BY ILTER TURAN
The military intervention Israel is staging in Gaza has rightly caused strong reactions in different parts of the world. Although some countries simply oppose the existence of Israel which they consider to be an external imposition on Palestine, many do not question Israel’s legitimacy, granting it the right to self-defense if attacked by outside actors or a “domestic” organization like Hamas that engage in indiscriminate acts of violence against civilian populations. That Israeli government has granted its military authority to conduct a no holds barred intervention in Gaza, however, generates substantial criticism on grounds that militaries are supposed to use force within a framework of rules that are protective of civilian populations.
As noted in our earlier writing, much of the Turkish public finds the way civilian populations are treated in Gaza as cruel. Not permitting a sufficient number of aid trucks to pass through the Egyptian-Gaza border is viewed with disbelief and as an act of unusual cruelty. According to opinion polls, however, more than half of the public do not want their country to be involved deeply in the struggle. Many observers note that Arab countries that one would expect to be more closely involved have kept their distance from the affair. They do not understand why Türkiye should opt for a deeper engagement.
The Turkish government, on the other hand, appears to follow a different course of action. At the beginning, it defined a role for itself as a moderate interlocutor that might help bring about a peaceful resolution of the conflict. The Turkish president suggested that Gaza (and possibly the West Bank) could be made into an independent Palestinian home with a number of countries guaranteeing that it would maintain peaceful relations with Israel. For several reasons this idea did not raise particular interest in Israel. First, Hamas had struck a heavy blow to Israel’s security. Hence, acceding immediately to the idea of an independent Palestine would have been interpreted as yielding to terror. Second, Netanyahu’s coalition government contains some irredentist parties that claim the entire area for Israel. Mr. Netanyahu wants to retain his coalition. Third, Netanyahu is trying to extricate himself from legal proceedings. He has worked to change the “constitutional” arrangement in order to exercise greater control over the judiciary. Facing the greatest anti-government demonstrations ever held in Israel, the Hamas attack came to him as a boon. Despite these reasons for holding back, however, time has been working against him. The initial international support his government mustered after the Hamas attack has begun to erode. Recognition that the problem is not solvable unless a home is provided for the Palestinians has been gaining wider ground. A modus vivendi may eventually come through diplomacy but that requires patience, not outbursts of emotion.
The Turkish president, possibly out of frustration with Israeli behavior, has decided rather than offering his services as a mediator, he will lash out at what Israeli government has been doing. He has accused of Israel behaving like a terrorist state while referring to Hamas as a movement of national liberation. The president may personally feel this way, but in his capacity as Türkiye’s president, he would be expected to retain a diplomatic stance and not lose sight of the fact that the top job of a national executive is to pursue the country’s national interest.
What is in Türkiye’s national interest? We might begin by noting that there is no need for Türkiye to abstain from making critical remarks about Israeli behavior. It would clearly be appropriate, for example, to point out that the Israeli military should observe standard rules of behavior toward civilians in its operations that it is important not to target civilian populations and that humanitarian assistance should not be kept from flowing into Gaza. It might also be remembered that this is the policy of a particular government in power by a small majority that might change in the not too distant future. Therefore, criticism should be directed at government policy. A complete rupture in diplomatic relations should be avoided. These had taken a lot of time and effort to repair after a long lull that had been initiated by the Israeli attack in international waters to a ship carrying aid teams to Gaza resulting in the death of ten Turkish citizens. Equally importantly, it should be remembered that the position Türkiye takes toward Israel affects also its relations not only with the EU and the US but also with regional countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. At a time when Türkiye has been trying to come out of the international isolation in which it found itself, the prudence of an emotional, non-diplomatic position on Israel may rightly be questioned. Much damage has already been done to the relationship. It is still important, however, to return to diplomatic ways and try to minimize the damage the emotional outbursts may have caused. There is a greater need for diplomacy rather than sabre rattling.