Sunday, November 1, 2009

A Turn Towards the Future which Will Preserve the Past

Summer 2009
Part three of the summer series:

Following my trip to Canakkale (part two of summer series), I was invited with a group of friends to travel to the northeast of Turkey, beginning in Kars and ending in Trabzon. Disembarking from the plane in Kars, on the lone tarmac, I first realized the beautiful and the never-ending blue sky and the green steppe, with hills rolling off into the distance. This landscape would continue all the way to our first stop at Ani, the ancient capital of Armenia.

I have to admit that no book or historical knowledge could have prepared me for my visit to Ani. Recently, I presented a paper entitled Remnants of the Past/Present: Armenians, Jews, and Greeks as Historical Living Artifacts, where I address how non-Muslim communities in Turkey are somewhat ghosts from the past, who remain in the present, and in essence become “living artifacts.” Particularly interesting is how many times their architectural structures are preserved within the urban areas, as remnants of “old Istanbul.” In this case, many times the dominant Turkish population is not even aware of the former inhabitants who once thrived in these structures. Also, I mentioned that recently, as with the case with of the famous Edirne Synagogue and the Akhtamar Armenian Church (among other churches), the Turkish government has initiated restoration campaigns, in attempt to preserve Turkey’s “multi-cultural and ethnic” past. However, this often is done on account of the communal past of these non-Muslim communities; in other words, political realities of today are applied to these structures, which are aimed at creating a past which never existed.

Visiting Ani, was a chance for me to see first hand a whole ancient city that has been seriously neglected due to its Armenian past. Literally, seeing the numerous churches which are in ruins is quite haunting. Walking along the path, one comes across a Selcuk mosque which is well-preserved, leaving me to question if this was a historical coincidence or just another case of the numerous campaigns to preserve the Turkish/Muslim past, while silencing the past of the “other.” With Ani being placed on the Turkish side of the Turkish-Armenian border, one can only hope that the recent signing of accords between the two countries will save this rich historical center from years of decay. Happily, as seen in the photographs, one Church is in the height of repairs (and thus was closed) leaving hope that even one day future projects can be the result of a joint Armenian-Turkish initiative.

During the next few days of my trip, Ani became symbolic of all the numerous churches I saw abandoned, in decay, or transformed into mosques, which ironically preserved them from destruction. One question, which I was preoccupied with and was related to my talk Remnants of the Past, was how the local Muslim population (whether ethnically Turk or Kurd) construct their identity vis-à-vis these structures, these remnants of the past, that exist without a people. A light of hope hit me when one night at our hotel in Yusufeli (ironically, a town that might be completely wiped out due to an ongoing massive dam project), there was a large group of youngsters from Georgia, who had crossed the border into Turkey to visit ancient Georgian churches, as part of their school curriculum. Lets hope that within a few years, Armenian youth will start crossing the border in order to rediscover their lost past, and give hope to these buildings which have since been long forgotten.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Turkey: The Ball is in Your Court

Turkey: the Ball is in Your Court

As an Israeli living in Turkey off-and-on for a decade, I have seen relations between the two countries quickly deteriorate during the last year. Groups hostile to Israel have always existed and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories during the last few years have become somewhat of a norm. However, following last year’s war between Israel and Hamas, the two countries relations have deteriorated at such a speed that one wonders if the current debacle is part of a long term shift in Turkish foreign policy.

A little over a week ago, Prime Minister Erdogan announced the Israel was banned from taking part in a NATO military maneuver due to the Israeli’s action in Gaza. With a lot on Erdogan’s plate, such as the forging of new ties with Armenia, and the opening up of a public discussion about the Kurdish issue, it seemed like the perfect time for one of his seasonal public shaming of Israel, which happens time-to-time to distract the Turkish public from more pressing internal questions.

It should be noted that I protested Israel’s massive bombardment of Gaza, and the great death and destruction it caused. Furthermore, I believe Turkey has every right to criticize Israel; even in light of its own past. However, after viewing the television program Ayrilik, where Israeli soldiers are shown shooting Palestinian children point blank with no remorse, spitting on corpses, and setting up firing squads, I can no longer remain silent. This program dehumanizes every Israeli and is incitement at the highest level. It is a disgrace to Turkey and how its national television (TRT) agreed to air such a show is even more abhorrent.

