Opinion: U.S. must assert leadership in Mideast

March 29, 2013


Last week, President Obama reminded us, for a brief moment, of the difference the United States can still make in the Middle East when it leads from the front.

I refer to the president’s success, during his trip to Jerusalem, in getting Israel and Turkey back on track toward normal relations. The once-close ties between the two Mediterranean powers were cut in 2010 after Israeli forces killed nine Turkish activists on the aid ship Mavi Marmara, which was trying to breach the Israeli blockade of Gaza. This dispute presented a strategic roadblock to any regional efforts to deal with Iran’s nuclear program or the civil war in Syria.

Turkey wanted an apology from Israel, which needed reciprocal gestures from the Turks. Three years of backstage talks between Israeli and Turkish diplomats failed to produce a breakthrough, until Obama turned up the pressure on Jerusalem. (Secretary of State John Kerry did likewise in Ankara.)

The apology is due directly to Obama’s pressure, and the success of his visit to Israel, says Alon Liel, a former head of Israel’s diplomatic mission in Ankara. “Without Obama’s being in Jerusalem, it wouldn’t have happened,” Liel stresses.

I’d go further: Obama’s diplomatic achievement reveals that any hopes for regional stability still require an America willing to lead.

Consider the history of the break between Turkey and Israel. Their relations had already begun their sharp slide after the 2008 Israeli invasion of Gaza. The attack ended personal efforts by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to restart peace talks between Israel and Syria. He told me in a 2009 interview that he was further upset by Israel’s refusal to let Turkey deliver relief supplies to Gaza.

The Mavi Marmara deaths infuriated Erdogan, who insisted on an apology and an end to the blockade. Meanwhile, Israelis were outraged that the Turkish leader never criticized rocket attacks on Israeli towns by Hamas from Gaza. Yet, backstage, Israeli and Turkish diplomats - aware of the strategic importance of their past ties - kept trying to negotiate.

In July 2011, Israeli and Turkish sources told me that a compromise was near. They said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was considering an apology for “operational mistakes” during the raid (the very formula he used last week). Then Defense Minister Ehud Barak endorsed the idea. Still nothing happened.

In September 2011, a U.N. commission on the Mavi Marmara incident provided cover for the apology. The commission’s report recognized Israel’s right to impose a naval blockade on Gaza in order to prevent arms shipments to Hamas, but concluded that the Israeli raid had used “excessive force.”

Given the claims by many parties, including Turkey, that the blockade itself was illegal, the U.N. findings were a boon for Israel. All expectations then were that the apology would be forthcoming. Yet, for domestic political reasons, Netanyahu pulled back.

Since then, repeated efforts by U.S. diplomats to end the dispute led nowhere — until Obama decided to apply some muscle. Kerry did the same in Ankara, pressing Erdogan to walk back inflammatory language about Zionism and soften added demands on Israel, beyond the apology.

As Obama was leaving Jerusalem, Netanyahu finally made the call from a trailer parked on the Ben Gurion airport tarmac. Under insistent prodding from Obama, the deal was finally closed (although more details must be worked out before the sides normalize diplomatic relations).

Yet the efforts the president made to achieve a breakthrough in Israeli-Turkish relations raise perplexing questions about his wider approach to the Middle East.

After all, Obama’s push to restore ties between Jerusalem and Istanbul was based on hopes that they could provide a strategic anchor to a region dissolving into ever greater chaos. Yet the president has famously chosen to “lead from behind” on Syria (not to mention Iraq and the peace process).

Obama has outsourced military aid to Syrian rebels to Gulf states, which inevitably has led to the strengthening of radical Islamists inside the country at the expense of non-Islamists. Meantime, Syria is collapsing: The war’s spillover is destabilizing Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey, and Jordan — and threatening Israel.

America’s closest European and Arab allies — as well as Turkey — have been desperately looking for signs of U.S. leadership on Syria, yet Obama has appeared paralyzed. U.S. attempts to promote a diplomatic solution to the Syrian crisis have proved unrealistic. American efforts to back an inclusive and moderate Syrian civilian leadership have failed to provide the necessary support.

If Obama’s goal in restoring Israeli-Turkish ties is to help stabilize the region, it will have to be part of some larger strategic plan that looks at the bigger picture, especially Syria. The president’s show of leadership in thawing those ties was indeed impressive, but it won’t have much impact on the region unless he replicates it on a wider scale.

— Trudy Rubin is a columnist and executive board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.


Wayne James 4 years, 12 months ago

It's refreshing to see someone praising Mr Obma instead of trying to undermine his every effort to bring a settlement to the struggles we face in Afganistan. Thank you Mr Rubin.

Ron Holzwarth 4 years, 12 months ago

Yes, praise is good, but only part of the story is told here. I read a lot in the Israeli press, and it appears that the "aid ship" Mavi Marmara, "trying to breach the Israeli blockade of Gaza," had no humanitarian aid aboard at all. Even if it did, it could have ported at Ashkelon, and then the supplies would have been trucked to Gaza, which is what is usually done. The Mavi Marmara was purely a publicity stunt. It certainly did meet that goal.

The apology that was offered might not benefit the region long term, some say. I don't know how accurate this is: Erdogan considers the apology to be his personal triumph, and his goals are not necessarily good. He's trying to climb the political ladder, and he wants to make some major changes to the government in Turkey as soon as he is able. Changes that make him more powerful, of course, which is the trend in the Middle East.

