By Afro-Middle East Centre
The visit by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to Uganda, Rwanda, Kenya and Ethiopia early July was an indication of the Israeli confidence in the support it can expect on the African continent. Apart from intending to strengthen trade ties with these east African countries, Netanyahu prepared the scene for a public endorsement by African countries of the Israeli bid for observer status at the African Union, just weeks before the AU Summit in Rwanda’s capital, Kigali.
Israel has worked tirelessly in various African countries, and already has strong intelligence, security and agricultural ties across east Africa. In 2015 Israeli military advisers assisted Kenyan authorities against the Somali group al-Shabab during the group’s siege of Nairobi’s Westgate Shopping Mall; in 2014 Netanyahu provided logistical support to Nigeria in its search for schoolgirls seized by Boko Haram militants. Israel has also employed ‘water diplomacy’ across the continent, making water irrigation techniques available to African governments and civil society groups. However, a larger prize has eluded Israel since the AU’s establishment in 2002: observer status of the continental organisation, which it previously enjoyed in the Organisation of African Unity.
Netanyahu’s July charm offensive came after months of bilateral talks, and numerous African leaders visiting Tel Aviv. The choice of countries for his visit was clearly based on prior commitment obtained from them that they would publicly announce their support of Israel’s AU bid. With these countries’ support in the Israel also expects greater diplomatic support in the UN Human Rights Council, General Assembly and other major international bodies. The benefits of Israel’s courting of African countries are demonstrable. In September 2015, for example, if passed, an International Atomic Energy Agency proposal would have forced inspections of Israel’s Dimona nuclear facility. However, Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda and Togo voted against, and a number of other African countries abstained, thus defeating the proposal.
The relationship is reciprocal; Ethiopian prime minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, thanked Israel for helping secure Ethiopia a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council for 2017, and promised to reciprocate by backing Israel’s AU bid, a position echoed by the Kenyan president, Uhuru Kenyatta. The July AU summit, however, did not discuss Israel’s bid, suggesting that Netanyahu’s east African trip was the beginning of a strategy that could culminate in the next AU summit in January 2017.
In Uganda, Netanyahu called for deeper relations between Israel and Africa; in Kenya, Kenyatta said ties with Israel were necessary in the global fight against terrorism. Nairobi is also seeking Israeli assistance to construct a wall on its border with Somalia, similar to Israel’s border fence with Sinai desert and Jordan. In Kigali Netanyahu spoke about joint experiences of genocide between Jews and Rwandans. He omitted to mention that Israel had supplied the 1994 genocidal Rwandan government with weapons, as it continued to do with President Paul Kagame’s government thereafter. In 2014 Kagame had even agreed to accept African refugees denied asylum in Israel and incarcerated in the Negev desert, in exchange for Israeli weapons. At every stop, Netanyahu emphasised joint engagement in development, security and trade.
Netanyahu’s tour launched a $13 million package to set up offices for Israel’s Agency for International Development Cooperation in the four countries. Businesspeople in Netanyahu’s delegation included a representative of Elbit Systems, Israel’s largest defence contractor; and Aeronautics Ltd., a drone manufacturer.
Israel’s focus on Africa has been part of its ‘periphery doctrine’ which seeks to encircle hostile Arab states with friendly non-Arab neighbours. In the past these friends of Israel included Iran under the Shah, Turkey, and the Sudanese People’s Liberation. Although Arab states and the Arab League are now complicit with Israeli – as seen by recent interaction with Israel by Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar – this doctrine continues to be useful for Israel.
Since 2002, a number of African states have determinedly stood against the Israeli bid for AU observer status, including South African and Libya. With Libya’s Muammar Gadhdhafi no longer in power and that country involved in a messy civil war driven in part by western states, and with South Africa becoming friendlier towards the USA and its Africa Command, the question is how long AU members will resist the stronger Israeli push for its seat in Addis Ababa.
By Afro-Middle East Centre
A French initiative to revive the ‘peace process’ between Israel and the Palestinians will kick off at a foreign ministers’ conference in Paris on Friday, 3 June. It will bring together around twenty countries including the USA, Russia, and South Africa, as well as the European Union, UN Security Council, and the Arab League in a multilateral attempt to refocus attention on a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine, which the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs says is vitally important to stem violence and ensure peace.
