Sunday, June 12, 2016

Death Watch for Democracy in Israel and Turkey?

Haaretz: "By methodically eroding liberal democracy, Netanyahu and Erdogan could endanger their states' domestic and international legitimacy. At least if the current diplomatic moves bear fruit they’ll have each other."

Louis Fishman, May 25, 2016-Haaretz

For six months Turkey and Israel have been negotiating to normalize the relations that deteriorated so swiftly following the controversial 2010 Turkish flotilla to Gaza, in which nine Turkish citizens died in clashes with Israeli naval commandos. As the sides inch ever closer together, both countries’ leaders—the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu—seemed to have come to the conclusion that regional interests must trump their own, considerable personal and national pride. What the two leaders don’t explicitly acknowledge is the growing – and depressing - similarity between the two countries’ political culture.
The renewal of ties that now appears on the horizon comes at a time when both countries are showing worrying signs of the erosion of their democratic character. Over the last few weeks, the news reports emerging from both Turkey and Israel point to governments that have crossed red lines, with failed oppositions unable to keep the system in check. In fact, both countries, which for years were propped up by the U.S. as the only two “democracies” in the Middle East, are at a critical turning point, despite differences in scope and substance. 

When Netanyahu recently ousted his Defense Minister, Moshe Yaalon, in favor of ultra-nationalist Avigdor Lieberman, Yaalon returned the favor in his resignation speech, highlighting what he called the “extremist and dangerous elements [that] have taken over Israel and the [governing] Likud Party.” He vowed to return to politics after a time-out “to compete for the national leadership of Israel.” Following on, former PM Ehud Barak declared that Israel “has been infected with the seeds of fascism.”

The recent straws that broke Yaalon’s back relate to signs that the social and political consensus upholding critical liberal values (such as the fair and equal application of the law, the disavowal of racist attitudes and legislation) seem to be breaking down.

The most dramatic example was the wave of public and lawmaker support enjoyed by a soldier involved in the extrajudicial killing of an incapacitated Palestinian. Disgusted, Yaalon spoke out against the shows of solidarity that reached up to the PM himself.

The validity of Yaalon’s assessment has been strengthened by Lieberman’s first legislative focus in office: the introduction of the death penalty for terrorists but only to be applied to military courts, effectively excluding its application against Jews. The areas of culture, education and civil society are also under ideological surveillance: the funding for leftist and human rights organizations is being targeted, and “loyalty bills” proposed which aim to cut funds to artists and theaters who criticize the state.

The Labor party’s inability to offer an alternative to the Likud and its coalition, thanks to its own infighting and desperately weak electoral traction, means there are fewer obstacles preventing the deterioration towards an oppressive state.

In this sense, the Labor party greatly resembles the Turkish opposition in parliament, the Republican People’s Party (CHP). The CHP attracts a solid 25% of the Turkish electorate but has no mandate and no leverage thanks to its inability to attract communities beyond its core secular Kemalist base.

Although Israel is progressing down the path Turkey has already trod – towards silencing the opposition and hounding competing ideologies out of the system – the comparison breaks down when it comes to the figure of the head of the government/state. PM Netanyahu is not working for a complete transformation of the system: Rather, after two decades of political maneuvering, he has managed to solidify a strong hold over the state’s institutions. This is quite different from Erdogan’s quest to rewrite the constitution and transform the state into a presidential system, in what many critics, both in Turkey and abroad, describe as a complete transformation of Turkey to an authoritarian state.

For these critics, Erdogan’s recent replacing Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu with his confidante Binali Yildirim was just another sign that Turkey’s days as a democracy are numbered.

But the kiss of death for Turkish democracy could actually come from another legislative effort. The government succeeded last Friday to pass a bill lifting the parliamentary immunity of lawmakers facing legal challenges, primarily aimed at prosecuting the 59 MPs of the mostly Kurdish HDP party, the third largest party in parliament. There are numerous current cases that accuse the HDP of supporting terrorism and working against the state. Readings of the bill were marked by fist fights within the legislative chamber itself. Even though some opposition CHP parliamentarians could also be subject to prosecution for the crime of insulting President Erdogan, some CHP MPs themselves voted for the bill, presenting the ruling AKP with a major victory (some explained that this was a tactical move aimed at blocking it from going to a national referendum).

