by the government, evidently it will not be in the immediate aftermath of this referendum.

As I discussed yesterday, Soner Cagaptay is one of the chief AKP skeptics. Sure enough, he just wrote an op-ed in the Turkish Hurriet Daily News pointing out some less-than-liberal tendencies in AKP’s governing history:

[T]he first test of the AKP’s commitment to a European Turkey and its ability to keep a torn Turkey whole is already in the offing. In the aftermath of the Sept. 12 vote, the AKP has already promised to draft a new constitution for Turkey. Will this new constitution form the groundwork of a liberal society? Here, the outside world should pay as much attention to what happens on the ground as it does to the party’s promises. 

For instance, one of the articles that the AKP presented as a constitutional amendment on Sept. 12 pertains to the privacy of communication. This new article stipulates that personal information shall be protected. The Turkish constitution now guarantees the privacy of all communication – great news! According to news reports, however, the number of wiretapped phone calls in Turkey increased approximately 50 percent between 2007 and 2009 (from 63,576 in 2007 to 90,163 in 2008 to 142,135 in 2009). While passing such a progressive amendment is commendable, reality under the AKP is seemingly different.

Clearly, the world ought to consider not just whether the AKP is drafting a liberal democratic constitution, but whether it is also practicing liberal democracy.

Another worrying sign is Erdogan’s bullying of hostile media outlets. In any case, those who are interested should also read Steven Cook’s CFR interview for a layman’s walk through all these issues.

What’s gotten into Turkey?

Turkish citizens have voted affirmatively on a set of constitutional reforms that will continue the West’s confusion over where reliably secular, pro-Western Turkey went. A couple of schools of thought — not mutually exclusive, it must be said — have emerged over why Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government, led by his moderately Islamist AK Party, is not playing ball with the U.S., Europe, and Israel like it used to.

One school, led by figures like WINEP’s Soner Cagaptay, have outlined a discernible change in the philosophy of Turkish foreign policy ever since the AKP came to power in 2002. They focus in particular on the role of Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who is the brainchild of AKP’s recent foreign policy — one that doesn’t shy away from seeming “Muslim” in its orientation.

Another school looks more skeptically at the legacy of the secular, pro-Western founder of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal:

[O]ne must abandon the standard narrative about Turkey’s recent history. According to that story, Turkey was once the sick man of Europe, trapped in religious obscurantism. Then, Kemal Atatürk came along with westernizing reforms and took the nation on a great secular leap forward. Unfortunately, however, the forces of darkness survived underground and have recently reemerged in the guise of the quasi-religious Justice and Development Party (AKP).

At the heart of this story is a battle between Western enlightenment and obscurantism. But in fact, Turkey’s real dichotomy has always been between its westernizers and its modernizers. Whereas the westernizers, led by Atatürk, sought to remodel Turkey into a fully European nation, emphasizing cultural westernization and secularization, the modernizers called for political and economic reform but insisted on preserving the traditional culture and religion at the same time.

AKP carries a mixed banner of Islamism and modernization, which accounts for the change in international outlook. It also explains their battles with the Turkish military, the guardian of the old secular establishment. This is the context in which we should see the constitutional reform package. AKP officials call the amendments a dose of people power since they will add checks to the considerable power of the judiciary, also a secularist mainstay. This spin is a bit disingenuous, though, since it does hurt secular judges — by boosting the power of the AKP-led executive branch. In other words, this was not a victory for “democracy” so much as for the AKP’s long-term structural base within government. That’s why one observer’s demand that the EU “react" to the referendum rings a little hollow.

Sanctions can have (some) impact, apparently

Though most Iran observers wrote off UN sanctions as ineffective — or worse, counterproductive — they have been useful to a large extent. They not only proved to be an impetus for further American sanctions, but Europe recently joined in on these quite impressive measures. And the President, to his credit, is using all the tools of the government at his disposal to enforce the sanctions — such as by enlisting the Securities and Exchange Commission to help make compliance easier for American companies. Are the sanctions going to create a change in results? As I suggested in response to Ray Takeyh’s concerns, the real hope for sanctions is to spur internal pressure from powerful elites. Marc Lynch says there is “intriguing evidence" that this is taking place. And on the broader economic front, it looks like Iran is indeed finding it harder to conduct trade. So, in a sign of the times, Iran has decided to turn to a new ally for help: Turkey.

