Saturday, November 12, 2016

Elegy for Turkey, Now a One-party State*

Haaretz: "The grotesque sight of parliamentarians being dragged into police cars, mouths covered by the hands of the security forces, is the latest sign that [Turkey] reaching a point of no return."

In late night raids last Thursday (November 4) , Turkish security forces rounded the heads of the mostly Kurdish HDP party and 11 of its Members of Parliament. The government accused them of an array of charges alleging membership in, or support of, the outlawed Kurdish PKK terrorist organization. The two leaders, Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag, are now officially under arrest and in prison awaiting trial. 

With the recent sequence of aggressive government clampdowns, it would be a lie to say that many in Turkey were surprised at the arrests. Just last week, the HDP co-mayors of Diyarbakir, including a former MP, Gultan Kisanak, were also arrested. However even for seasoned observers already used to the Erdogan government’s accelerated post-coup authoritarianism, the speed and manner of the operation to arrest the HDP leaders was nonetheless shocking. The sight of lawmakers being forced into police cars, at times pushed around by security officials young enough to be their children, was a grotesque show of force. One former MP, Sebahat Tuncel, was literally dragged and gagged while being detained at a protest.

With the arrests, Turkey has erased this summer’s sympathy and support, not least internationally, following the ruthless attempt a group of army officers to take down the state on the night of July 15, bombing the country’s parliament and shooting down hundreds of civilians who were defending its country’s democracy. Internationally, and despite fears by many that Turkey was already well on its way to turning into an authoritarian state, the Turkish government’s slate was wiped clean and it was in effect given a window of time to “clean house.” 

Inside Turkey, in the attempted coup’s immediate aftermath, it had seemed that a new found unity between Turkey’s religiously-oriented AKP-led government and the CHP, the major secular opposition party, might lead the country on a new path: of stability and hope for change. 

However, following the post-coup purges, which have left over 100,000 citizens fired from jobs in the private and public sectors and almost 40,000 arrested, those among the opposition who had supported the summer’s unity slowly started to realize that what they had imagined as a new beginning was merely a passing midsummer delusion. The Wall Street Journal has termed these collective events as "the largest mass purge the world has seen in decades."

This feeling has only been exacerbated by the fact that the purges are extending far beyond the Gulenists—followers of the U.S.-exiled Fethullah Gulen, blamed for the coup attempt—to include diverse opposition voices as well as harsh critics of the government. 

It was reported that among last week's purge of academics, some signatories of the January 2016 pro-peace petition have been sacked. One outspoken human rights activist and world renowned author, Asli Erdogan, has been under arrest for over two months as well. At the same time, a recent decree has targeted the autonomy of Turkish academia by cancelling the election of rectors by universities themselves. Now the head of each university will be appointed directly by the president, from among candidates chosen by the government-appointed Council of Higher Education. 
Then, early last week, the secular newspaper Cumhuriyet, the closest press organization to the opposition CHP (the same party that supported national unity after the coup) was raided, with its Editor-in-Chief detained along with twelve other executives and journalists and staff members. Included among those rounded up is Kadri Gursel, a well-seasoned and mainstream journalist. The clear message from the government was: Everyone is within our reach and we can shut you down too, if needed, just as we forced the closure of 15 other media outlets just days before. Those outlets are part of a total of a 130 media outlets forbidden to broadcast or print in Turkey. 

It is important also to remember that aside from the famous journalist, authors, musicians, and politicians detained or arrested, there are many more ordinary citizens who have been deemed guilty by association and rounded up. 
As in previous crackdowns, they’re especially hard to keep track of: they lack the name recognition or specific affiliation which attracts the attention that facilitates keeping track of the progress of the charges against them; Turkey has famously untransparent procedures regarding their treatment or trials. We can only imagine how many innocent people have been caught up.   

Turkey seems to be quite close to the critical threshold where other countries will simply write it off. The barrage of bad news is just too much to absorb. Where news stories about Turkey use to excite interest, today, I imagine most readers of the international press don’t even bother to read them. The country that for so many years captured their attention and led them to visit, study and even move there, and invest in it. The Turkish government is caused extreme damage to the country’s image, a degradation that will take years, if not decades, to reverse. 