Not surprisingly, right-wing parties in Israel too have sought—albeit unsuccessfully—to lift the immunity of Arab MPs, such as Haneen Zoabi, whose candidacy was saved by the Supreme Court after the Election Committee tried to ban her from running. Just as in Turkey, center-leftist nationalist—or if you prefer Zionist—MPs voted with the government against Palestinian lawmakers. Three Arab MPs including Zoabi were suspended by the Knesset two months ago for meeting with the families of slain Palestinian terrorists (in a precise parallel one of the HDP members faces charges relating to her visit to a family of a Kurdish suicide bomber).

Here, regarding relations with each state’s ethnic national minority, Turkey and Israel are the most comparable: Most Jews in Israel don’t recognize the possibility of building political coalitions with the state’s Palestinian citizens and Turks in Turkey likewise regarding ethnic Kurds. In both countries these minorities are often perceived as tantamount to a fifth column. However, a center-left party solely made for Jews, or one that gives precedence to Turks, limits its own electoral base, in turn strengthening the rising trend of exclusion, privilege and fascism in both countries.

Until now, the only party that worked to break this mode in Turkey was the HDP, built on various coalitions of Kurds and Turks, Muslims and Armenians (with Jewish and Greek support as well), Greens, Socialists and LGBT activists. Its remarkable success last June however was met with a campaign of delegitimation and their MPs in the very near future could even find themselves behind bars.

Nevertheless, its model of coalition building can provide some hope for Jews and Arabs supporting a new political and social discourse in Israel, working together for a just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Arab-dominated Joint List in Israel has worked to fill this gap, however, it still lacks the dynamism which led the HDP to its original victory, and like Turkey, Israel does not seem ready for real change. As long as the opposition Labor Party and the far-left Meretz are unable to reconceptualize Israel as a state of all its citizens, it too, like the Turkish CHP, will remain largely irrelevant and on the way to oblivion.

While both countries can never claim to have been perfect democracies in the past as well —with Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands now going into its 49th year, and Turkey’s long history of oppressing the Kurds—the recent rise of intolerance in their societies, marked by a methodical disregard for human rights and democratic values by their governments, could end up endangering the international and domestic legitimacy of both states. But at least, if the current diplomatic moves bear fruit, they’ll have each other.

This article appeared in Haaretz on April 25, 2016. Click here for the link

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Israel Needs to Recognize the Armenian Genocide - and the Nakba*

Haaretz: “Turkey needs to realize that Israel's debate is only remotely related to ties with Ankara, but rather holds a special place in the broader debate about the Holocaust and Jewish victimhood.”

Louis Fishman, April 25, 2016-Haaretz

Once again the official day commemorating the 1915 Armenian Genocide, April 24, has passed without Israel issuing a statement of official recognition. As a country that inherited the legacy of the European genocide of Jews — the Holocaust — its recognition of the systematic killing of Ottoman Armenians would not only amount to a historically just move, but would also be an important step in promoting the study of comparative genocides, giving a special meaning to the important motto of “never again.” Further, it could lead to the understanding of how Turkish denial has only prevented the country from moving forward, showing Israel the need to end the denial of its own injustices.   

Israel’s choosing not to officially recognize the Armenian Genocide is directly related to its attempts to maintain ties with Turkey, in good days and bad. At the height of Turkish-Israel relations in the 1990s, Israel maintained this policy in order not to risk jeopardizing its strong ties with the Turkish state, not to mention its arms deals. Shamefully, U.S. Jewish lobbies were coopted as a way to block American recognition of the Armenians’ tragedy as well.

Simply, Turkish tank deals trumped the moral and historical obligation of genocide recognition. Despite this, the internal debate surrounding the non-recognition emerged in 2000 when the liberal leftist education minister, the late Yossi Sarid (Meretz), attended Jerusalem’s 85th Armenian Genocide memorial ceremony. There he stated, “The Armenian Memorial Day should be a day of reflection and introspection for all of us, a day of soul-searching. On this day, we as Jews, victims of the Shoah [Holocaust] should examine our relationship to the pain of others.” In this speech he mentioned the word genocide no less than 10 times.  