The initiative, was first proposed by then French foreign minister Laurent Fabius in January 2016. Neither Palestinians nor Israelis have been invited to Friday’s conference, but both will be included at a later stage.The French hope to mobilise external parties to meet to utilise international law and UN resolutions to develop a blueprint for future negotiations that will then be presented to the two protagonists. This week’s meeting will discuss issues such as the nature of a future Palestinian state (with the 1967 borders as the basis), Palestinian refugees, natural resources (especially water resources in the West Bank), and the status of Jerusalem. French foreign minister Jean-Marc Ayrault hopes it will establish an international support group comprising of the UNSC, the EU, members of the Arab League and other countries.
Although a French project, the Paris Initiative represents the EU policy that supports a two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians. In pursuance of this policy, the EU has been more strident than the USA with strategies attempting to reach that objective, such as the labelling of consumer goods sourced from the illegal Israeli settlements, and funding for nascent Palestinians state institutions.
Palestinians are divided on whether to support the Paris initiative. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) officially supports it, and regards it as of paramount importance for Palestinian statehood. PLO chairperson Mahmoud Abbas even met President Zuma in Cape Town to encourage South Africa’s participation. However, that sentiment is not universal among Palestinians, or even within the PLO, and reflects the dominance of Abbas and his Fatah faction in the organisation. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) has rejected the initiative, viewing it as a pretext to undermine the right of return of Palestinian refugees, and Hamas regards it as a ruse to allow Israel time to expand its settlement enterprise.
For Abbas, whose obsession with negotiations as the only means to realise Palestinian aspirations has proved to have been misplaced, and whose hope that the USA will help reach a resolution has been dashed, leaving him with no strategic space to manoeuvre, Paris is yet another opportunity to give his strategy a chance. To emphasise how important they believe the French initiative is, some Palestinian Authority officials have threatened that if it fails they will embark on a more concerted effort to refer Israel to the International Criminal Court (ICC). Yet their delaying the submission of a resolution on settlements to the UN Security Council, and repeatedly delaying and hesitating about the laying of charges at the ICC suggests this is another empty threat.
Israel is much more unequivocal, and has flatly rejected the initiative. This position has been strengthened as the Israeli governing coalition becomes more right-wing, and includes racists who not only resolutely refuse any possibility of a Palestinian state, but would also prefer Israel used any means to rid itself of the Palestinians it occupies. Israel also knows from experience that its rejectionism can be wielded with great strength, which will be used against France, whose volte-face on a UNESCO resolution in April that attacked Israel’s control over East Jerusalem suggests that France could yield to Israeli pressure even without Israeli participation. This despite Ayrault’s threat that if the Paris initiative fails France will recognise a Palestinian state.
The Arab League has endorsed the French project, but its members are unlikely fully to use their diplomatic pressure, being more concerned with other crises in the Arab world, such as events in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. Although US Secretary of State John Kerry will attend the Paris conference, the USA is yet to explicitly back the plan, and has been somewhat reserved on the initiative, primarily due to Washington’s perception that it should take the lead in any Israeli-Palestinian ‘peace process’. Nevertheless, the participation of Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov does add considerable weight to the talks.
Not much, however, should be expected from the conference or the process that might follow. The weakness of the Palestinians, as a fractured disharmonious political force, and the diplomatic, military and economic strength of Israel means that even without their presence at the initial talks, the initiative will ultimately favour the Israeli line as western powers, in particular, dilute any real strategies in order to appease Israel. Tel Aviv torpedoed the 2013-2014 Kerry initiative, which also claimed to be based on international law, was driven by the most powerful member of the UNSC, and favoured Israel from the outset. The latest initiative does not come with unequivocal support of Israel’s greatest ally, the USA, or with unified international pressure on Israel.
By Steven Friedman
An assault on democracy has begun in the United States of America and Europe. Its source is not the ‘Islamic fundamentalism’ that is regularly branded a threat to democracy, or right-wing demagogues who use fear of immigrants and radical Islam to foment hate. It comes, rather, from the mainstream of these societies.