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is tragic enough and sadly has been held hostage by the pursuit of ratings. Israel bashing in Turkey is no more than a cheap shot that unites large parts of the political sphere from Islamist to leftist. The level of violence depicted in the program competes with the Turkish show Kurtlar Vadisi (The Valley of the Wolves), which was reprimanded as a result of its displays of bloodshed. Ayrilik, was aired at eight in the evening, and was rated for the general public, meaning the show was considered suitable for children to watch. These are the same children that were forced to stand for a minute of silence for the Palestinians during the Gaza campaign, which is not even done for Turkish soldiers or civilians killed in battle or terrorist acts. Placing hate in the minds of children, and older views alike, can only hinder efforts to reach regional peace, and I cannot fathom anything positive coming out of it.

Simply put, the repercussions of such a show can be tragic. Regardless, if the television producer can distinguish between an Israeli and a Jew, for many viewers, this is just confirmation of Jews massacring Muslims. During the Gaza Campaign, the Turkish Jewish community was subjected to pressures they had yet encountered, with protestors freely exchanging anti-Semitic gestures (not to mention the media). Numerous times during my last visit, I heard cases of Jews saying their time has come to leave Turkey. Ironically, many of them feel they will have a safer future in Israel. Who can promise the safety of a community in light of such blatant incitement?

Lastly, the other victim in this brouhaha is the peace itself. Turkey, as an ally of both the Jewish state and of Arab states, is one of the few countries who was capable of brokering a deal between Israel and Syria, and in my opinion, was well-suited to become a main broker between Israel and the Palestinians. Prime Minster Erdogan has proven his ability to take courageous steps on many fronts, most recently at reconciling his country’s differences with Armenia. However, the ball is in Turkey’s court and Erdogan’s recent actions towards Israel, and the Turkish television program, has only painted Turkish politics as petty, and has shown that he perhaps is not the bold politician he thinks he is.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Summer 2009 Part Two

Part Two of the Summer Series
The First Trip: Canakkale

Moving beyond Istanbul, is similar to moving beyond New York, and in some senses Tel Aviv. The urban bubble which I have chosen to close myself in –at least for now- is hard to exit. I find myself stuck within clear cut borders unable to exit. Since being in New York for example, I never venture beyond a few neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Manhattan. My only exit is the airport, and usually this is to fly to Istanbul. And, even when I fly to Tel Aviv, it is now via Istanbul.

During the last few years that I lived in Istanbul, I remained mostly within Sisli-Taksim-Tunel districts. Even to go to Besiktas seemed out of the way. However, during my first two years in Turkey, I lived in Ankara, and was able to travel around to such places as Cappadocia (one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen) and to Ayvalik, where I was studying Ottoman Turkish in a summer program. There was also the one summer that I went to Diyarbakir, Mardin, and Hatay. Yet for three years, I had not gone father than Kadikoy, a neighborhood which entails crossing the Bosphorus to get to.

My first trip this summer, when I would exit Istanbul, was to Canakkale, with the students of my study abroad course. One major component of this course, entitled Narratives of Turkey: Making History Making Memory, is to question how national narratives are created through monuments, art, museums, and music. Therefore visiting the war memorials, housed in the mass graveyard of Gallipoli where easily 100,000 soldiers died fighting in one of the most drawn-out and bloody battles of all times, seemed appropriate. Particularly interesting to me, was to see the different war monuments of the ANZAC and Turkish contingents so close to one another, situated just a few miles from one to the other. This in some sense reminded of war monuments in Israel, where in the Galilee the Jewish villages/cities have their monuments with the names of their martyrs placed in the center square, and then just a few miles away you can find monuments commemorating the Palestinian martyrs placed in the center of the Arab villages or cities.

Undoubtedly, the Turkish war monument is overpowering in size, which in scope resembles Anitkabir, Ataturk’s tomb in Ankara. Directly across from the monuments are the symbolic graves, which I am sure most forget that there are actually no bones within this exhibit. The yard housing these massive graves are organized by region and city of the once Ottoman Empire: names from Jerusalem, Damascus and Beirut can be found near those of Istanbul, Izmir, and Ankara. Quickly, one can identify the names of Jewish and Armenian soldiers who died along side of their Muslim counterparts, ironically at the same time that the fate of Armenians in the Ottoman lands would be sealed forever.

