When Friends Fall Out
Published: June 1, 2010http://www.nytimes.com/2010/
As a friend of both Turkey and Israel, it has been agonizing to watch the disastrous clash between Israeli naval commandos and a flotilla of “humanitarian” activists seeking to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza. Personally, I think both Israel and Turkey have gotten out of balance lately, and it is America’s job to help both get back to the center — urgently.
I’ve long had a soft spot for Turkey. I once even argued that if the European Union wouldn’t admit Turkey, we should invite Turkey to join Nafta. Why? Because I think it really matters whether Turkey is a bridge or ditch between the Judeo-Christian West and the Arab and Muslim East. Turkey’s role in balancing and interpreting East and West is one of the critical pivot points that helps keep the world stable.
I also happened to be in Istanbul when the street outside one of the synagogues that was suicide-bombed there on Nov. 15, 2003, was reopened. Two things struck me: First, the chief rabbi of Turkey appeared at the ceremony, hand in hand with the top Muslim cleric of Istanbul and the local mayor, while crowds threw red carnations on them. Second, Turkey’s leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who comes from an Islamist party, paid a visit to the chief rabbi — the first time a Turkish prime minister had ever called on the chief rabbi in his office. Since then, I have seen Turkey play an important role mediating between Israel and Syria and voting just a month ago in favor of Israel joining the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development.
Therefore, it has been painful to hear the same Prime Minister Erdogan in recent years publicly lash out with ever-greater vehemence at Israel over its treatment of the Palestinians in Gaza. Many see this as Turkey looking to ingratiate itself with the Muslim world after having been rebuffed by the European Union. I have no problem with Turkey or humanitarian groups loudly criticizing Israel. But I have a big problem when people get so agitated by Israel’s actions in Gaza but are unmoved by Syria’s involvement in the murder of the prime minister of Lebanon, by the Iranian regime’s killing of its own citizens demonstrating for the right to have their votes counted, by Muslim suicide bombers murdering nearly 100 Ahmadi Muslims in mosques in Pakistan on Friday and by pro-Hamas gunmen destroying a U.N.-sponsored summer camp in Gaza because it wouldn’t force Islamic fundamentalism down the throats of children.
That concern for Gaza and Israel’s blockade is so out of balance with these other horrific cases in the region that it is not surprising Israelis dismiss it as motivated by hatred — not the advice of friends. Turkey has a unique role to play linking the East and West. If Turkey lurches too far East, it may become more popular on some Arab streets, but it would lose a lot of its strategic relevance and, more importantly, its historic role as a country that can be Muslim, modern, democratic — and with good relations with both Israel and the Arabs. Once this crisis passes, it needs to get back in balance.
Ditto Israel. There is no question that this flotilla was a setup. Israel’s intelligence failed to fully appreciate who was on board, and Israel’s leaders certainly failed to think more creatively about how to avoid the very violent confrontation that the blockade-busters wanted. At the same time, though, the Israeli partial blockade of Hamas and Gaza has been going on for some four years now. It is surely not all Israel’s fault, given the refusal of Hamas to recognize Israel or prior peace agreements, and its own repeated missile attacks on Israel.
But I sure know this: It is overwhelmingly in Israel’s interest to bring more diplomatic imagination and energy to ending this Gaza siege. How long is this going to go on? Are we going to have a whole new generation grow up in Gaza with Israel counting how many calories they each get? That surely can’t be in Israel’s interest. Israel has gotten so good at controlling the Palestinians that it could get comfortable with an arrangement that will not only erode its own moral fabric but increase its international isolation. It may be that Hamas will give Israel no other choice, but Israel could show a lot more initiative in determining if that is really so.
One of my oldest Israeli friends, Victor Friedman (no relation), an education professor from Zichron Yaacov, e-mailed me the following on Tuesday: “It’s time we started using our wits. If we used even a tiny fraction of the brain-power and resources we put into ‘defense’ into finding a way forward in terms of living with the Palestinians, we would have solved the problem long ago. The strategic situation has never been more opportune — the Arabs are scared of the Iranians, the Saudi peace plan is still on the table, and the Palestinians are beginning to act rationally. But we lack the leadership to help us make a real change.”This is a critical moment. Two of America’s best friends are out of balance and infuriatingly at each other’s throats. We have got to move quickly to get them both back to the center before this spins out of control.