Legislatures, courts and university governors in the liberal democracies of the global North are being used to close down the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, which seeks to use non-violent pressure to alter the behaviour of the Israeli state. The campaign to muzzle BDS is a stark contravention of the self-image of these societies, which routinely claim that love of freedom sets them apart from those who campaign against them. The campaign against BDS has been described as the greatest threat to free speech in the West today. And yet it has been met with silence by mainstream opinion.
The attack on BDS is not an isolated example: for well over a decade, it has been clear that the liberal democracy that these countries are eager to export – sometimes by waging war – does not extend to Palestinians and those who sympathise with them. Academics in these countries who zealously study and support the extension of liberal democracy to all show no interest in whether Palestinians have this right, and some are actively hostile to their exercising it.
Of course, measures to suppress or outlaw BDS are a response to pressure from the Israeli state, which has adopted its own measures to suppress boycott activity. But Israel is not a liberal democracy – it is an ethno-nationalist state. There is no such thing as Israeli nationality in Israeli law: citizens are classified as Jewish or non-Jewish. Western democracies’ embrace of anti-democratic measures to defend the Israeli state is, by contrast, a denial of the values that these states publicly proclaim.
Palestine is thus the scandal of western democracy and the academic theories that sustain it.1 It is an unacknowledged blind spot, which makes all of western democratic deed and thought open to the charge that it is not a doctrine of universal freedom but a means to justify dominance. If ‘universal’ values do not apply to everyone they are simply cultural biases. As long, therefore, as democratic values and rights are off limits to Palestinians, western democracy will be open to the charge that its ‘freedoms’ are a prejudice, a means by which the powerful chain the weak. Palestine is thus the litmus test of western democracy and its advocates, a test that they currently fail. As long as advocates of western democracy exclude one group of people from its rights, its claim to speak for all humanity will lack credibility.
All the actions to suppress BDS use the same fig leaf: anti-Semitism. Because it might not be defensible to justify abridging democracy to protect the Israeli state purely on the grounds that it is a western ally, measures against BDS are usually justified as action against anti-Jewish racism. This endorses a deeply undemocratic and possibly racist notion – that anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism. This rallying cry of the Zionist right is designed to demonise criticism of the Israeli state by labelling it a disguised form of prejudice against Jews. It advances the untenable idea that opposition to a political ideology is also hostility to an ethnic group. No political ideology enjoys the unanimous support of any ethnic group – to say that an entire group endorses the same ideology is to insult it by implying that its members are incapable of independent thought. It is also anti-democratic because it delegitimises difference – it implies that any Jew who is not Zionist is not a Jew.
A second rationale for suppressing BDS, advanced repeatedly on US campuses, is that this is necessary to ensure that campuses are ‘safe places’ – despite the fact that there are no published instances of BDS activists directly threatening anyone with violence, let alone actually using it. This may reflect and seek to manipulate deep Jewish fears as well as a more general fear of Muslims (who might be assumed to behind BDS even though most activists are not Muslim and many are Jewish). A core rationale of Zionism has been the assumption that Jews are always under threat of violence and need their own state to protect themselves. The notion of BDS as violent expresses the Zionist view that opponents of the Israeli state are inherently violent, even if their only weapons are words, and also seeks to manipulate Jewish students into fearing threats to their safety when none exist.
There are two types of action against BDS. The one shows insensitivity to Palestinian rights but is not necessarily anti-democratic, while the other breaches democracy. In the first category are statements of government opposition to BDS, even when backed by law. The most important example is the 2015 US law, the Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act, which make preventing boycotts of Israel a ‘principal trade negotiating objective’ of the USA. This commits the US government to a political preference but does not require it to act against those who hold the opposing view. The second category does infringe those rights since it actively seeks to suppress people’s voice or their choices or both.
A summary of anti-BDS actions published by the Palestine National BDS Committee confirms that the most repressive anti-BDS measures have been implemented in France where a nineteenth-century law is used to criminalise BDS: more than thirty activists have faced criminal charges for participation in nonviolent BDS advocacy. One was arrested for wearing a BDS T-shirt. Prime Minister Manuel Valls recently said he would discuss with the Ministry of Interior further measures to repress BDS activism.
