How do you say “chutzpa” in Turkish?
The expulsion of Israel’s ambassador to Turkey (he was in Israel on leave anyway) and the recall of Turkey’s ambassador to Israel followed the release of the UN report that – get this – upheld the legality of Israel’s blockade of Gaza and therefore the propriety of the Israeli raid on the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara in which nine Turkish thugs were killed. PM Netanyahu has properly refused to apologize, wimpishly offered to pay compensation to the families of the “victims,” and otherwise has had to endure another public relations hit as Israeli-Turkish relations has foundered.
The contacts between Israel and Turkey have always involved a diplomatic tap dance, if not juggling while walking a tight rope. Turkey was once traditionally defined as a “secular Muslim, non-Arab state” and its thumbnail sketch was as “the only Muslim country with which Israel has diplomatic ties.” But neither has been true for years; this is not Kemal Ataturk’s Turkey anymore. Since the Islamic party won control of Turkey’s government, and its strongman Erdogan has ruled, Turkey has undergone a steady de-secularization campaign. Muslim garb, forbidden under Ataturk, is now commonly worn, and in many places expected. Turkey has warmed its relations with Iran and Syria and other enemies of Israel and America, and sought a seat at the table of radical Islam. This was all predicted years ago, and the only hindrances to a full cessation of relations with Israel have been the military – the dominant force in Turkey – and the extensive trade between the two countries that has benefited both.
Those who seek to re-start Israel-Turkey relations on the old premises are simply in denial about the change in circumstances. The old premises no longer pertain. This should have been crystal clear to anyone who observed the saber-rattling of Erdogan that led him to support the flotilla in the first place – an attempt to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza, with which, after all, Israel is at war. It was just over two years ago when Erdogan got into a shouting match with Shimon Peres in Davos about Israeli “crimes,” leaving the peripatetic peacenik Peres to plead with Erdogan: “What would you do if rockets were falling on your civilians?” Erdogan just walked away. Recent events are just the natural consequence of a rupture that occurred years ago and is unavoidable given the ideological drift of the Turks.
It is important to iterate a classic distinction in statecraft that is often ignored. Turkey was an ally of Israel; i.e., they shared mutual interests. But Turkey and Israel were never friends – there has never been symmetry of views and values that make that association a natural one. Years ago, at a White House meeting I attended, President Bush made a similar point about Israel and Saudi Arabia. The Saudis, he said, are allies, not friends. Israel is a friend. It is a distinction, Bush said, that he never overlooks. Today, Turkey and Israel do not even share interests; hence the tension. It is sad, of course, inevitable, but not irreversible. Israelis, especially, have enjoyed vacationing on the Turkish
shore, and it is an interesting country to visit. (I spent almost a week there
a number of years ago.) Times change.
What galls, though, is the raw hypocrisy of the Turks who have never been a nation with clean hands. Imagine if Israel offered overt support to the Kurdish rebels who have been clamoring for independence from Turkey for decades, and been treated brutally by the Turks? The reaction would have been swift and unforgiving. The Turkish massacres of Greeks on Cyprus have also been played down. But nothing speaks more to the delicacy of the Turkish sensibilities and the need for an immoral silence to grease the wheels of this relationship than Israel’s long-time disregard of the Turkish massacre of more than 1,000,000 Armenians almost a century ago (1915). Israel is one of many countries – the US is another – that have avoided calling the Armenian genocide a “genocide,” and in many cases Turkey has broken off relations with countries that have acknowledged this tragic truth. In the last decade, Congressional resolutions have recognized the genocide but even the US government has not officially done so until today, for fear of impairing relations with the Turks. The Armenian genocide is the 20th century atrocity that dare not speak its name.
Israel has been even slower on the uptake, especially infuriating because of our understandable sensitivity regarding Holocaust denial. Rumor has it that even the Museum of Tolerance was pressured – by Israel – not to include the Armenian genocide in its displays because of the potential adverse Turkish reaction. (They eventually relented and the museum includes an account of the Armenian massacres, but the same squeamishness and dialogue recurred when DC’s Holocaust Museum opened.) But basic morality should dictate that genocide is acknowledged and the perpetrators – long lost to history – be condemned. It is the least we can do to honor the memory of the slain. While diplomatic contortions are inevitable, and not every truth can be pointed out on every occasion, perhaps now is an opportune time to right that historic wrong. Will it harm relations even more ? Probably in the short term. But it should be accompanied by a statement that “Israel values relations with Turkey, and appreciates the historic alliance between Turkey and Israel, but still mourns the genocide of Armenians a century ago that is no reflection on modern Turkey but is a historical injustice that demands acknowledgment,” or something of the sort.
The US should do the same. Otherwise, we find ourselves in the morally untenable position of kowtowing to Turks who massacred Armenians and demand that the whole world be accessories to their cover-up, and now support Arabs who have similar genocidal ambitions against Jews and Israel.
That will surely stick in their craw, and be a subtle reminder to Turkey that they are not dealing with Armenians, Kurds or Greeks whom they can malign, besmirch and attack with impunity, but with a proud Jewish nation of Israel that will defend its citizens, its honor, its rights and its freedoms. Israel should not again fall into the trap of having to apologize for its existence and having to
defend its right of self-defense.