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Friday, 4 June 2010

4 June 2010

There’s probably been more than enough written about Israel’s actions on the high seas last Monday morning, when it intercepted a flotilla carrying aid supplies on its way to Gaza. Nine people were killed in the operation, several of them from Turkey – and it is Turkey’s role that I think it may be worth focusing on.

Consider: a Muslim nation, a member of NATO, and a close US ally. Also, until recently, a close ally of Israel as well, with extensive military and diplomatic ties.

The words “until recently” are the key. Not so long ago, there were real hopes that, with behind-the-scenes help from Turkey, Israel and Syria were inching towards a peace deal that would have a profound impact on hopes for a broader Middle East settlement.

Not any more. The ruling AK party of prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has its roots in Islamist tradition, and Turkey is now playing a much more assertive role in international affairs. (As an example, it got together just a couple of weeks ago with Brazil, another emerging global player, to broker a deal with Iran over uranium enrichment.)

There have been furious anti-Israel demonstrations in Turkey since the Gaza flotilla attack. The prime minister has attacked what he called Israel’s “irresponsible, heedless, unlawful attitude that defies any human virtue.”

And yet. The Turkish foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, has been quoted as saying that Turkey is still ready to “normalise” its relations with Israel, if it lifts its blockade of Gaza. And an unnamed government official is quoted as saying that “roughly 40 people on board [one of the ships] were jihadis who came for violence … They were preparing to attack, to kill and to be killed.”

Washington seems keen to encourage Turkey not to slam the door on Israel – and it could be that in the coming months, the US and Turkey will begin to work together to try to find a way out of the current Middle East impasse.

There’s going to have to be some serious fence-repairing. Eighteen months ago, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, the Israeli president, Shimon Peres, clashed furiously with Mr Erdogan – and more recently, Israel’s deputy foreign minister, Danny Ayalon, had to issue a formal apology to Turkey after humiliating Ankara’s ambassador in an Israeli television interview.

For now, Gaza is the key. Israel maintains the blockade because it regards Hamas, which controls the territory, as a terrorist group seeking to destroy the Jewish state. Opening up the borders, it says, would allow arms to flood in and pose a serious risk to Israeli security. (Egypt keeps its border closed most of the time as well, because Cairo regards Hamas as closely tied to the semi-outlawed opposition group the Muslim Brotherhood.)

As for the Obama administration, it has some very tricky footwork ahead of it. It desperately wants support at the UN security council for a new package of sanctions against Iran. Turkey is a current member of the security council – but Washington was not impressed by its joint Iran initiative with Brazil.

So on the one hand, the US wants to reassure Turkey that it still values its ties to Ankara. On the other, despite the current frigid state of relations between President Obama and the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Washington cannot be seen to siding with those whom Israel regards as its enemies.

Western policy in recent years has tended to concentrate on building a path towards a two-state solution to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, with most attention on the future of the West Bank. The 1.5 million people living in Gaza often seem to have been ignored.

But the former British ambassador Sir Jeremy Greenstock wrote a couple of days ago:
“We are coming close to losing the chance of a two-state solution. US policy, based on a West-Bank-only approach, is locked in a cul-de-sac if Gaza is left out of the equation.”

It’s worth noting that some of the harshest criticisms of Israel’s policies have come from within Israel itself. The left-wing novelist David Grossman wrote: “The closure of Gaza has failed. It has failed for four years now. What this means is that it is not merely immoral, but also impractical … This insane operation shows how far Israel has declined. There is no need to overstate this claim. Anyone with eyes to see understands and feels it.”

By the way: I’ve been in Arizona for the past few days, talking to people about the deeply divisive political row over immigration laws. It’s a debate that has many parallels with our own debate at home, so I hope you’ll listen out for my report, to be broadcast on The World Tonight on Monday.

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