In fact, just last week, the United States ordered consulate staff families in Istanbul to leave the city due to fears of an ISIS orchestrated attack against Americans. Just a week before that the U.S. State Department warned Americans they could be subject to attack or kidnapping in Istanbul by “extremist groups,” such as ISIS. These warnings confirm a deep and telling lack of trust in the Turkish security apparatus by Western intelligence agencies. 

As someone who led educational trips to Turkey, can I honestly take international students there now? With what can I convince academic colleagues to bring groups to a place where the freedom of speech they enjoy and uphold is disappearing, where newspaper editors and parliament members are being arrested and media outlets are shut down on a whim? 

It would be wrong to ascribe all Turkey’s problems to the coup attempt and its aftermath. But rather than using a rare moment of unity to push forward a new agenda, its government has set it back on a path of continued turmoil. However, Turkey’s democracy and civil society won’t be rescued by another round of scathing criticism, from the U.S. or by the European Union, which has already demonstrated its disinterest in prioritizing democratic freedoms over a deal keeping Syrian refugees in at bay from Europe. 

The answers to Turkey’s problems can only be found inside Turkey. If its government adamantly continues on this dangerous path of usurping power, it won’t only be the opposition who will face an unrecognizable homeland. It will also be the fate of government members, blindly marching forward in an insatiable hunt for more power, who, in their quest to rule the country, are tearing the country apart at the seams. 

*This appeared in Haaretz on November 6, 2016. Click here for the link.  

Monday, September 26, 2016

Turkey’s Opposition Fails a Critical Test: To Challenge Erdogan*

Two months have passed since the July 15 Turkish coup attempt and the purge and arrests have continued unabated, with emergency laws striking at not just those accused of plotting the coup, the Gulenists, but also those with suspected ties to the outlawed Kurdish separatist group, the PKK, as well as a swathe of other staunch critics of the government. In some extreme cases, even family members of those suspected of sedition have been detained, as vicarious punishment and to leverage the surrender of suspects in exile or hiding.

Turkey's media: Under lock and key

For example, the world-renowned author Asli Erdogan is being held on terror charges for her work at the banned newspaper, Ozgur Gundem, which the government claims is a PKK mouthpiece. There are fears she may suffer permanent injury due to the conditions under which she is being held.

Similarly, singer Atilla Tas − whose criticism of the nation’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has made him more popular as a symbol than as a musician − also has been arrested. He released a defiant comment from prison: "My conscience is clear because I am innocent. My only crime was to criticize the government. I will not be subdued.” 

Then there is the journalist Can Dundar, former editor-in-chief of the Cumhuriyet newspaper, Turkey's oldest and staunchly secular broadsheet, who fled the country and vows to remain abroad as long as the state of emergency is in effect. His wife had her passport confiscated, a violation of her civil rights, effectively blocking them from seeing one another. It's worth noting that even before the coup and subsequent purge, Turkey's press was rated as “not free” by the Freedom in the World's 2016 report, while the World Press Freedom Index by Reporters without Borders ranked it low down, at 151st among 180 countries surveyed.

Post-coup bonus: Purge the Kurds

Having already seized private businesses with assets worth billions of dollars linked to Gulenists, the Turkish government has now moved on to seizing control of municipalities. Last week, democratically-elected representatives were removed from 24 local governments for their alleged ties to the PKK, and four more for their links to the Gulen movement, with state appointees taking the reins.

Along similar lines, the arrest on terror charges of the charismatic politician Selahattin Demirtas together with other leaders of the mostly-Kurdish HDP, the third-largest party in parliament, seem almost inevitable in the current environment. The latest moves against the HDP will only make the situation more precarious in the mostly Kurdish southeast, signaling greater potential bloodshed and unrest there. 

The purge of both Gulenists and activists working for the Kurdish cause (including both Kurds and Turks), should not come as a surprise, since sanctions against them had already begun before the night the coup plotters tried to hijack the country’s democracy with commandeered F-16s and tanks. 

However, the sheer numbers of those purged in the post-coup attempt are testament to its gravity: over 40,000 people have been detained or arrested, and almost 80,000 suspended from their employment. Most recently, in addition to the thousands of educators purged for ties to the Gulenists, over ten thousand teachers with alleged ties to the PKK have been removed from classrooms in Turkey.      