Andrew Sullivan overreaches (again)

Keep this graphic in mind as you read this post from the Daily Dish:

The pro-Israel lobby’s latest fixation is a sudden demonization of Turkey. Eli Lake’s latest really is a doozy. The only explanation for Turkey’s horror at Gaza - shared by countless observers in the civilized world - is, for Eli, Islamization. Eli can write an entire article without ever referring to Israel’s actions these past ten years, and using [sic] the Washington Times to send a warning to Turkey that AIPAC now sees Turkey as an enemy.

Sullivan dismisses the theory that Turkey’s newfound voice for the Hamas cause is not a result of Islamist influence by … nothing that other countries are dissatisfied with the Gaza situation. And that the source is Eli Lake.

If Israel’s actions were the only thing that caused this marriage, why in February 2006 did Turkey invite Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal on a state visit? Why was the Turkish government so intimately involved in the coordination of violence on the Mavi Marmara? Why are they so intent on coordinating with Hamas? Why is Turkey now going to great lengths to coddle Iran and Hizballah? That Hamas, Hizballah, Iran, and Turkey’s AKP are all Islamist is not irrelevant. I linked just yesterday to an op-ed about Turkey’s Islamization and its foreign policy implications. It’s much better sourced than Andrew Sullivan’s blog posts.

Turkey’s new, violent friends

So it turns out that Israel is not alone in thinking its actions were justified. Ask a large plurality of the American public. Ask Quartet envoy Tony Blair. Ask this brave Kuwaiti journalist.

Who is siding with Turkey? Hizballah, Hamas, and their benefactor — the military dictators of Tehran, the IRGC. (They, by the way, will soon be subjects of further international sanctions.) Also, the Taliban. This is not an accident. This is the path AKP-led Turkey wants to go:

Ever since the Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) assumed power in 2002, Turkish foreign policy has made a 180-degree turn. The country’s once-strong ties with the United States and Israel have been weakened, and entry talks with the European Union have stalled while Ankara has come to the defense of the Iranian nuclear program and Hamas. The reason for this shift is simple: Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his government believe that Samuel Huntington was right, that there is a clash of civilizations. Only they are on the side of the Islamists, not the West.

For the AKP, “Turkey’s traditionally strong ties with the West represent a process of alienation.” This is a quote from “Strategic Depth,” the opus written by Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey’s foreign minister. Unfortunately, “Strategic Depth” has not been translated into English, though Westerner would do well to read it to get a better understanding of Ankara’s thinking. The work’s executive summary answers all questions about the AKP’s foreign policy: “Since the end of the Ottoman Empire, Muslims have gotten the short end of the stick, and the AKP is here to correct all that.”

Department of silver linings

What a terrible day to highlight news that Israel can enforce decisions to advance the peace process. Regardless, I would be remiss not to mention — against my expectations — that Israel went the last quarter without a single new house built in West Bank settlements (outside of Jersualem, obviously). Yet the peace process is as far away from serious progress as ever.

As the flotilla catastrophe showed us, elevating the settlements to the status of peace-maker or -breaker ignores issues of greater significance. I think personally there’s been a reasonable case for partially easing the blockade on Gaza that the U.S. could make without making it into an act of appeasement. Obama chose to focus on settlements instead. They exacerbate feelings of distrust but they do not cause riots. They do not cause intifadas.

Also, to right-wing pro-Israel critics of Obama — do not take this for granted:

Israel faced heavy criticism in an emergency session of the United Nations Security Council on Monday in response to its deadly attack on an aid flotilla trying to breach the Gaza blockade, but attempts to issue a formal statement stalled after the United States rejected the strong condemnation sought by Turkey. …

The Obama administration refused to endorse a statement that singled out Israel, and proposed a broader condemnation of the violence that would include the assault of the Israeli commandos as they landed on the deck of the ship.