Despite years of strained relations that hit a pinnacle with the 2010 Gaza Flotilla affair, Israel still has not recognized the genocide. Ironically, the new reason was that Israeli policy makers believed this could lead to a full break in relations. However, before reaching this conclusion, U.S. Jewish lobbies had already opted out of taking their usual role in blocking Armenian Genocide recognition, and the Knesset debated the matter. While both groups denied this was related to the Flotilla, the message was clearly one of punishment for Turkey’s role. Even I argued against this, since recognition as a punishment against Turkey equaled no less of a farce than the previous situation.  

In the summer of 2014 however, after Reuven Rivlin, a longtime advocate of Armenian Genocide recognition, became Israel’s president, it seemed that Israeli recognition would finally come at the 2015 centennial commemoration of that genocide. However, this too fell through due to pressure from the Israeli Foreign Ministry. Despite this, Rivlin came quite close to offering official recognition, saying “the Armenian people were the first victims of modern mass killing,” and stressing that many Jewish people in Ottoman Palestine witnessed the horrors of the killings, a known fact. Rivlin’s words reiterated the fact that among the Israeli public, few doubt that it was a genocide - it is known in Hebrew as the Hashoah Ha'armenit, the Armenian Shoah (holocaust). 

Perhaps now that Israel and Turkey have made numerous statements that they are close to renewing full diplomatic ties, Israel should make clear that its relations cannot be held hostage to Turkey’s intractable stance towards this topic, and that Armenian Genocide recognition is not about being a friend or enemy of Turkey. Further, Turkey needs to realize that in Israel the debate is only remotely related to Ankara, and rather holds a special place in the greater debate of the “uniqueness of the Holocaust” and the question of Jewish victimhood, which hits at the heart of Israeliness and the question on how to memorialize the Holocaust. 

With April 24 falling during Passover this year, it also important to remember that denial is also inherent in the Israeli narrative. Passover, a holiday that celebrates the ancient Israelites' liberation from slavery, embeds within its modern meaning the sense of freedom, and sets into motion the national days of Holocaust Memorial Day, moving on to Memorial Day for its fallen soldiers, and finally culminating in Independence Day. However, for Israel, freedom and independence amounted to the Nakba — the Catastrophe — for the Palestinians.    

Even if different in scope, it can be argued that Israel has adopted Turkey’s stance of denial as a model toward the Palestinian Nakba — the 1948 ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians from the land — denying not only the existence of the event itself, which led to the forced expulsion or flight of 750,000 Palestinians, but also subsequently the erasing of the memory of a Palestinian past and the physical erasing of their presence in the geographical landscape of the country. In both countries, this has also included the use of legislation and courts to block the memory. 

It is time that Israel take the moral high ground and recognize the Armenian Genocide. No less important is the need to do away with its denial of the Palestinian Nakba. Otherwise, like Turkey, it will remain raveled in conflict. In both cases, the long road to reconciliation starts with the recognition of the crimes that paved the way for the founding of these subsequent nation-states. Only by recognizing this will it allow Israel – and Turkey - the much needed opportunity to move forward.  

*This article appeared in Haaretz on April 25, 2016. Click here for the link.

Dirty Deals: What Was the Agenda Behind Turkey's Erdogan Meeting American Jewish Leaders?*

Haaretz: “His government violates human rights on a massive scale, closes down media critical of his actions, and has openly sanctioned anti-Semitism. Is Erdogan trying to co-opt U.S. Jewish leaders to launder his reputation?”
Last week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made his way to Washington DC to take part in the Nuclear Security Summit. Unlike during the early years of his career, when Erdogan was met with fanfare in the U.S. capital, this time he received at most a lukewarm welcome from the White House and DC’s politicians and pundits alike, which was reflected in the media. Upon his arrival, the New Yorker published an article “Erdogan’s March to Dictatorship in Turkey,” and in the New York Times, Thomas Friedman wrote that Erdogan is converting Turkey from a “democracy into a dictatorship.” 

Despite the bad press, Erdogan and his team struggled to promote an atmosphere of “business as usual.” This perhaps could have been sustained had it not been for the spectacle his security guards made – precisely demonstrating the turn to authoritarianism described by senior American commentators – by attacking journalists and protesters outside the Brookings Institute where he was due to give a speech.

And, after much speculation that U.S. President Barack Obama might snub Erdogan, in the end a private meeting was held, providing Erdogan with an important photo op for domestic consumption. However, just a day later, in a press conference, Obama rained on Erdogan’s parade by publicly voicing his deep concern for the “troubling” path taken by Erdogan for his country. 