In the USA, anti-BDS bills or resolutions have been introduced in twenty-one states and in the Congress, while universities have also been seeking ways to curb BDS. Most US measures have stopped short of suppressing BDS, but they curtail democratic rights in other ways. The emphasis is on using public funds to deter BDS activity: the New York State Senate cut 485 million US dollars to senior colleges in the City University of New York system despite a speech by a legislator who said that her (Jewish) husband was a CUNY professor, and ‘he has never brought home to me any concerns about anti-Semitism’. Universities also act against BDS activity as part of a wider clamp down on support for Palestinian rights: Palestine Legal, a US-based group, reports that action against campus BDS activity includes administrative sanctions, censorship, intrusive investigations, restriction of advocacy and criminal prosecutions. American companies are barred from cooperating with ‘state-led’ boycotts of Israel; this violates their right to take decisions and therefore abridges their right to engage freely in economic activity.
The British government has also avoided removing the civil liberties of BDS campaigners. However, its proposed measures violate democratic principle in another way – by barring local councils and other public bodies from supporting BDS. This breaches the democratic principle that an elected government should be entitled to take any decision that it believes represents the will of the voters. Canada has not yet taken action to restrict BDS, but there are well-founded fears that it may do this: officials have threatened criminal prosecution against anyone supporting boycotts against Israel.
Liberal democracy in peril
A relentless, well-funded campaign by the Israeli state to suppress BDS activism has, therefore, attracted willing support in major western countries.
In varying degrees, this has prompted them to violate rights: even a core American value – the right of businesses to manage their property in the way they see fit – is considered dispensable in this rush to support the Israeli state. Rights are not absolute in liberal democracies – they can be abridged when exercising them infringes the rights of others or when the security of the state is said to be threatened. But there is nothing in liberal theory that allows for suppressing free speech and association on behalf of a foreign state when those who oppose the actions of that state do not threaten the state imposing the restriction.
The spurious claim that these actions are aimed at anti-Semitism further undermines the good faith of liberal democracy. While it presents itself as a philosophy of freedom, its critics argue that it is meant to preserve the freedoms of some at the expense of others – liberalism, argues one of its critics, has always distinguished between the ‘civilised’ and the ‘barbarian’. Equating BDS with anti-Semitism and violence neatly fits this negative portrayal of liberalism: it stigmatises a fight for universal human rights, and critics will note that western democracies’ supposed enthusiasm for outlawing anti-Semitism does not extend to anti-black racism or hostility towards Muslims, indigenous people and others who suffer racial bigotry.
The attack on BDS seems to confirm that western democracies are only interested in protecting the rights of some against the supposed onslaught of others and that whether or not you are protected is related to your race, creed and culture. The effect is to demolish the credibility of liberal democracy as a guarantor of the rights of all and to portray it as a view of the world and a system of government that recognises the rights only of those who do not offend the sensibilities of the dominant group for which these rights are really meant.
Palestine is a scandal for liberalism and its version of democracy not only because the reaction to it in the West is born of cultural prejudice, not concern for the rights of all. It is this also because of the depth and the width of the consensus that supports it: it is impossible to see the belief in liberal democracy’s blindness to Palestinian rights as a distortion or only a particular interpretation when it is embraced by virtually the entire liberal spectrum and includes academics and activists whose interest is democracy promotion, extending to every human being the rights and systems of government that are said to be enjoyed by the citizens of Western Europe and North America.
As evidence that the suppression of BDS is of no concern to democracy promoters, we can look at a decade-old example of this double standard in action – the rejection by North America and Western Europe of a 2006 Palestinian election deemed free and fair by observers because the winning party, Hamas, was considered hostile to western (and Israeli) interests: democracy promoters ignored this obvious violation of the Palestinians’ right to choose. It is routine for democracy promotion academics to monitor or analyse democratic progress around the world without allowing at all for the Palestinians’ right to govern themselves or to be free of attacks on their rights – in many of these exercises, Israel is listed as a democratic country, and analysis assumes (by omission) that only Jews are its citizens. Activist academics in the United States who doggedly work to bring Latin American rights abusers to book actively support the Israeli state or never mention it as an abuser. It is an unwritten assumption of democracy promoters that all people are entitled to democratic government and rights as long as they are not Palestinian.
Conclusion: The sense of the scandal
Why is it important that the suppression of BDS – and of Palestinian rights generally – makes liberal democracy appear as a cultural prejudice masquerading as a charter for the rights of all?