Turkey's opposition fails crucial test

Unfortunately, following the coup attempt the nation’s major opposition party, the CHP, failed the test of working to keep the government in check. Only in the last few weeks have the party members begun to raise their voices against the injustices of the current purge. Last week, its leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, declared that a “witch hunt” was underway: “Those who prevent writers, journalists and intellectuals from celebrating Eid al-Adha with their loved ones have no right to talk about democracy….” The CHP states it has already received 30,000 complaints by citizens of unfair treatment.

So what happened? It seems that immediately following the coup attempt the CHP party was caught off guard, unable to dictate a clear response, adopting instead the positions articulated by CHP-aligned critics of the government in the mainstream media. Even during the first hours following the coup, numerous analysts from their camp were convinced of a Gulenist plot, and ditched more critically-oriented investigative reporting to join the government chorus panning the apparently inadequate Western coverage of the coup. They accused the Western media of not showing solidarity with Turkey. While the unifying of government and opposition voices helped encourage an important sense of national unity, it left the opposition void of any vision for the future. 

This knee-jerk reaction was fed by these journalists’ disdain for the Gulenists due to bad blood between the secular camp and the Gulen movement, which even predates the falling out between the AKP and the Gulenists during the last three years. A few years earlier, military officers, journalists, and CHP lawmakers were wrongly tried on trumped up charges during the Ergenekon trials. Those falsely accused blamed Gulenists for masterminding the proceedings, and they blasted journalists at Gulen-owned media outlets for either remaining silent or even cheering the arrests of journalists. 

In their anti-Gulenist fervor following the coup, it seems that many analysts within the CHP camp, the only substantial and still legitimate opposition voice in Turkey, didn't stop to ask whether they were in dereliction of their democratic duty by not digging into the intricacies of the coup and to investigate the mass arrests of people who appear guilty of nothing more than association. 

Too little, too late

The opposition's lack of strategy was made further evident by the fickleness of its party leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who first turned down an invitation made by Turkey’s powerful president to join in July's truly massive National Unity rally; Kilicdaroglu later reversed course and accepted, despite the purge already being in full swing. This massive rally brought millions to the rally site of Yenikapi, and despite the fact that Kilicdaroglu did use the stage to mark a middle road, his performance was blurred by its weak contrast to Erdogan, who stood firm as the unchallenged President of the Republic.

As the voices of opposition have grown stronger among the CHP, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim has promised that crisis desks will be set up in order to work with people wrongly accused in the purge, a problem that also Erdogan has recognized. However, Yildirim has also discarded the claim by the CHP that the decree laws set out by the state of emergency are unconstitutional, leaving the opposition little hope that they will be able to stop the purges' proliferation. In other words, the CHP’s challenge to the decree of a national state of emergency was far overdue.  

The failed coup attempt offered Turkey’s government the chance to turn over a new leaf; to show a clear legal and moral intention to distinguish, by means of a transparent and fair process, between the Gulenists (and perhaps other factions) in the army and civil arena who were actively behind the coup and those many thousands, or tens of thousands, who were swept up with them. 

The CHP’s inability to seize the moment and strongly condemn the arbitrary extent and nature of the purges from the start was a critical failure, and one that serves to undermine its integrity and sustainability as an opposition force. Despite tentative but welcome signs from the CHP towards highlighting the exponential injustices of Turkey's ongoing purge, it still seems like a classic case of acting too little, too late. 

**This article appeared in Haaretz on September 20, 2016. Click here to link

Friday, September 16, 2016

Netanyahu's Shameful Words: From Judenrein to Ethnic Cleansing

Just a week ago, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shared on social media a short video, which on his twitter account was shared under the headline, “No Jews.” In this video, he accuses the Palestinians of supporting ethnic cleansing of the Jews of the West Bank, stating, “...the Palestinian leadership actually demands a Palestinian state with one pre-condition: No Jews. There is a phrase for that, its called ethnic cleansing.”

The timing of the video comes after the United States harshly criticized Israel’s recent decision to add 234 living units to existing settlements, stating that the State Department is “particularly troubled by the policy of retroactively approving unauthorized settlement units and outposts that are themselves illegal under Israeli law,” and that “…significant expansion of the settlement enterprise poses a very serious and growing threat to the viability of the two-state solution.”

