US President Barack Obama was on the line when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to apologize for the deaths of nine Turkish protesters aboard the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara on May 31, 2010.
For those who don’t remember, the Mavi Marmara was a Turkish ship that set sail in a bid to break Israel’s lawful maritime blockade of Hamas-controlled Gaza’s coastline. When Israeli naval commandos boarded the ship to interdict it, passengers on deck attacked them – in breach of international maritime law. Soldiers were stabbed, bludgeoned and thrown overboard. In a misguided attempt to show the good faith of Israeli actions, the naval commandos were sent aboard the ship armed with paintball guns. As a consequence, the soldiers were hard-pressed to defend themselves. In the hand-to-hand combat that ensued, nine of the Turkish attackers were killed.
The Mavi Marmara was an eminently predictable fight. The Turkish group that hired the boat was an al-Qaeda-affiliated Turkish NGO named IHH. In 1999, the Turkish government was so wary of IHH that it barred the group from participating in relief efforts following a devastating earthquake.
IHH’s fortunes shifted with the rise of its fellow Islamists in the AKP Justice and Development Party led by Recep Tayip Erdogan. The AKP won the 2002 elections and has since been reelected twice.
By 2010, Prime Minster Erdogan had a long track record of anti-Israel actions. Indeed, by 2010, Erdogan had effectively destroyed the strategic alliance Israel had developed with Turkey since 1949. In 2006, Erdogan was the first major international leader and NATO member to host Hamas terror chief Ismail Haniyeh. The same year he allowed Iran to use Turkish territory to transfer weaponry to Hezbollah during the Second Lebanon War.
In 2008, Erdogan openly sided with Hamas against Israel in Operation Cast Lead. In 2009, he called President Shimon Peres a murderer to his face.
By the time the flotilla to Gaza was organized, Erdogan had used Turkey’s position as a NATO member to effectively end the US-led alliance’s cooperative relationship with Israel, by refusing to participate in military exercises with Israel.
Following the incident, rather than apologize for his allied NGO’s gross violation of international maritime law and acts of wanton aggression against Israeli forces, Erdogan doubled down. He removed Turkey’s ambassador from Israel. He demanded an apology as a condition for the restoration of relations. He had his court system open show trials against IDF soldiers and commanders. He stepped up his exploitation of Turkey’s NATO membership to block substantive military cooperation between Israel and NATO. And he cultivated close economic and political ties with Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood.
At the same time, Erdogan has cultivated close ties with President Barack Obama and his administration, and has spent millions of dollars on lobbying efforts on Capitol Hill to neutralize congressional opposition to his hostile behavior towards Israel and the US.
For three years Israel refused to apologize to Turkey. And then Obama came to Israel for a visit, and before he left the country, he had Netanyahu on the phone with Erdogan, apologizing for the loss of life of the Turkish protesters who stabbed and bludgeoned Israeli soldiers. Netanyahu also offered restitution to their families.
Israeli President Shimon Peres sought to silence the public outcry in Israel against Netanyahu’s action by soothingly saying that it was done to bury the past and move on to a better day in relations with Turkey. IDF Chief of General Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz publicly backed Netanyahu’s actions, saying it was necessary to cultivate Turkish cooperation for dealing with the situation in Syria, which is rapidly spiraling out of control. Israeli and international concerns that all or parts of Syria’s massive arsenal of chemical and biological weapons, as well as its ballistic missiles, will fall into the hands of jihadist forces have risen as jihadists, allied with al-Qaeda, have come to dominate the opposition to the Syrian regime.
Israel’s own concerns regarding the civil war in Syria have also escalated as rebel forces – affiliated with al-Qaeda — have taken over sections of the border region. UN observer forces deployed along Israel’s border with Syria since 1974 have been fleeing in droves, for Israel and Jordan. Earlier in the month, rebel forces took dozens of observer forces from the Philippines hostage for several days.
Given the situation, the main questions that arise from Israel’s apology to Turkey are as follows: Is it truly a declaration with little intrinsic meaning, as Peres intimated? Should it simply be viewed as a means of overcoming a technical block to renewing Israel’s strategic alliance with Turkey? In other words, will the apology facilitate Turkish cooperation in stemming the rise of jihadist forces in Syria, and blocking the transfer of chemical and biological weapons and ballistic missiles to such actors? Finally, what does Obama’s central role in producing Israel’s apology say about his relationship with the Jewish state and the consequences of his visit on Israel’s alliance with the US and its position in the region? And finally, what steps should Israel consider in light of these consequences?
