By Mustafa Akyol
Right after publication of the United Nations-authorized Palmer report on the Mavi Marmara incident last week, Turkey took a very bold step against Israel. On Friday, Sept. 2, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu faced the cameras to announce strong measures that included expulsion of the Israeli ambassador to Ankara, suspension of all military agreements between the two countries, and a vow to protect the “safety of maritime navigation in the eastern Mediterranean”.
Then, less than an hour later, Turkish President Abdullah Gul, who held Davutoglu’s post before 2007, told journalists that Turkey does not recognize the Palmer report. “For us,” he said, “it simply does not exist.”
The reason for this Turkish rejection of the report was both its content and the timing of its leak to the press.
As for the content, Turkey is totally disappointed by the report’s endorsement of the Israeli blockade on Gaza, something that Turkey has considered illegal and illegitimate from the beginning. Not just public officials, but many public intellectuals who wrote on the topic have found the report to be biased in favor of Israel, at least on this particular issue. “Some parts of the report look as if they came out of an Israeli plan,” wrote Soli Ozel, a university professor and a secular liberal, “whereas it analyses the actions of the Turkish side with second-guessing, subjectivity, and negligence.”
Others in the media questioned the objectivity of the authors of the report, Geoffrey Palmer and Alvaro Uribe. Bulent Kenes, a conservative writer and editor-in-chief of Today’s Zaman, which is often supportive of the incumbent Justice and Development Party (AKP), expressed a common view when he wrote: “Everyone knows that Palmer, the head of this panel, is very close to Israel, while Uribe was a prime buyer of Israeli-made weapons during his time in office and was awarded the ‘Light unto the Nations’ prize by the American Jewish Committee because of his closeness to Israel.”
Ozdem Sanberk, the veteran Turkish diplomat who was a member of the UN inquiry team, also raised criticisms. Sanberk, who did not sign the report, spoke both to the Turkish-language Star and the English-language Today’s Zaman, recalling that the UN Geneva Human Rights Council’s fact-finding mission had found the Gaza blockade illegal, and asserting that therefore the Palmer report’s endorsement of the blockade is at least “controversial”.
In fact, some findings of the report, especially in the section titled “Use of Force on the Mavi Marmara”, confirm Turkish claims, such as “indiscriminate shooting, including of [the] injured . . . [and] shooting even after attempts had been made to surrender”. But the report’s endorsement of the blockade and the consequent legal backing it gives to Israel for conducting the Mavi Marmara operation seem to have rendered it null and void in both the official and the popular Turkish perspective.
The second issue, as noted above, is the leaking of the report to the press, and its timing. Turkey had been waiting for an official apology from Israel since the Mavi Marmara incident. In the meantime, Ankara had shown two signs of goodwill. When there was a forest fire in Israel last December, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan sent aerial firefighters to help and received a personal “thank you” from his Israeli counterpart Binyamin Netanyahu. And when a second flotilla set sail for Gaza last June, the Mavi Marmara declined to join —for “technical reasons” but probably political ones as well.
Various meetings were also held between Turkish and Israeli diplomats in order to find a solution acceptable to both parties. In early June, the Turkish media reported that a basic consensus had been reached and only the appropriate wording for an Israeli apology was still being sought: something that would sound like a strong apology in Turkish and a more nuanced one in Hebrew.
But then, in mid-August, Netanyahu, in a conversation with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, made it clear that “there will be no apology to Turkey.” And two weeks later, the Palmer report, which Turkey found to be biased on behalf of Israel, prematurely appeared in the New York Times. It seems that both the Turkish government and the broader Turkish public perceived this leak as the product of Israeli “hasbara” (public diplomacy).
In the near future, Turkey probably will continue to reject and defy both the Israeli blockade on Gaza and, in Davutoglu’s words, “Israel’s repeated breaches of international law and ethics”. Yet, as Erdogan stated, all the measures that Turkey announced last week only constitute “Plan B”. An even tougher “Plan C” could come later.
In a broader sense, Turkey, as a rising power in the Middle East, will probably continue to follow a trajectory that is in strong contrast with that of Israel. This will create a new, if not unprecedented, problem for the Jewish state: a Muslim nation within a secular state that genuinely recognizes Israel’s right to exist but strongly condemns its “right” to occupy.
Mustafa Akyol is a Turkish journalist and the author of the just-released “Islam without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty” (W.W. Norton). This commentary is published by Daily News Egypt in collaboration with bitterlemons-international.org