from From the Potomac to the Euphrates and Middle East Program

Palmer, Politics, and the Turkey-Israel Denouement

September 6, 2011

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Turkey's Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu speaks during a news conference in Ankara (Stringer Turkey/Courtesy Reuters)

Last Friday, the Turkish foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, announced what had long been coming—the end of Turkey-Israel relations.  Although it is not a total breach, Israel’s ambassador in Ankara is no longer welcome there and the IDF mission in Turkey was terminated.  All official business will now be conducted at the level of second secretary, which in the military is equivalent to a major or Lieutenant Colonel.  The foreign minister also warned that the Turkish Navy would defend the freedom of navigation in the international waters in the Eastern Mediterranean, conjuring images of a naval confrontation between the Israelis and the Turks.  As Davutoglu explained to the gathered press, Israel had not met Turkey’s demands for an apology from Jerusalem for the notorious Mavi Marmara incident of May 2010.  The Turks had also demanded compensation for the killed and injured as well as a lifting of the blockade on the Gaza Strip.  Needless to say, after 15 months of on-again, off-again negotiations, the Turks and Israelis could not come to a mutually acceptable formula for averting the collapse of their bilateral relations.

The Turks had long let it be known what the consequences would be if Israel refused Ankara’s demands, making Davutoglu’s announcement less surprising than shocking (mostly in tone), but there was something else behind Ankara’s ire.  Indeed, the announcement came after the New York Times published a leaked version of the UN’s Report of the Secretary-General’s Panel of Inquiry on the 31 May 2010 Flotilla Incident (aka, the Palmer Report), which vindicated many aspects, but by no means all, of Israel’s account of the incident and the legal issues surrounding it. The Turks and many others have already contested the underlying logic of the Report, the central issue of which is the legitimacy of Israel’s naval blockade of the Gaza Strip.  Sir Geoffrey Palmer and his colleagues concluded that 1) although Gaza is not a state, Israel and Gaza are in an international conflict; as a result 2) the Israelis’ claim that they have a right to self-defense in this situation is entirely legitimate, and 3) the naval blockade is an acceptable means to achieve that end.  In order to reach these conclusions, Palmer et al affirmed Israel’s position that the naval blockade is fundamentally separate policy from the land cordon the Israelis established around Gaza since 2007.

Not being a lawyer, I may not be on firm ground here, but it seems pretty clear that Palmer’s report is correct that, while the conflict between Israel and Gaza may not meet the legal criteria for “international conflict,” politically there is no question that we are looking at what is, for all intents and purposes, an international conflict.  (A conclusion, which although not legal, should nevertheless be important for advocates of Palestinian statehood.)  At the same time, Palmer’s conclusion that the naval blockade is a separate policy seems to be a bit shaky.  It is based on the fact that this blockade was not established until January 3, 2009 more than a year after the imposition of the land closure.  Yet, there is something that is too cute by a half about this reasoning.  It is important to remember that the naval blockade also occurred during the IDF’s Operation Cast Lead, which was intended to bring a halt to rocket fire from Gaza into southern Israel.  A laudable goal, but it also suggests that Palmer may be wrong in suggesting the “separateness” of the naval blockade.  After all, that blockade was imposed as part of a military operation that was intended to do what the land closure was apparently failing to do. Under these circumstances, it seems that the naval blockade was an extension of or addition to an existing Israeli policy of preventing weapons, the raw materials for weapons along with a host of other goods that have nothing whatsoever to do with weapons, from being smuggled into Gaza.

The Palmer Report is thus not as clear-cut as either the Israelis who are declaring victory would suggest or the hopelessly politicized exercise that the Turks are claiming.  The ironies here are almost too much to take, but what is done is done and the report, with whatever its faults, is a devastating blow to the Turkish narrative of the legal and political issues surrounding the incident (see pages 38-48, in particular).  It has especially harsh words for the organizers of the flotilla and questions their intentions to actually deliver humanitarian aid. This is a political problem for Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the reason why the Turks went on the offensive this week.  After all, wasn’t it a confident (righteous, even) Ankara that demanded a UN commission of inquiry in the belief that it would reinforce the Turkish narrative?  Didn’t the Mavi Marmara incident and the events surrounding it help further Erdogan’s legend in the Arab world?  Hasn’t Erdogan been minting political gold on the Palestinian issue?  The answer to all of these questions is yes.  The fact that the Palmer Report suggests that Israel may have screwed up the interception of the flotilla, used unnecessary force, and abused some of the passengers and crew is politically unsatisfying because the UN’s inquiry also states that the Israelis were within their legal rights to establish a naval blockade and enforce it.

I don’t expect the vast majority of Turks to go out and read the Palmer Report and that it will have an immediate impact on a prime minister who was just re-elected with 49.95 percent of the vote.  The strong stance on Israel will also play well for Turks and Arabs.  Still, a United Nations report that is so at variance with the core of Ankara’s narrative about the flotilla incident is a problem for Erdogan and his government.  At best they look weak and at worst, they look quite frankly, like bumblers so caught up in their hubris that they did not consider the possibility that the UN-sanctioned panel could find fault with Turkey’s legal reasoning or actions.  Caught off guard by the leak to the New York Times, there was a domestic political imperative to mitigate the sting of Palmer’s conclusion.  Davutoglu’s press conference and his tough words were calculated to make as big a kerfuffle as possible precisely because the Palmer report does not conform to Turkey’s version of the events.

Does anyone think that the Turks would have responded the way they have if the report had confirmed what Ankara has been saying about the flotilla incident over the last 15 months?  Likely not.  Under those circumstances, it is likely that the Israelis would have been forced to be more forthcoming with Erdogan on Turkey’s demands.  No way is that going to happen now.