On Saturday, the Arab League convened in Doha, Qatar and discussed Israel’s apology to Turkey and its ramifications for pan-Arab policy. The Arab League member states considered the prospect of demanding similar apologies for its military operations in Lebanon, Judea, Samaria and Gaza.
The Arab League’s discussions point to the true ramifications of the apology for Israel. By apologizing for responding lawfully to unlawful aggression against the State of Israel and its armed forces, Israel did two things. First, Israel humiliated itself and its soldiers, and so projected an image of profound weakness. Due to this projected image, Israel has opened itself up to further demands for it to apologize for its other responses to acts of unlawful war and aggression against the state, its territory and its citizens from other aggressors. The Arab League like most of its member nations is in an official state of war with Israel. The Arabs wish to see Israel destroyed. Kicking a nation when it is down is a perfectly rational way for states that wish other states ill to behave. And so the Arab League’s action was eminently predictable.
As for the future of Israel-Turkish cooperation on Syria, two things must be borne in mind. First, on Saturday Erdogan claimed that Netanyahu’s apology was insufficient to restore Turkish-Israel relations. He claimed that before he could take any concrete actions to restore relations, Israel would first have to compensate the families of the passengers from the Mavi Marmara killed while assaulting IDF soldiers with deadly force.
Beyond that, it is far from clear that Turkey shares Israel’s interests in preventing the rise of a jihadist regime in Syria allied with al-Qaeda. More than any other actor, Erdogan has played a central role in enabling the early jihadist penetration and domination of the ranks of the US-supported Syrian opposition forces. It is far from clear that the man who enabled these jihadists to rise to power shares Israel’s interest in preventing them from seizing Syria’s weapons of mass destruction. Moreover, if Turkey does share Israel’s interest in preventing the Syrian opposition from taking control over the said arsenals, it would cooperate with Israel in accomplishing this goal with or without an Israeli apology for its takeover of the Mavi Marmara.
So if interests, rather than sentiments dictate Turkey’s actions on Syria, as they dictate the interests of the Arab League in kicking Israel when it is perceived as being down, what does Obama’s central role in compelling Israel to apologize to Turkey tell us about his attitude towards Israel and how his attitude towards Israel is perceived by Israel’s neighbors, including Iran?
By forcing Israel to apologize to Turkey, Obama effectively forced Israel to acknowledge that it is in the wrong for lawful actions by its military taken in defense of international law and of Israel’s national security. That is, Obama sided with the aggressor – Turkey – over the victim – Israel. And in so doing, he signaled, deliberately or inadvertently, to the rest of Israel’s neighbors that the US is no longer siding with Israel in regional disputes. As a consequence, they now feel that it is reasonable for them to press their advantage and demand further Israeli apologies for daring to defend itself from their aggression.
Whether or not Obama meant to send this message, this is a direct consequence of his visit. Now Israel needs to consider its options for moving forward. For Israel’s allies in Congress, it is important to take a strong position on the issue. Members of Congress and Senate would do well to pass resolutions stating their conviction that Israel, while within its own rights to apologize, operated with reasonable force and wholly in accordance with international law in its interdiction of the Mavi Marmara, which was on an illegal voyage to provide aid and comfort for an internationally recognized terrorist organization in contravention of binding UN Security Council resolution 1379 from September 2001, which prohibits the proffering of such aid. Congress should enjoin the administration to issue a declaration noting US support for Israel in its actions to defend itself from aggression in all forms, including from Hamas-controlled Gaza.
Second, Israel should scale back the level of military assistance it receives from the US. While Obama was in Israel, he pledged to expand US military assistance to Israel in the coming years. By unilaterally scaling back US assistance and developing its domestic military industries, Israel would send a strong signal to its neighbors that it is not completely dependent on the US and as a consequence, the level of US support for Israel does not determine Israel’s capacity to continue to defend itself.
On a wider level, it is important for Israel to develop the means to end its dependency on the US. Under Obama, despite the support of the great majority of the public, the US has become an undependable ally to Israel, and indeed to the rest of the US’s allies as well. The more quickly Israel can minimize its dependence, the better it will be for Israel, for the US and for the stability of the region. The apology to Turkey was a strategic error. To minimize its consequences, Israel must boldly assert its interests in Syria, Iran, and throughout the region.