Support for the Palestinian cause, and for BDS, is usually associated in the mainstream with Muslims or the political left, the two groups who have been most vocal on this issue. While Muslims and left-wingers have as much right to be heard as anyone else, the effect is to relegate Palestinian rights to the outer margin of society, exempting the Israeli state from the human rights scrutiny that impedes other rights abusers.
If we understand the suppression of Palestinian rights as a scandal of liberal democracy, suppressing BDS or resisting the Palestinians’ right to democracy and freedom is not a refusal to be ordered around by Muslims and leftists – it is a refusal to honour the principles the West itself proclaims and is therefore a threat to the credibility and even perhaps the survival of liberal democracy. The more this point is placed at the forefront of Palestine solidarity campaigns, the more difficult will it be to relegate the Palestinian cause to the margins.
Supporters of the Palestinian fight for recognition are more likely to be heard if they centre their campaigns on the gap between what the western mainstream says and what, in Palestine, it does: this is unlikely to influence governments and the democracy promoters who provide them with an intellectual rationale – but it could make sense to many citizens who, because they are more removed from power may be less inclined to see the values proclaimed by western states as a useful political device rather than a deeply held principle. Portraying the suppression of BDS – and Palestinian rights – as a scandal of liberal democracy frames the Palestinian fight for freedom as a cause to which many in the West can relate rather than one that requires them to leave behind their cultural roots. It turns the language of the campaign into one that citizens of the West understand and so offers a route out of marginalisation.
1 For philosophers, a scandal is a glaring weakness to which thinkers are blind or which they choose to ignore. The term may originate with Immanuel Kant, who found it scandalous that philosophy had not found a rational proof of the existence of the external world. See for example Luigi Caranti Kant and the Scandal of Philosophy: The Kantian critique of Cartesian Scepticism (Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 2007).
* Professor Steven Friedman is the Director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy at Rhodes University and the University of Johannesburg, South Africa.
*This article was originally published on Al Jazeera Centre for Studies website.
By Afro-Middle East Centre
The recent handing over of two islands – Tiran and Sanafir – to Saudi Arabia by the Egyptian government emphasises that the Sisi regime remains so in need of external support to buttress its domestic control that it is willing to anger significant sections of the population. The islands’ importance to Israel and the fact that Israel agreed to the handover also point to strengthening cooperation between Tel Aviv, Riyadh and Cairo in an effort to contain Iran’s resurgence.
The announcement about the islands was made as the Saudi king, Salman bin Abdul Aziz, undertook his first official trip to Egypt since acceding to the thrown in January 2015. Other deals signed during his visit included a twenty-two billion dollar agreement for Saudi Arabia to supply Egypt with energy, and the establishment of a sixteen billion dollar joint Saudi-Egyptian investment fund. Recent tensions between the two regional powers had heightened after Egypt’s refusal to commit troops to the Saudi war in Yemen, and because of Egypt’s support for Russia's Syrian intervention. Egypt is also critical about strengthening ties between Riyadh and Ankara, and because of the Kingdom’s support for Yemen’s Muslim Brotherhood Islah party. Tensions had been simmering since Salman became king, however, with his suspicion that Egypt’s military ruler, Abdel Fatah el-Sisi, had plotted against his acceding to the throne.
Riyadh nevertheless views Egypt as an important ally in its attempt to counter growing Iranian influence in the region, and sees its large and well-equipped military as a critical deterrent to Iran’s regional forays. Moreover, Egypt’s Sidi Kerir port and SUMED oil storage terminal can be used by Saudi Arabia to slow down and disrupt Iranian oil exports. Before 2011 Iran had dispatched over 200 000 barrels of oil per day from the port, has used the storage terminal for oil shipped to Europe since diverting shipments through its own Kharg Island port causes a month delay. With this agenda, Salman has reduced his criticism of Egypt – and especially of Sisi – and continued to buttress it. Significantly, however, recent assistance packages to Egypt have been more as loans and investments than aid; only around two billion of the sixty billion in recent deals is aid.
