Posted October 13th, 2015 at 9:55 am (UTC-5)
By Barbara Slavin
As the Middle East continues a downward spiral, two important U.S. allies that had seemed relatively stable – Israel and Turkey — are both confronting significant new violence.
In Israel, a spasm of Arab attacks — and Israeli retaliation — is prompting fears of a third intifada. The government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is trying to avoid overreacting to what look like “lone wolf” acts, primarily by knife-wielding Arab residents of Jerusalem. But without a strategy for dealing with underlying grievances – including 48 years of Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem and the West Bank – and discrimination against Israeli citizens of Arab origin, Netanyahu is unlikely to find more than a temporary fix for a chronic and worsening conditions.
In Turkey, flawed leadership is also a major factor in growing instability. The government of President Recep Tayyib Erdogan has blamed the group that calls itself the Islamic State (IS) for twin suicide bombings that killed nearly 100 people in the capital, Ankara on Saturday – the worst act of terrorism in modern Turkish history.
Protesters stage a sit-in after they were prevented by police to march in Istanbul, Turkey on Oct. 13, 2015. (AP)
But many Turks blame Erdogan for lax security or even direct responsibility for the deaths of protestors who had been preparing to demonstrate for an end to fighting between Turkish government forces and members of a militant Kurdish group, the PKK.
A three-year cease-fire between the government and the PKK crumbled over the summer. Erdogan agreed to allow the United States to use Turkish bases for its air campaign against IS in Syria, but proceeded to send Turkish bombers to attack the PKK.
Under Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian rule, Turkey has been on a downward trajectory since the summer of 2013 after a decade of progress. At his behest, Turkish police used excessive force to stop protests in Istanbul against the destruction of a park and its replacement by one of Erodgan’s mega construction projects. The deaths of demonstrators led to unrest nationwide.
Later that year, the Turkish leader turned against a former ally, followers of a U.S.-based Muslim thinker named Fetullah Gulen, who had earlier helped Erdogan’s neo-Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) purge the military from political influence. Pro-Gulen prosecutors and journalists targeting government corruption were dismissed and media freedom shriveled. Criticizing Erdogan can now land reporters in jail.
In 2014, Erdogan stepped down as prime minister and ran successfully for president, a post that is supposed to be largely ceremonial. But he has continued to rule from an ornate new palace in Ankara and sought a larger parliamentary majority in June 7 elections in hopes of changing the constitution to enshrine an imperial presidency.
Instead, the Turkish electorate deprived his party of the majority it had held for more than a decade. The Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), benefitting from Erdogan fatigue, took more than 10 percent of the vote, sufficient to gain representation in parliament and stymie the president’s plans.
Unable to form a coalition government, Erdogan called new elections for November 1.
Add to this, the influx of more than 2 million Syrian refugees into Turkey over the past four years and Turkey’s inability or unwillingness to control the movement of foreign fighters across the Turkish-Syrian border and the result is a perfect storm of possible culprits for the Ankara attacks — and an ominous outlook for Turkey’s political and economic future.
Nobel literature laureate Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s greatest living novelist was quoted by the Italian newspaper La Repubblica as saying that Erdogan’s refusal to share power was the main reason for the country’s growing instability.
“A country at peace has suddenly found itself at war both against the Islamic State and the Kurds,” Pamuk said. “I am worried because I know that in the end, Erdogan wants to govern alone at all costs.”
If Erdogan’s megalomania is largely to blame for the collapse of the once-vaunted “Turkish model,” in Israel, Netanyahu’s lack of vision is only partly at fault for the rising violence.
Palestinian leadership has also been lacking and the Israeli peace camp has dwindled since the failure of peace talks with the Palestinians in 2000 at Camp David and the start of a second intifada. Israeli unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 preceded an electoral victory for the militant group Hamas and a series of bloody confrontations and unsuccessful U.S.-backed negotiations.
“There has been a tragic depletion of political debate stemming from the eradication of the center-left,” Assaf Sharon, co-founder of a new Israeli think tank, Molad, told a small group at the Atlantic Council last week that included this reporter. Bolstered, he said, by funding from right-wing Americans such as Sheldon Adelson, the founder of Israel’s most popular – and free – newspaper, Israel Hayom, “the Israeli right enjoys almost unprecedented funding” and dominates the media.
Netanyahu has spent much of his time during the last few years inveighing against Iran, while aging Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas has focused on symbolic victories at the United Nations. Meanwhile, Israeli governments have continued to build more Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, infuriating Palestinians and convincing young people they have no future.
Their daily depredations receive little to no media attention argues Amira Hass, a veteran columnist for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.
“That we notice there’s a war on only when Jews are murdered does not cancel out the fact that Palestinians are being killed all the time, and that all the time we are doing everything in our power to make their lives unbearable,” writes Hass.
With the Obama administration striving to minimize U.S. military involvement in the Middle East and shore up the Iran deal, there may not be much the United States can do to persuade the leaders of Israel and Turkey that they need to alter course. But with only 15 months left in office, the president can at least afford to be candid with them.
On November 9, he will be welcoming Netanyahu to the White House for a meeting originally intended to repair U.S.-Israeli ties in the aftermath of Netanyahu’s harsh campaign against the Iran nuclear deal. Obama could privately suggest that Israel stop constructing more Jewish settlements deep in the West Bank and prevent right-wing Israeli zealots from visiting Muslim holy places in Jerusalem.
A week later, Obama will be seeing Erdogan at a G-20 summit in Antalya, Turkey. By then, the Turkish elections will be over and Erdogan will know the outcome of his gambit to regain an AKP majority in parliament. The two leaders were once close. Perhaps the Turkish leader will be more receptive to Obama’s advice than he has been to a growing number of domestic critics.
Obama should try: the United States has a national interest in dissuading two such valuable allies from continuing down dangerous and dead-end paths.