Saturday, February 28, 2009

Livni Sets the Bar: Anything less than a Two-State Solution is Unacceptable

Two weeks ago, when I submitted my post on the Israeli elections, I called for the formation of a unity government. Together the Likud and Kadima could have offered the Israeli electorate for the first time in years a strong government which represented the majority of the state’s electorate. With Shimon Peres calling on Benjamin Netanyahu to form a government just a little over a week ago, it seems clear now that Kadima, under Tzipi Livni, will not join the government following Netanyahu’s refusal to state that he supports the ideal of a two-state solution: Israel and Palestine, side-by-side. Netanyahu knows how important it is to incorporate moderate forces in his government however he too has his limits. And, sadly, it seems that he has remained stuck in the past. His ideology is outdated and has not transformed during the last decade and strikingly resembles the once narrow-minded leaders of the Likud, from Menahem Begin to Yitzhak Shamir.

Like his former party leaders, perhaps in a more sophisticated way, it seems that Netanyahu still believes that reconciliation with the Palestinians can be reached on the basis of allotting them some type of expanded autonomy. This is clarified by his recent interview in the Washington Post stating that “Palestinians should have the ability to govern their lives,” and that he “personally intend[s] to take charge of a government committee that will regularly address the needs of the Palestinian economy in the West Bank.” Note his stress on economic development and his inability talk of Palestinian independence.

Netanyahu’s refusal to recognize the two-state solution goes beyond on the tough negotiator holding his cards closely, attempting to clarify to the Palestinians that nothing is for free and they will have to prove themselves. No, this decision emerges from a failed ideology that in some perverse way believes that Israel can continue to hold onto the West Bank and keep Gaza isolated from the world. And, that there is room to continue to enlarge the Jewish settlements and the Palestinians will eventually come around.

With the new Obama government genuinely supporting a two-state solution, they need to unite together with the Palestinians and make clear to Netanyahu that if he does not publicly recognize the right of the Palestinians to an independent state then there is no reason whatsoever to negotiate. And, it is for this reason the Tzipi Livni needs to be applauded; she has set the bar. Hopefully, she will remain firm in her position and will withstand internal party pressures coming from Shaul Mofaz, her main competitor in the Kadima party. Our eyes also need to be watching Ehud Barak, the Labor party leader, who can undermine Livni’s move by cutting a deal with Netanyahu to remain Defense Minister. In the future, I will relate to internal Palestinian issues, but it is important to state that Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas is demanding from HAMAS to recognize Israel as a precondition to a Palestinian unity government. What a historical irony.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Some Post-Davos Thoughts on Israel and Turkey

For those who have only sufficed in watching Erdogan lose his temper and storm off the stage at the Davos conference, I highly recommend watching Erdogan and Peres’ speeches in their entirety. Both demonstrate a high level of discourse and address important points. Perhaps, the fiasco could have been derailed if moderator David Ignatius would not have been so rigid and allowed the Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, due time to answer the Israeli President, Shimon Peres. However, with Erdogan leaving the conference, immediately returning to Istanbul, he was bound to become a hero.

The question which needs to be addressed is what implications will emerge from these two very rough months in Israeli-Turkish relations. Following Erdogan’s actions during the last two months, I have a sense that even if he has become a “local hero,” throughout much of the Middle East and Iran, his behavior certainly must worry some European and American leaders. It is for this very reason that Erdogan took steps to control the damage. Following the Gaza campaign he invited the two Arab leaders who had previously been met with a cold shoulder: Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas, and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. It appears that not much came out of these meetings and that Erdogan has lost his chance at brokering a cease-fire between the Israelis and Palestinians, much less a future Middle East peace deal. This is unfortunate since he was in a unique position, with both the Israelis and Arabs placing trust in him. However, admittedly, the future does not lie solely in his hands; a new Israeli government is still in the making and it is likely that peace-deals will not top their agenda.

As for Israel, its reaction to Erdogan’s statements has been for the most part muted, with the Israeli government, doing its utmost to protect its military covenant with the Turkish Armed Forces. This is why it was surprising that it was Major-General Avi Mizrahi who voiced the most scathing criticism of Turkey in an interview with Haaretz newspaper. Reflecting the general sentiment of most Israelis, Mizrahi sent a clear message that before criticizing Israel, Turkey should first look in the mirror, alluding to Turkey’s massacre of Armenians in World War One and their struggle with their Kurdish population.* This was met with protest by the Turkish Foreign Ministry and the Turkish Armed Forces, who demanded that the Israel Defense Forces “clarify the statement.” Needless to say, three days ago the Israeli army officially renounced the views expressed by Mizrahi. It is in this light that it seems highly unlikely that Israel will condemn Turkey by officially recognizing the Armenian Genocide of 1915 as “genocide.” First and foremost, Israel cannot afford to risk its ties with Ankara; further, if done now, this simply would be “a cynical use of morality,” as was brilliantly articulated in a Haaretz editorial (see link below).