But there is also a third player involved; for the transfer to have occurred Israel’s approval was required in terms of the 1979 Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt. The two islands essentially block access to the Red Sea from the Gulf of Aqaba, thus blocking access to the critical Israeli port of Eilat. Israel thus regards control of the Tiran Straits and the waters around both islands as critical since much of its maritime trade passes through en route to Eilat. A perception that this access would be disrupted was a major factor informing Israel’s involvement in the 1956 Suez crisis and 1967 six day war. They were twice captured by Israel, which controlled them from 1967 to 1982. Guarantees over waterway access were thus key stipulations in the Camp David agreement. The transfer of the islands means Israeli vessels will now traverse Saudi waters to reach Eilat.
Tel Aviv’s acquiescence and statements by Israeli and Saudi officials indicate that firm guarantees had been provided by Saudi Arabia regarding Israel’s freedom of navigation through the Strait of Tiran. Israel has been informed about the secret negotiations regarding the islands from the beginning, and written guarantees that Riyadh would abide by the terms stipulated at Camp David were given in talks that involved Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Israel and the USA. (Although Israel and Saudi Arabia are officially in a state of war, they have collaborated on a number of issues recently, and Riyadh had informed Israel about then-secretive nuclear negotiations between the USA and Iran.)
For Egypt, transferring the islands to Saudi Arabia has little negative strategic implication. The islands are uninhabited, have few resources, and technically belonged to Saudi Arabia though administered on its behalf by Egypt since 1950, when Saudi Arabia requested Egypt to play this role, believing that Egypt could protect them from Israel. Returning the islands was thus an opportunity to renew Egypt’s relationship with Saudi Arabia, and to continue receiving assistance for Egypt’s stalling economy and Sisi’s power base.
The move has elicited much criticism from Egyptians, especially since Sisi had inserted a stipulation in Article 151 of the 2014 Egyptian Constitution prohibiting territorial transfers. The clause was intended to augment Sisi’s nationalist credentials, and because the army garnered support for its 2013 coup by arguing that the former president, Mohamed Morsi, was ceding parts of Sinai to Hamas, and endangering Egyptian sovereignty through his alliance with Qatar.
Sisi thus argued that the island transfer restores sovereignty to Saudi Arabia, which owns the islands, and was not a ceding of Egyptian territory. But prominent political figures such as Hamdeen Sabahi, Khaled Ali, Ayman Nour and the Muslim Brotherhood criticise this reasoning, and Ali has lodged court papers to halt the deal. Although this sees some fissures in the regime’s support base, it is unlikely to pose a significant threat.
By Afro-Middle East Centre
Reports of secret meetings between Israeli and Turkish officials in Switzerland in February suggest Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development (AKP) is softening its attitude towards Tel Aviv. Any rapprochement will likely include compensation for the Turkish victims of the Israeli commando raid on the Mavi Marmara ship in 2010, access to Gaza for Turkish aid ships, and a Turkish statement to crack down on Hamas operations from within Turkey. Less public agreements will likely include a reopening of arms deals between the two former allies, a united front on the diplomatic stage concerning Iran’s regional influence, possible energy deals concerning Israel’s eastern Mediterranean gas reserves and the exchange of intelligence on various non-state actors, particularly Kurdish groups. The talks in Switzerland may signal a watershed, but broader strategic imperatives, overlapping rivalries and new geopolitical realities have been coalescing behind the scenes to nudge Turkey towards Israel.
The killing of the nine Turkish citizens on the Mavi Marmara – part of the Freedom Flotilla bound for the Gaza Strip in 2010 – had been preceded by a dip in relations caused by a tirade by then-Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan against Israeli President Shimon Peres at the World Trade Forum in Davos in 2009.
Benefits for Turkey
In 1998 the Turkish government planned to invest 150 billion dollars over twenty-five years in the modernisation of the country’s armed forces. Turkey’s main strategic goal during this time was to develop its local arms industry through the acquisition of advanced military knowledge, technology and materiel from suppliers who placed no conditions on sales. Israel was perfect since it chose to ignore Turkey’s egregious human rights record at the time, unlike EU arms suppliers. Israeli arms companies supplied Turkey with over 389 million dollars in weapons between 2001 and 2014, including ten Heron drones purchased under an AKP government. With old and new threats to Turkish security emanating from the resurgent Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and Islamic State group (IS) respectively, Turkey seems to again be aiming to diversify its arms’ procurement. The Turkish defence minister sent a special envoy to meet with Israel’s security establishment on 1 March to negotiate financial terms on a number of weapons deals which reportedly will include drones. The planned purchase is a major component of the rapprochement.