Like any war monument, whether in Israel or the US, Germany, Russia, or Japan, these architectural structures shape our identity, and are essential in forming some longing camaraderie with those soldiers who died for different realities and under different circumstances. Historically, for the students it provided them time to reflect about World War One in general and at the same time politics of monuments. I was indebted to Cigdem, our guide, who in addition to my lectures, provided us with the different and even counter narratives. For me, the trip was important since as a historian of the late Ottoman period, I was able to come to one of the many spots that would change Turkish and Middle Eastern history forever, and would play a major role in the construction of a modern Turkish identity. Recently, in one of my classes at Brooklyn, a student reminded us that with history we should not ask ourselves “what if” questions. However, when writing about any great battle I think we all are tempted to ask, what if this had turned out differently!

next entry: From Kars to Trabzon

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Summer 2009 Part I

Summer 2009

August 24, 2009 (submitted September 5, 2009)

Dear Istanbul-Tel Aviv-New York Blog readers:

After a long summer break and an even longer time since I submitted a new piece, I have returned to my laptop. Now that the summer has almost come to an end, I sit here in Pangalti, Istanbul, and ponder over what made this summer different than the others. In 11 days, I will return to Brooklyn and to my classes and once again be thrown in current events, which seem more to be a repeat of the past rather than signs to the future.

Growing up Jewish in America, I never really could connect to the Jewish New Year being in September. Clearly, January 1 was the real New Year, and Rosh HaShanah was a day on which know one really knew right off on what day is was going to fall. One year it fell on September 13 (my birthday) another September 5, and then there was those years that it took place at the end of the month. And, it was only years later that as a secular Jew I began to realize what a perfect time it was for the New Year.

Perhaps, even more, the fact that I am an educator and have most of the summers off, September is the time when I return to the classroom. For years, I did not really enjoy summers or long vacations. I also did not enjoy the sea, and at one time I hated the humid heat of Israel. As the years go by, I can claim I am now guilty of all of the above. This summer I spent with friends and family, lovers and companions. Hours and days were spent doing nothing but enjoying the sea, the heat, and beautiful views of the Turkish countryside. While I was only in Israel for a week, I also was happy to sweat to no end and change my soaked clothes three times a day.

Not like past years, this summer I moved beyond Istanbul to discover areas I had yet ventured into. Three trips are worth noting: my trip to the Northeastern Black Sea region (from Kars to Trabazon), the city of Denizli, and the Mediterranean coast close to the city of Kaş. The first trip began in the city of Kars and ended in Trabzon.

In the next few weeks, in addition to reviving the current events sections, I will focus on the new places and share with you my general impressions and thoughts. I will also post photo links for you to see the breathtaking sights. I hope you enjoy.



Thursday, April 9, 2009

One out of Four (Netanyahu’s Government): A Political Travesty

Last week, after over six weeks of wheeling and dealing, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu finally presented his government to the Israeli parliament and its people. Yes, the 32nd Knesset has received its new list of ministers and including the Prime Minister there are 30 of them; essentially meaning one out of every four Knesset members are now a minister. The phenomenon of the Israeli “inflated” government has reached a dangerous precedence and blame cannot be placed solely on Netanyahu; as they say, “it takes two to tango,” and the line between positions being handed out as bribes (to join the government) and those that were forced upon Netanyahu as blackmail (with him desperately needing the Labor party) has become blurred.

While Netanyahu’s Likud party received 14 ministers, Lieberman’s Israel Home Party and the Labor Party faired well, each receiving 5 ministers. Lieberman was awarded the prestigious Foreign Department (no comment for now) and Labor party head Ehud Barak the Defense Ministry (no comment for now). Close behind the Sephardic Religious party, Shas, received 4 ministers, and their prize was the Ministry of Interior. Lastly, the small Jewish Home party received one minister, the “Ministry of Science.”

While it would be possible to write a long detailed report of the inherent problems of such an inflated government, I will only comment on some of my initial thoughts. Firstly, the apparent absurdity is how previous ministries were divided creating a multiplication of unnecessary departments. For example, the once Ministry of Education, Culture and Sport now has been divided into two departments, separating the education from the culture and sport.