Despite all the bad publicity, which also included a scathing open letter presented to Erdogan by U.S. foreign policy experts, the Turkish president received a very warm welcome from a coalition of U.S. Jewish groups and lobbies. Present at the meeting were the Anti-Defamation League, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, B’nai B’rith International, the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

In fact, this is the second meeting to take place between Jewish leaders and Erdogan during the last two months, in which they have been discussing renewing ties between Turkey and Israel, in addition to issues related to Turkish Jews, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. The first meeting took place on February 9 at Erdogan’s presidential palace in Ankara, also behind closed doors, and present at this one were also AIPAC and the ADL. 

Needless to say, the Jewish leaders showed little discretion in holding such a high-level meeting just as the Turkish leader was being grilled for the authoritarian steps his government is taking. There is no doubt that Jewish organizations have serious issues to bring up with the Turkish government, which until recently openly sanctioned anti-Semitism. However, didn't they talk about these issues just a month ago? Was another meeting that critical?

True, since the first meeting an Israeli tourist group was the subject of an ISIS attack in Istanbul and there are reports that Istanbul’s Jewish community was being specifically targeted by ISIS. However, it is highly unlikely that these American Jewish organizations can contribute much to this conversation. And if the meeting was designed to help smooth the path toward Israeli-Turkish reconciliation – does Israel really need their help in reaching an agreement with Turkey?

By meeting with Erdogan at such a low point, the Jewish organizations put out a strong message that they are willing to take sides in Turkey’s polarized political world and that the major clampdown on Turkish freedoms is not on the top of their agenda.

This comes as a slap in the face to the NGOs and Turkish citizens trying to combat anti-Semitism in Turkey, who – with or without American Jewish solidarity – will continue to wage their battles for freedom and liberalism in Turkey. The struggle against anti-Semitism in Turkey does not exist in isolation: anti-Semitism goes hand in hand with other forms of xenophobia and other acts of hate and that only an open and free society can take real steps to combat.

Indeed, if anti-Semitism in Turkey really was a burning issue for those U.S. Jewish groups, it’s ironic they sat down to meet the president who’s shutting down and sanctioning precisely those critical media outlets who speak out against hate crimes, while the pro-government press is still free to spread anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry.

The other question that begs asking: What's the new-found interest by Erdogan and his AKP ruling party toward American Jewish organizations? It seems like the engagement with the Jewish community serves Erdogan's purposes well. The meeting occurred at a point where, for some in the AKP, the time seems ripe to sacrifice the anti-Semitism card (that has played out well domestically from time to time) for the much needed public relations boost such a meeting could provide, not to mention the chance that Erdogan, having absorbed one conspiracy theory too many, may have hoped to impact influential Jewish figures in the hope they might provide a quiet form of pro-Turkish lobbying in the corridors of DC power. There is no evidence to support or refute this contention yet.

Of course, what seems to be a growing bond between American Jewish groups and the Turkish government bears striking resemblance to the 1990s. Turkey then was in desperate need of a friend: a war with the PKK in its southeastern regions led to rampant human rights violations against its civilian population and international criticism. Turkey tacitly appealed to U.S. Jewish organizations, suggesting a kind of immoral tradeoff:  in exchange for Turkey bolstering ties with Israel, those Jewish groups would lobby on behalf of Turkey, one permutation being a pointed silence about the suffering of Turkey's Kurds. Some U.S. Jewish groups went as far as to act behind the scenes against the recognition of the Armenian genocide. 

Now, two decades later, Turkey is once again embroiled in a war with the PKK, and once again we see a tsunami of human rights violations executed by the Turkish government, with whole neighborhoods in the Southeastern cities of Cizre and Sur (among others) being utterly devastated.

I hope I am wrong. I hope that last week's meeting between American Jewish organizations and Erdogan  won't become a repeat of the ethical iniquity of the 1990s which until today this remains a moral stain, when we witnessed how the recognition of acts of genocide was trivialized in the name of Turkish-Israeli arms deals that in the end themselves only led to more death.

Only time will tell if these American Jewish groups soon will be back in the halls of the U.S. Congress lobbying for a government that’s increasingly and justifiably isolated in world opinion.

*This article appeared in Haaretz on April 5, 2016. Click here for the link.