The problems with the culture in the Middle East are that very few Americans understand it in any depth, and the United States is greatly disliked, which is shown by our name there, "The Great Satan". Therefore, by definition, just about anything we do there is wrong, or will be thought of as wrong.

So, asserting leadership there might not be such a good idea, since it has not been asked for.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 4 years, 11 months ago

The fact remains that the mission of the Mavi Marmara was a political act, not an act of war, and as usual, Israel reacted on a scale completely out of proportion to the threat (there was no threat,) expecting that they can do whatever they want with complete impunity-- and they were apparently right.

Ron Holzwarth 4 years, 11 months ago

The IDF landed from helicopters with only light weapons which they did not use, expecting no resistance, and they were hit on the heads and torsos with slings filled with rocks. That is Israel reacting "on a scale completely out of proportion to the threat (there was no threat,)"

After that, the situation escalated. There was no way the IDF was going to leave the wounded and possibly dead troops aboard the ship. So, the ship was taken over by all available means, and the means available were not adequate, since a political mission was expected, and now an act of war had just been performed.

But, to reenact the beginning, I could hit you on the head with a rock and see if you still feel that is no threat.

After that, the IDF has boarded ships with more preparation, expecting the possibility of resistance. But, I believe it's only happened once since then.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 4 years, 11 months ago

Well, that was a wonderful recitation of the IDF press release. Why do you suppose they confiscated all cameras, phones and any other recording devices from the passengers?

Ron Holzwarth 4 years, 12 months ago

Syria was discussed. It's rather odd that one of Bashar al-Assad's major allies, Russia, wasn't mentioned at all. It seems to me that in any discussion of what should be done, Russia should be consulted.

jhawkinsf 4 years, 11 months ago

What is rarely mentioned is that humanitarian aid can and has been diverted for other purposes. Building materials can easily be used to make makeshift missiles. So just because a boat is filled with what can be used to build homes does not mean the materials will actually be used for that purpose.

In that region, houses of worship have been used to store weapons. Ambulances have been used to transport those weapons. Apartment buildings have been used as military command centers. Schools have been used as areas to launch those weapons. And of course, soldiers dress like civilians, making it impossible to determine who is a fighter and who is a non-combatant.

When a group specifically goes out of their way to blur the lines between military and civilian, that group cannot then accuse the other of not distinguishing between military and civilian.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 4 years, 11 months ago

Israel has a weapons manufacturing industry several orders of magnitude larger and more sophisticated than anything in Gaza. So shouldn't there be a complete blockade of Israel as well, especially given the fact that they attack and kill Palestinians with those weapons much more often and with much more deadly force than vice versa? (as I bang my head against your unwavering and wholly non-objective partisanship one more time.)

Ron Holzwarth 4 years, 11 months ago

I think you need to do a bit more reading.

jhawkinsf 4 years, 11 months ago

A word of advice, Bozo. Stop banging your head. It's having an effect on your critical thinking. If you think I'm non-objective and partisan, that would make you what?

juma 4 years, 11 months ago

It is past time for Israel to grow up and America STOP sending money to such a ungrateful and irresponsible country. Israel acts as though the whole world owes them something; and we do NOT. Get the religion out of the equation; something not possible. Israel should be treated with the same respect (or lack of) that it treats everyone else.

Ron Holzwarth 4 years, 11 months ago

If that's done, then America should also stop sending money to all the ungrateful and irresponsible countries, of which there are many. For starters, let's quit sending money to the people that had mass celebrations in the streets on 9/11. That would be just about everyone in the Middle East. The collapse of the twin towers was a happy and joyous event for many, there were parties in the streets. That would save many times the amount that is sent to Israel every year.

And, by the way, the money in aid that goes to Israel comes right back to the USA anyway, for the purchases of weapons systems, such as warplanes. It's not used for domestic consumption.

There has been a small amount of discussion in the Israeli press about the American aid, in that some Israelis think it should be stopped. Because without it, the USA would have no way to put any pressure on Israel, since Israel would not be beholden to the USA at all. Besides, the amount of aid given to Israel is miniscule when compared to their GDP of $31,467 per citizen.

Ron Holzwarth 4 years, 11 months ago

"Get the religion out of the equation"

That would mean the destruction of Saudi Arabia and many other countries in the Middle East. They're based on Islam, 22 or 24 of them, depending on what counts, and exactly one state, a tiny dot in a huge land area, is founded on Jewish moral principles. And you're implying that just one Jewish state is one too many? Actually, a lot of Muslims think that.

There is a religious aspect to it, though. According to some interpretations of Islam, once a country or territory is under Muslim control, it is to always be under Muslim control. Since what is now Israel was once part of the Ottoman Empire (until 1918), which was Muslim, it is supposed to be under Muslim control now, and that's a religious belief.

Spain is next, because it was under Muslim control until 1492. Many Muslims have not forgotten that.

juma 4 years, 11 months ago

Get the religion out of the equation. Meaning all jewish people will support israel without hesitation. americans should be americans first and stop lobbying for a foreign country that is only a religious symbol and not a logical political state. I am tired of all the bs security that the whole world has to endure due to two small insignificant groups.

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