One department being split into two is actually the good case. It seems that Israel will soon become a world capital of rapid development being that there are numerous departments dealing with industry, infrastructure, and social issues. There is the Ministry of Industry, Trade, and Labor, the Ministry of Transportation and Road Safety, the Ministry of the Development of the Negev and Galilee, the Ministry of Regional Development, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, the Ministry of Welfare and Social Services, the Ministry of National Infrastructure, and the Ministry of Housing and Construction.

Luckily, Israel has a fine medical infrastructure with the best hospitals and world-renowned doctors and therefore it seems that Netanyahu found it fine not to appoint a Minister of Health, choosing himself to be the minister. After much criticism, this ministry was appointed a Deputy Minister (let us not forget that there are 9 Deputy Ministers in this government). Multi-tasking is a strong point of Netanyahu. In addition to be the Prime Minister and the Minister of Health, he also is in charge of Ministry of Pensioner Affairs and is the official Minister of Economic Strategy (which is separate from the Ministry of Finance). Is it only me who is confused?

While Israel received much attention with Tzipi Livni, a woman, almost taking the reins of the country, this in no way means that their politicians are “enlightened” members priding themselves in gender equality. There are only 2 women ministers out of the 30. It seems that the criteria to become a minister (for a large part at least) is to be a man who is looking for a beefed-up salary, and having no experience whatsoever in the ministry he is presiding over. Overall, there are 21 women out of the 120 Knesset members.

Lastly, Labor Party member Avishai Braverman, who was one of the most outspoken members against joining the current government abandoned his cohorts and moved to the camp of Ehud Barak. As a result, he too was awarded a newly formed ministry: the Ministry of Minority Affairs. Certainly, one of the persons suited best for fixing the economy will supervise the affairs of the Arab minority (Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, and approximately twenty percent of the total overall population). Being himself an academic, Braverman should realize the obvious implications of appointing someone from among the majority to take care of the minority. In any case, we see that women are not the only discriminated groups in Israel. Needless to say, there are no Arab ministers (there is one deputy minister); however, this is the norm in a country where 20 percent of the population are systematically excluded from the political system, even if they do vote and are represented in the Knesset.

Yes, sadly I write these words. It seems that such an inflated government, with many of the ministers being completely unprepared to serve their departments, will lead to higher levels of corruption and injustices which have over the years become the norm in Israeli society. Further, with such a multitude of ministries, how should we expect that any real progress be made on the economy, the peace process, and other pressing issues? If this is not a political travesty then what is.

Louis Fishman
April 9, 2009

Sunday, March 29, 2009

A Non-Victorious Victory: the AK Party’s Reality Check

Yesterday, local elections were held in Turkey and there certainly were a few surprises, showing Prime Minister Erdogan that his popularity has its limits. Certainly, the religiously conservative ruling AK party (AKP) has seen its greatest challenge since coming to power in the national elections of 2002. In comparison to the local election of 2004, when they received 42% of the vote, and to the national elections of 2007, when they boosted their support to 47%, their current victory of 39 % shows that their support for the first time has substantially decreased.

Even with the AKP’s huge victory, both the ideologically secular Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi (CHP-People’s Republican Party) and the ethnically Kurdish Demokrat Tomplusal Partisi (DTP-Social Democratic Party) demonstrated a great amount of momentum and threatened Erdogan’s hegemony, even if limited. Furthermore, the far-right wing Milli Hareket Partisi (MHP-National Action Party) has once again proven their ability to be a major-minor player, and their capability at capturing the AKP conservative base.

Now, someone not familiar to Turkish politics must be thinking why these elections are to some extent a watershed. First of all, over the last few months leading-up to the elections, Erdogan on numerous occasions made it clear this was some type of referendum on him and his party’s performance; moreover, many analysts suggested that any number under 40% would be sending a strong message to the ruling party. In addition, just days before the election, some polls placed Erdogan’s victory at over 50%. Therefore, when Erdogan held a press conference, even before all the polls had been counted, he reflected on the need to see where the party went wrong. This was not the same Erdogan who we are use to seeing. Tired from intensive campaigning, he was soft spoken with signs of defeat in his voice.