Israel’s position as a world leader in cyber-security will also entice capital from interested public and private parties in Turkey. Turkish Ministry of Transport and Communications report covering 2013-2014 stated that Turkey was developing a comprehensive cyber-security programme. The fact that Syrian regime ‘hacktivists’ were able to wreak havoc on top-secret Turkish agencies in 2013 and 2014 suggests that this programme is still in its infancy. Thus, sourcing technology, expertise and equipment Israel until its own programme is underway could be useful for Turkey to counter the cyber threats it already faces.
There are also energy-related reasons that Turkey would want to upgrade ties with Israel. Russia’s entry in the Syrian civil war in support of the regime creates an energy dilemma for Turkey, which imports about fifty-five per cent of its natural gas supplies from Russia (and another eighteen per cent from another of Syria’s allies, Iran). Turkey is opposed to Moscow’s backing of the Bashar al-Asad regime, and has genuine fears that Russia might use gas as a geo-strategic bludgeon, not least to keep open the strategic Bosphorous strait which is the throughway for Russian ships taking supplies to Syria, and which, under the 1936 Montreux Convention Regarding the Regime of the Turkish Straits, is under Turkish control. The discovery of billions of cubic metres of gas off Israel’s coast, and in Gazan waters controlled by the Israeli navy, provides the possibility of an alternative energy source for Turkey that could make it less reliant on Russia. Israel is not poised to immediately satiate Turkish demands due to various complications over Israel’s development of these fields. Nevertheless, energy diplomacy remains a factor bringing these two states closer together.
The combination of détente with the West, and its presence in Syria – through proxies and its own forces – has granted Iran considerable weight in the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) co-chaired by the USA and Russia. This has sent Turkey’s Syria policy into a tailspin, as the ISSG’s fixation on battling IS has contributed to a ceasefire which technically grants Syrian, Russian and Iranian forces the right to fight Turkish- and Saudi-backed rebels. The more pressing issue, from Ankara’s perspective, is that the Syrian Kurdish militia, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), has gained from Russian bombing campaigns along northern Syria. PYG is the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria and the main militia for the Kurdish Supreme Committee whose autonomous canton of Rojava in Syria is regarded by Ankara as a security threat because it serves as a safe haven for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey, and because the Rojava model for Kurdish autonomy is inspiring for Turkey’s Kurdish population. Israel’s close relationship with the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq, with which Turkey already good relations, is useful to Turkey as the KRG is a competitor to the PKK-PYD for leadership of the Kurdish movement. Ankara sought to exploit these rivalries during the IS siege of the Syrian Kurdish town Kobane in 2014 when it allowed KRG Peshmerga forces access to liberate the town in an attempt to prevent a YPG-PKK symbolic victory. Israel is also able to provide Turkey with intelligence on the YPG and PKK.
Benefits for Israel
Military agreements between Israel and Turkey during the 1990s reaped considerable dividends for Tel Aviv. The 1996 signing of the ‘Military Training and Cooperation Agreement’ between the two states enabled Israel to participate in war games with NATO members, and granted it a strategic alliance with NATO. Israel was able to deepen its strategic depth abroad through utilising Turkish airspace, which it often exploited to monitor events in Lebanon and Syria. The downgrading of these relations in the wake of the Mavi Marmara raid left Israel more vulnerable at its northern frontier, with an inability to exploit airspace to monitor Hizbullah and Syrian personal movements. Recent Israeli artillery and war games around the Lebanese border reflect this insecurity. Israel is now looking to shore up its capabilities in the aftermath of the Iran nuclear deal and Hizbullah’s reported procurement of advanced Russian ballistic weapons, a return to the past agreement in which an informal military alliance is in place is not imminent, but the Israeli defence establishment will remind Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that a return to the tacit military pact of the 1990s would benefit Israel as the Syrian quagmire deepens.