In sum, even if he has found a new level of popularity among certain factions in the Middle East, Prime Minister Erdogan will need to pull closer to the moderate pro-western Arab factions, and work to rebuild their trust. More importantly, Erdogan will also need to strengthen his ties with the US, especially since he has a lot to gain if America and Iran enter negotiations. And, as Israel “swallows its pride,” Erdogan will need to give a fair chance to the future Israeli government, regardless of its political leaning. Let us just hope that this government will be as wise as the current Israeli triumvirate, Prime Minster Ehud Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who have worked hard not to worsen the situation between the two countries. Israel and its people should understand that the cost of losing Turkey as an ally will have far greater implications than just losing billions of dollars in arms sales.

Afternote: In future entries, I will expand on the Armenian issue and Turkey, other Israel-Turkish points of interest, and US-Turkish relations. For Haaretz’s editorial entitled “A Cynical Use of Morality,” see:

* What Mizrahi actually stated in his interview with Haaretz is now shrouded in controversy. For an interesting take on this, see Yigal Shleifer’s blog:

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Bibi and Tzipi: Listen to the Electorate!

With no clear winner in the elections, both Benjamin Netanyahu and Tzipi Livni need to rise above their egos (and parties) and to accept the fact that they hold the key to a center-right national unity government, which could bring one of the most stable governments Israel has seen in decades. This is not a stretch of the imagination; it is common sense.

Benjamin Netanyahu needs to understand that a Netanyahu-Lieberman government will bring Israel to such a state of international isolation that the damage could be irreversible. More disastrous, Israel will continue to be tied into the current fatal quagmire with the Palestinians. Now is the time for Netanyahu to come clean to his constituency. The clock is ticking, and not like in the past, the time is on the Palestinians’ side. A strong center-right government can reach an agreement with the Palestinians; it is just a matter of will.

Undoubtedly, Livni also needs to come clean and declare in a strong voice that only with the Likud can Kadima form a stable government. Let us not fool ourselves: the ideological differences between Livni and Netanyahu might be substantial but among most of their party members there is no real gap. For years, Likud was Livni’s political home, along with a great number of Kadima’s members. And, simply put, even if Livni could muster up 61 seats in the parliament, her hands would be tied making it impossible to reach a peace agreement. Therefore, let’s be honest: politically Livni and Netanyahu are in desperate need of each other!

In addition to a comprehensive peace agreement, a center-right government can provide Israel with a government able to tackle the serious economic problems plaguing great parts of the society. They could strengthen education and ensure that Israel continues to lead in the sciences. The list goes on and on.

The next few days and weeks will reveal whether or not Bibi Netanyahu and Tzipi Livni can overcome their differences and demonstrate political maturity and national responsibility on the highest level. I might be a leftist but I am also a realist and a democrat. The Israeli public has overwhelmingly chosen both Kadima and Likud and it should be these two parties that form the basis of the future Israeli government. In the meantime, the Israeli left will need the time to reorganize in order to offer the electorate a viable option, in the case that after a full term the Netanyau-Livni option fails.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Istanbul-New York-Tel Aviv:

After leaving the US when I was 18 years old, I have yet to stay in one place for more than a few years, with most of my time being divided between Israel, Turkey, and the US (thus the name Istanbul-New York-Tel Aviv). In addition, I have visited Egypt and Jordan numerous times, and was also lucky to have visited Oman. My education was similarly divided between Israel, the US, and Turkey; I completed my BA in Middle East history at Haifa University, my Masters and Doctorate at the University of Chicago, and completed most of my dissertation research working in the Ottoman archives in Istanbul. My doctorate dissertation focused on the Jewish and Palestinian national movements in the years leading up to World War One.

In addition to the languages and history of this multifaceted region, I have acquired a great deal knowledge of the current state of Middle Eastern politics, and other social and economic issues. Most of this knowledge has been shared with my students at the different institutions I have taught at: Bilkent University (Ankara), Washington University in St. Louis, Carleton College, and most recently at Brooklyn College-City University of New York. Furthermore, I also have lead seminars for groups in Istanbul, and have worked with groups in Israel.

My goal in starting this blog is to be able to share my thoughts with a wider public, providing analysis of various events in Israel, Palestine, Turkey, and other regions of the Middle East. In addition to covering political developments, this blog will also address a variety of social issues. I look forward to any feedback and comments.


Louis Fishman