The CHP gains were impressive. They took the city of Antalya gaining almost 15% more votes than the previous local elections, and this despite the AKP’s major investments in the region. Izmir, CHP’s only major metropolis strong hold got even stronger climbing more than 6% and receiving more than 53% of the vote. Even if CHP did not take Istanbul or Ankara, they made serious headway, gaining almost 8% in Istanbul*, and capturing more of the local municipalities. While the AKP retained their base in Istanbul, in Ankara, they dropped a staggering 16%, with the CHP climbing almost 19%. This cannot be overlooked; the days of the secular republic’s capital returning to the hands of a secular party do not seem so far off if these elections are a sign of future sentiments.

One true winner in these elections was the DTP. A party made up mostly of Turkey’s Kurdish citizens in the Southeastern region of the Republic, and one that supports the expansion of Kurdish rights, made sweeping gains despite the AKP’s and Erdogan’s desperate attempts not only to retain their hold but also to do the unthinkable: to take the DTP’s stronghold of Diyarbakir. This attempt failed radically. They lost Van and Siirt; with other regional cities overwhelmingly voting for the DTP. Needless to say, the Diyarbakir “prize” went to the DTP, with over 65% of the vote, showing that Erdogan’s polemic of him wanting to “take” this city was a complete illusion. In Tunceli, where the AKP embarked on “appliance-politics,” passing out washing machines and other appliances in return for votes, the DTP remained in power. Lastly, the city of Igdir, home to a majority Turkish conservative right-wing constituency, will now be ruled by the opposing party, the DTP, with the two conservative AKP and MHP splitting the vote.

Lastly, the MHP, made especially nice gains, taking numerous municipalities such as Adana, which they won after gaining over 20% in popularity since the last municipal elections, and with the AKP losing 10% of their base support. Other gains were made in Balikesir, where they stomped out both the AKP and the CHP, gaining more than 31% since the previous elections. Further, they were able to retain previous strongholds such as the Anatolian city of Kastamonu.

Now, what are the lessons to be learned from all of this data? Clearly, Erdogan has seriously lost out by claiming that these elections were a referendum of sorts. He himself will need to ask why in the cities where the AKP invested in infrastructure and development, the people switched their votes. What are the implications of a strong DTP have concerning the ongoing Kurdish issue? How will the strengthening of the CHP and MHP, both nationalist in outlook, affect Turkey’s foreign policy. In the next few days, I will address some of these issues. For now, it is clear that democracy has punished a prime minister who until yesterday thought he was invincible.

Louis Fishman
March 30, 2009

* This gain is even without the Sisli local municipality, a stronghold of CHP whose mayor, M. Sarigul, broke away as the result of an internal spat with CHP leader Deniz Baykal.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Internal-Exile and the Gaza Campaign

The truth is I am happy that I started this blog after Israel’s recent Gaza invasion. When the invasion started I was beginning to come to terms with the fact that after 8 months on leave from my work in New York, I only had one more month left in Israel to enjoy. I arrived in Tel Aviv in July after a month in Turkey, and decided that I would spend the six months not being an activist or academic and dedicate time to myself, in a state of “internal-exile.” This would be time to spend with my beautiful daughter, with friends I knew from the past, and those that I had yet to meet.

In “the Bubble” of Tel Aviv, I worked hard to ignore what was going on outside of the city’s borders. The first thing I did was get cable TV with numerous Hebrew channels, but also Arabic and Turkish ones so that if I desired, I could land in Beirut or Istanbul for a few hours. During the following months, I drowned myself in Israeli reality shows. The continuing saga of Israel’s first “Big Brother” reality show did not only capture my attention but the country at large. Periodically, I watched the news but I knew that if anything really happened in Tel Aviv I would know about it in minutes. In the days of the suicide bombings, if one did not hear the bomb itself, the immediate blasting of sirens coming from ambulances and police cars made it clear. Then there was the immediate cell phone calls: Are you OK? Did you hear the blast? These are all cues for turning on the news.

Tel Aviv however has become quite insulated from the conflict and suicide bombings –and at least for now- they have become something of the past. However, walking the streets of Tel Aviv late at night in the hours before the sun arises, I often thought how much blood had been spilt on these streets. This feeling submerged once I caught glance of all the African workers closing the bars, washing windows, and at one time, some going home on their bicycles, while others on their way to work. Twenty years ago, I remember walking the same streets; however, then, it was not Darfur refugees cleaning the streets that were exchanging glances with me but rather Palestinians from the Gaza Strip or the West Bank, who use to come in the hundreds of thousands to work in what its founders coined the first “Hebrew” city.