Turkey’s diplomatic capital with Syriane opposition groups, particularly Islamists, and members within the Gulf Cooperation Countries and their allies provides Israel with a critical ear among Muslim states opposed to Iranian ambitions. With the paranoia in Israel that the nuclear deal with Iran between the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council – USA, Britain, France, Russia and China – plus Germany) has imperilled Israel’s monopoly of force in the region, the diplomatic capital gained by Israel through improved relations with Turkey cannot be overstated. Coordination with the GCC, and especially Saudi Arabia, in countering Iranian ambitions will be a foreign policy objective for Israel in the coming years. Despite bilateral (albeit secretive) alliance building in the gulf by Israel, official links with Ankara can develop these links without further compromising Riyadh, Doha and Dubai, which require the pretence of aloofness from Israel for reputational purposes.
Furthermore, Israel hopes that Turkey’s influence on Hamas will provide it with a partner that can pressure the group when needed. Turkey has played patron to Hamas, and wields some influence within the group’s politburo.
Implications for the Palestinians
The Palestinian issue plays an important tactical role in the AKP’s foreign policy, and Turkey was in the throes of a diplomatic crisis with Israel at the apogee of Erdogan’s national and regional popularity. His public admonishments of Israel have been common spectacle, especially with regards to the situation in Gaza, a cause celebre for the Turkish population. Erdogan will want to rebuild his shattered image within the region, and he will therefore want a renewal of relations with Israel to be premised on agreement for at least one Turkish aid ship to Gaza. The situation in Gaza is reaching breaking point, with the territory going into its ninth year of siege and on a ‘disastrous trajectory’, according to the UN.
A complete removal of the blockade as a result of Turkish demands is unlikely, but Israel may allow limited entrance of Turkish aid into the besieged territory. Israel would prefer Hamas having Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia as patrons rather then Iran, and thus Israel’s allowing a trickling of Turkish aid into Gaza is possible. Furthermore, tepid comments from the US State Department with regards to Israel’s human rights transgressions have frosted the historically special relationship between Washington and Tel Aviv. By allowing Turkish ships, possibly after being searched and monitored by Israeli agents, to enter Gaza, Israel will portray itself as a benevolent force granting its subjugated population a limited reprieve. The humanitarian public relations coup this could bring for Israel could be significant, as could be the ammunition it provides its supporters in the USA.
The Palestinian faction which will benefit most from a Turkish-Israeli accord is Hamas. Any reprieve for beleaguered Palestinians in Gaza will give the movement more popular appeal in its heartland. Former Fatah member Mohammad Dahlan, who has designs on the presidency of the PLO and of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and has been strengthening his support base in Gaza, risks seeing his support weakened if aid enters through Hamas diplomacy. Dahlan is planning a comeback that is being funded primarily by the UAE and supported by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Sisi has already stressed he opposes Turkish ships docking at Gaza’s port. Sisi and Erdogan already have a tempestuous relationship after the former’s coup which overthrew President Mohammad Morsi in 2013.
Developments in the region have compelled Ankara to reorganise its foreign policy, and new and resurgent security challenges have compelled it to reconsider its alliances and its source of high grade military technology. Its overreliance on Russian energy has also made it wary, and made the possibility of sourcing gas from Israel more attractive. Erdogan’s grip on Turkish foreign policy has resulted in some disastrous decisions which have scuppered his reputation as a darling of the region. Supporting besieged Palestinians in Gaza in a manner no one else is able to is a good way to reassert himself regionally and attempt to reverse some reputational damage.
Israel has little to lose by rebuilding ties with Turkey. A ready customer for its gas and weapons will provide the economy with a rich windfall. Closeness with a NATO country, especially after a very public spat between US President Barack Obama and Netanyahu and disagreements with the EU, would be warmly welcomed in Tel Aviv, especially in defence circles.
For Palestinians, especially in Gaza, Turkish-Israeli rapprochement is unlikely to result in any significant and medium-term improvement in their living conditions. There will be short-term humanitarian benefit (and political benefit for Hamas) from a Turkish aid flotilla – the best possible scenario for Gazans, but that will not lift the siege. And even such aid is not certain; it still needs approval by a hawkish Netanyahu cabinet, whose objections will be bolstered by loud calls from Cairo, and quieter calls from Ramallah where PA and Fatah leaders would be loathe to see aid reach Hamas-controlled Gaza.