Monday, March 25, 2013

For the price of a phone call to Turkey...

IT may have been the first fruit of President Obama's visit to Israel and Palestine, small but still significant. Not the favourable response he received from an audience of Israeli students when he spoke about Palestinian rights, but Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu lifting the phone to Ankara, though not yet lifting the siege of Gaza..

"In a remarkable about-face after three years of adamant refusal, Bibi Netanyahu has apologized to Turkey’s premier for Israel’s 2010 massacre on the Mavi Marmara.  He’s also promised financial compensation to the families of the nine Turkish citizens murdered during the attack.  Reports also indicate an Israeli agreement to ease the Gaza blockade, though the provisions are uncertain".

That also seems to be the positive spin put on this development by Turkish media supporting their government. 

My friend Dror Feiler, who sailed on the Freedom Flotilla and has not let rough treatment by Israeli captors deter him from further sailings, welcomed the Israeli prime minister's apology, but with caution. In a note to the Jewish Socialists' Group Facebook page offering "Some thoughts after Israel's apology to Turkey for the attack on the Freedom Flotilla (31/5/2010)",  Dror wrote:
"Some thoughts after Israel's apology to Turkey for the attack on the Freedom Flotilla (31/5/2010).
The Israeli apology to Turkey is of course a step in the right direction. But The apology to Turkey that Israel and Turkey agreed upon is not enough. In the apology Israel is defining a murder as a “mistake and/or “malfunction" and this is unacceptable.
Israel has not acknowledged that the Freedom Flotilla action was/is a legitimate struggle against the blockade and occupation. A real apology should be formed along the lines that Turkey and the Freedom Flotilla demanded from the beginning – An apology and compensation, the establishment of an international investigation committee and lifting of the blockade on Gaza."

US-based blogger Richard Silverstein in his Tikkun Olam blog quoted above did not hesitate to see this as Obama's bargain, and accepted that Israel was going to pay compensation and had made some promises re Gaza. 
 Mavi Marmara compensation

Of course shooting a cameraman in the head at close range is more than a "mistake", and no amount of compensation brings those killed back to life, but Netanyahu's phone call wan't just a climb down for him. It was a smack down to former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, and a slap to the kind of Israelis who support Beitar Jerusalem but scream abuse at its recently acquired Chechen player, and had added "Hating Turks" to "Killing Arabs" among their listed hobbies. To them and to their slightly more pretentious Western backers.  Here's Richard Silverman again:
"This is such a strange and sudden development that it begs speculation about what caused it.  First, earlier refusals were grounded in Avigdor Lieberman’s rejection of an apology.  Given that Lieberman immediately attacked the apology, it seems he hasn’t changed his mind.  Contrition lies with Bibi.  Given that Pres. Obama left Israel today one can’t deny the critical role that he played in brokering the deal.
But given that Obama had tried and failed before, something more must’ve been offered to Bibi.  This is where I fear what transpired during this visit.  What could Obama offer Bibi that would move the latter from rejection to acceptance of a development that surely rankles the pride the any red-blooded Israeli nationalist."
He continues by discussing a serious fear:

Given that Iran was at the top of the mutual Israeli-U.S. agenda on this trip.  And given that Bibi didn’t object when Obama told the world that Iran was at least a year away from the nuclear threshold, despite the fact that Bibi placed that date right around now when he broached the subject in his fall UN speech;  this leads to the sneaking suspicion that there was a Grand Bargain made that involved an American commitment to attack Iran with or without Israel in the coming year.

However, on the off-chance that this reconciliation between Israel and Turkey came with Erdogan’s acquiescence to an attack on Iran, then I’d take back everything I wrote in the paragraph above.  I find it impossible to believe that Erdogan would agree to such an attack on a former ally.

Well, what are  the practical consequances of the promises so far? Not a lot, according to the Gisha site monitoring the Gaza siege: .
Sunday, March 24, 2013 – Amid assurances to Turkey by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of easing Gaza access, Israel has tightened restrictions on the movement of people and goods into and out of Gaza, as part of what appears to be a new policy of openly blocking civilian access in direct response to fire by combatants. Gisha-Legal Center for Freedom of Movement sent an urgent letter today to the new defense minister, Moshe Yaalon, demanding that the new restrictions be lifted (an English translation of the original letter is available here).

Since Thursday, Gaza's only goods crossing has been closed, and travel by Palestinians into and out of Gaza through Israel has been blocked, except for medical patients and other exceptional cases. Israel also reduced the fishing zone off the coast of Gaza from six to three nautical miles. The restrictions came after militants from Gaza Thursday fired rockets at civilian population centers in southern Israel.

On Friday, in a phone call in which Netanyahu apologized to Turkish Prime Minister Tayyep Erdogan for mistakes made during the May 2010 interception of a flotilla bound for Gaza in which nine Turkish citizens were killed, Netanyahu noted that Israel had substantially lifted restrictions on goods entering Gaza. News reports quoted Erdogan as saying that Netanyahu also promised to improve humanitarian conditions in the Gaza Strip.

In Gisha's appeal today to the defense minister, the human rights organization condemned the rocket attacks as a blatant violation of the international law prohibition against deliberate or indiscriminate fire toward civilians and noted that Israel, too, is obliged to avoid harming civilians:

"Because of the severity of the prohibition against deliberately harming civilians, the steps taken by Israel, also aimed against civilians, are entirely unacceptable", Gisha Director Sari Bashi wrote. "In the last month, there appears to be a new policy toward the Gaza Strip, in which Israel is openly restricting civilian movement to and from Gaza, not because of a concrete security necessity, but rather as a punitive step taken against the civilian population – in direct response to fire by combatants".

The letter noted that this is the second time in less than a month that Israel has openly blocked civilian travel and goods transfer, in direct response to rocket fire by militants, and called on the defense minister to refrain from engaging in collective punishment.

Read the full letter sent to Minister Ayalon (English 

But it seems there is one by-product, judging from a report in the New York Times today:

"With help from the C.I.A., Arab governments and Turkey have sharply increased their military aid to Syria’s opposition fighters in recent months, expanding a secret airlift of arms and equipment for the uprising against PresidentBashar al-Assad, according to air traffic data, interviews with officials in several countries and the accounts of rebel commanders."  
Turkey steps up arms to rebels

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