Months passed with me spending time on the beach, discovering a new love for Tel Aviv’s Bauhaus architecture, strolling down Rothschild Avenue, or sitting in cafes. Yet, while trying to ignore reality, like a soldier called up to duty I took my daughter to the annual massive memorial for the assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. In addition to this, I also went to a protest demanding the Israeli government do more to secure the release of the soldier Gilad Shalit, who has been held hostage by Hamas since June 2006.

And, now I come to Israel’s massive invasion of Gaza. During the months leading up to the conflict it was clear that a major conflict was in the making. News had been streaming for months from Israel’s southern city of Sderot and surrounding regions, where children for years have learned that you have 15-30 seconds to take cover from the rockets shot from the Gaza Strip. Parallel to this, Israel (and Egypt) was sending clear signals to Hamas that a major offensive was on the horizon.

On December 27, Israel’s massive bombardment started with Gaza being pounded like it never had before. For about three weeks Palestinians casualties continued to rise, reaching over 1200 deaths. For me personally, this had to have been one of the most surreal periods of my life. About thirty miles from my home a full-fledge war was underway, and it really had no affect on my daily routine. From Tel Aviv, I watched all the horrors of war on TV, and incredible amount of feelings of helplessness ensued. Flipping through channels, the Palestinian death toll climbed and the Israeli political triumvirate (PM Olmert-FM Livni-DM Barak) reiterated that there was no other way, and that the mission would continue until the army reached its goal; leaving everyone in the dark about what the mission was.

Needless to say, my six-months of internal exile had come to a crashing halt. I soon started to search for protests and for some means to express –at least my reservations- if not my outright opposition to the tactics of placing a whole population under siege in order to force Hamas’ political leadership to surrender, something everyone knew would not happen. On the other hand, I grew more and more frustrated with Hamas who were willing to put their people in such a position. The writing was on the wall and they did everything to provoke the Israelis to act. If this fact was not confusing enough, my heart also went out to all those in the southern parts of Israel. Yes, thousands of Israeli children suffered endured psychological pressures of war. Let us be open, the 13 Israelis killed is nothing compared to the Palestinian side but this is also due to the fact that Israelis have security protected rooms in their homes, bomb shelters, or took cover in stairwells. In any case, such use of numbers is banal and unethical since it just strengthens the claim that one killing justifies another.

One thing was clear to me: the Israeli Jewish-left leadership completely failed their constituency (and paid for this in the elections). The work was left solely to Hadash, the Jewish-Arab left front, which is made mostly up of members of the Israeli Communist party. Together Jews and Palestinians (Israeli citizens) protested in the middle of Tel Aviv, calling on both sides to end the violence and proving that Jews and Arabs can come together even in the most difficult of times. For me, the march was a bit nostalgic as I was able to meet up with old friends from university and members of co-existence organizations I had worked with in the past.

Now as reports from Israeli soldiers are coming out about excessive violence being used in the campaign, which lead to unnecessary death and destruction, the Jewish-Israeli left needs to do some serious soul searching and question how they failed not only the Israeli public at large but also the soldiers who were swept away with the overwhelming support, with no dissent being voiced among their politicians. Perhaps, Meretz and the Labor Party should ask themselves why they only received 16 seats in the Knesset. Certainly, there must have been a more sane way to go about this and they did not offer any real answer.

So the circle of violence continues. Sadly, both sides are becoming increasingly immune to violence, or at least they are much more tolerant of it. The Palestinians demonstrated this well during the age of suicide bombings. Hamas and Fatah have shown that even killing each other is sometimes more rewarding than killing Israelis. While rampant violence, once unacceptable to large parts of the Israeli society, now can be implemented with little dissent.

In two weeks, I will go back to Israel for the Passover holiday. The dust of the war has settled but not much has changed. Gilad Shalit is still being held in Gaza, rockets are still periodically shot over to Israel. Israelis are continuing with their periodic “targeted-killings,” and is keeping up with the blockade of the strip. Hamas and Fatah are still unable to reach an agreement to form a unity government. And, former mediators of the conflict have all but given up.

Together, Israelis and Palestinians need to ask themselves if all of this violence is really worth it.

