Alan Berger

Israel’s chance amid change

Arab revolutions create opportunities that Netanyahu must not throw away

(Getty Images)
By Alan Berger
August 29, 2011

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SOME JOKES explain the world better than political science does. There’s an Israeli joke in which that country wants to compete in Olympic rowing. To learn how things are done, the Israelis send one of their oarsmen to Harvard for two weeks. So what does he find out? “Well,’’ he reports on his return, “we’re doing things backward. In Cambridge, they have eight guys rowing and only one guy shouting!’’

Just as Olympic sports have their basic requirements, so does statecraft. From Homer’s Iliad to Machiavelli to Don Corleone, it has long been clear that a wise leader should divide his enemies and unify his allies. But when the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently declined to apologize to Turkey for killing nine Turkish nationals last year aboard a flotilla headed for Gaza, it was breaking that fundamental rule of statesmanship.

Turkish officials say they want to revive the close relations that prevailed between Israel and Turkey until last year - a partnership that included joint military exercises, intelligence cooperation, substantial trade and tourism, and, perhaps most important of all, a disposition of each population to think well of the other. But Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu, the architect of a regional policy rooted in the principle of “zero problems with neighbors,’’ have consistently said they cannot renew those close relations until Israel apologizes for the flotilla killings and pays compensation to families of the victims.

Turkey today has pressing reasons to repair relations with Israel. Most obvious is Erdogan’s belated disenchantment with the gangster regime of Bashar Assad in Syria. Before the current Syrian revolt against that regime, Erdogan made a big show of bonding with Assad, visiting and phoning the Syrian godfather frequently, making Turkey Syria’s number one trading partner, and eliminating the need for visas along the 500-mile Turkish-Syrian border.

But Erdogan’s past affinity for the Syrian ruler has become an intolerable embarrassment now that Assad’s tanks and snipers have been seen massacring Syrian civilians on Al Jazeera, the Saudis and other Arab governments have called for his removal, and thousands of Syrian families have fled to tent cities inside Turkey. Erdogan has placed Turkey on the wrong side of the popular uprisings against dictators in the Arab world.

Most promising for Israel is that Turkey’s recent course correction - marked by public calls on Assad to stop killing his people - has drawn Iran’s fury. The Iranian regime has castigated Turkey for joining an American-Israeli conspiracy against its indispensable Arab ally in Damascus. Assad assists Iran in arming the Lebanese Shi’ite movement Hezbollah. He is the crucial wedge enabling Iran to project its influence through Lebanon to Israel’s northern border.

So for Israel, countering the threat from Iran should be a primary strategic goal. Netanyahu ought to welcome Turkey’s invitation to repair relations, thereby strengthening a tacit Arab-Turkish-Western-Israeli alliance working to end the Assad dynasty - and roll back the Iranian tide.

Yet preening right-wing hawks in Netanyahu’s cabinet, led by foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman and vice Prime Minister Moshe Ya’alon, have stood in the way of an apology to Turkey. And they have done so for the most frivolous reasons, invoking misplaced, archaic concepts of honor and pride. If Israel were to apologize, Ya’alon blustered, the country would be “showing weakness, embarrassment, and an inability to withstand pressure.’’

Meanwhile, Iranian leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah, and the tottering Assad all have to be delighted at Israel’s blunder.

There is still time for Israel to heed entreaties from the Obama administration and work out an agreement with Turkey on terms for an apology and reconciliation between the two former allies. The recent decision to postpone the release of a UN report on the flotilla incident - a text said to be critical of Turkey as well as Israel - gives both governments an extended opportunity to subordinate petty nationalistic pride to strategic priorities.

By allowing domestic politics to trump basic security interests, Netanyahu has been doing things backward. Israel needs a two-state peace agreement with Palestinians and regional allies against Iran. To deny these needs while momentous changes are reconfiguring the Middle East is to expose Israel to future dangers. And that’s no joke.

Alan Berger is a former Globe editorial writer.