Louis Fishman
March 21, 2009

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Turkey and the Warmth of the Spring

Perhaps, winter has taken its toll and we are all waiting for the spring to come. In Turkey, spring is always the period when things start to warm up. This spring will likely include the regular events, such as renewed clashes between the Turkish Armed Forces and the PKK, the tension which comes with the spring holiday of Newruz, and Istanbul’s urban clashes on May 1.

Every spring as the snow melts on the mountains of Turkey’s Southeast, the separatist outlawed members of the PKK come out of hibernation, and armed clashes between them and the Turkish Armed Forces strike up. This has been the norm since the nineties, except for a few years following the capture and sentencing of their leader Abdullah Ocalan in 1999. If things remain as they have during the last couple of years, this spring will also become victim to a new round of fighting which carries out through the summer months with casualties and death on both sides.

Then there is the tension related to March 21 holiday of Newruz (Nowroz). While this holiday is celebrated throughout Iran and Central Asia, marking the pre-Islamic Persian New Year, in Turkey, the day has transformed into a holiday in which large parts of Turkey’s Kurdish population, primarily in the Southeast, air their grievances against the Turkish State, with large demonstrations held in Diyarbakir and other regional cities. These events often lead to clashes between the police and demonstrators.

Next there is May 1, a day that for a great part of the world is now only studied in history books. The international workers day in Turkey has special significance as a day when all the groups ranging from the liberal to radical left join forces not only commemorate the international sense of the day, but also the 1977 Taksim Square event. On this day, 34 died after unknown gunmen opened fired on hundreds of thousands of protestors. Outlawed following the 1980 coup d’etat, it has continued to be a day of political strife. Last year, in efforts to prevent the masses from reaching the square, the police basically created a ring barricade around the center of the city, with clashes breaking out at the different barricades. Needless to say, the above events usually reawake a counter-nationalist movement, and lead to massive display of Turkish flags throughout Turkey

Over the next few months, I will be touching upon some of these events. However, this spring offers us a few more events to wait for. The Turkish economy, following world trends, is showing poorly. If it continues on its track, perhaps it will prove problematic for Turkey’s ruling party the AKP in the upcoming municipal elections. Yes, it is the day –March 29- which we will be watching. Nevertheless, it seems unlikely that even an ailing economy will make a dent in the ruling party’s popularity; one that won 46% of the vote in the summer 2007 national elections.

And, in the backdrop of all of this, there is still the ongoing Ergenekon trial, with everyone waiting to see how long the arrests (and convictions) of suspected members of this underground organization will continue. Certainly, more details concerning those who were planning to overthrow the AK party-led-Turkish government in a coup d’etat will come to light in the spring.

Then there is of course US President Obama’s upcoming historic visit to Turkey, which will take place sometime in April. This was announced last week during Secretary of State Clinton’s short trip to Turkey (which I am sure was a breath of fresh air for her Turkish counterparts who have had to deal with years of former President Bush’s failed policies). The fact that Obama has chosen to visit Turkey, following his different meetings in Europe, is a strong sign that Washington realizes the mass importance of having Ankara back on its good side. Yet, we know that before April 24, the day commemorating the Armenian Genocide, Obama will need to decide how he will define the event, and what he plans to do about it. This being with the full knowledge that as a Presidential candidate he stated:

The facts are undeniable. An official policy that calls on diplomats to distort the historical facts is an untenable policy. As a senator, I strongly support passage of the Armenian Genocide Resolution (H.Res.106 and S.Res.106), and as President I will recognize the Armenian Genocide.*

Therefore, there is no doubt that this will be on everyone’s mind and that certainly President Obama will raise this issue in Turkey, perhaps preparing them for the inevitable. Or, perhaps he will take notes on what Turkey’s limits are concerning this and try to reach some sort of compromise with Ankara, who has made it clear that there will be serious repercussions if the US officially recognizes the Armenian Genocide. Truthfully speaking, if anyone can “make both sides happy,” it is Obama, so we will just need to wait and see. Furthermore, this “repercussion” mentality might have worked when Bush was in office, but with America’s possible thawing of relations with Iran, Turkey cannot afford to implement their threats of “what will happen if…”, in any case. They would have too much to lose at this point in the game.

Yes, for Turkey the spring is quickly approaching. I for one will be happy once it warms up outside. However, let us hope that politically things do not get too hot, leaving all of us a little burnt.

Louis Fishman
March 11, 2009

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