In retaliation, Netanyahu struck back by addressing an American audience in his video message asking “Would you accept ethnic cleansing in your state? A territory without Jews, without Hispanics, without blacks? Since when is bigotry a foundation for peace.” This was followed by the State department lashing back, stating, “We obviously strongly disagree with the characterization that those who oppose settlement activity or view it as an obstacle to peace are somehow calling for ethnic cleansing of Jews from the West Bank.”

The US State Department has every right to be angry. Netanyahu’s twisting the truth, making Israeli settlers the victims and Palestinians—who are living for the past 49 years under Israeli occupation with no civil rights—the cruel masters, has proven once again that he is an ace in demagoguery. Not to mention the low level he stooped to by accusing the Palestinians of ethnic cleansing, when it is they who were ethnically cleansed from the territories that become Israel in 1948, with over 700,000 not allowed to return to their homes, upon their fleeing and the forced expulsions they endured during Israel’s War of Independence.      

To get the story straight, the Palestinians do not object to have Jews within their borders, rather they are against Israeli settlers remaining within their future state. This should be of no surprise since the settlers have and continue to occupy their land for the last 49 years. In any case, questions regarding citizenship laws of the future Palestinian state seem less burning when one faces the reality that Palestinians do not seem any closer to getting a state today than they were 20 years ago. 

However, it should not just be Palestinians taking offense to Netanyahu’s harsh words, but also the Jews in Israel and internationally as it belittles the history of the Holocaust by  putting forth the false analogy that Palestinians are no different that Nazi Germany, trying to create a territory free of Jews, otherwise known as Judenrein. In fact, Netanyahu himself used this term back in 2009, shocking the German Foreign Minister, who was on an official state visit in Israel, stating that “Judea and Samaria cannot be Judenrein.” 

This of course would not be the first time that Netanyahu has used the Holocaust to gain ground against the Palestinians. Just last year he made the claim that Hitler had got the idea of committing genocide against the Jews from the Palestinian Mufti Hajj Amin al-Husseini, which even caused the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, to state that Germany is solely responsible for the Holocaust and that “we don't see any reason to change our view of history…” 

Ironically, the Israeli radical right in the past has accused the Israeli governments of implementing a plan of Judenrein, such as when it evacuated the Jewish settlements of Gaza in 2005 under the premiership of Ariel Sharon, a government that Netanyahu was a part of. The comparing of the Israeli government by the radical right highlights the danger of comparing one to Nazis, in this case clear incitement that brings back memories of the days before Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated.  

This perverse manipulation of history of the Holocaust, be it by Netanyahu, or by the Israeli radical right, in reference to their fellow citizens, needs to be met with strong condemnation. The conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is bad enough and false analogies by either side only makes things worse. True, it might score Netanyahu a few points among the Islamophobic Donald Trump supporters in the United States, but it also chips away at the sanctity of the Holocaust, and leaves it fair game to be used by others for their own petty political gains.  

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Turkey's Purge of Political Opponents Will Come Back to Haunt It*

Haaretz:  Despite a show of almost unprecedented unity at a recent rally – and newfound Turkish nationalism following July’s bloody coup attempt – the purges hark back to a bleak pattern in Turkey’s past.

Louis Fishman, August 9, 2016 

Will July 15, 2016 go down in history as the day Turkey tried to wipe the slate clean? 

Just three weeks after Turkey was shaken by a bloody coup attempt, the nation on Sunday came together in a mass show of unity. According to Turkish sources, at least 3 million people joined together in Istanbul's Yenikapi district to celebrate the nation's democracy and to remember the more than 250 people killed by the ruthless putschists. 

The massive rally will go down in history not merely due to the sheer numbers of citizens from different backgrounds who attended, but due to the fact that it managed to bring together warring parties, the ruling AKP government and its staunch adversary, the secular CHP, in addition to the smaller nationalist MHP. Seeing the CHPs Kemal Kilicdaroglu speaking at the same rally as the nation's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, for many, was an unbelievable moment. 

This newfound unity has emerged as all parties in the parliament, including the mostly Kurdish leftist party, the HDP, which was not invited to the government rally, have come to a consensus that the U.S.-based, self-exiled religious leader Fetullah Gulen—who ordered his secret followers in the army to overthrow the democratically elected government—was behind the coup. 

This newfound unity, which is currently riding a wave of Turkish nationalism, also has many people asking if the days of extreme political and social polarization in the country might be a thing of the past, and whether this marks the dawn of a new day in Turkey. Certainly, the new hope we are seeing is a welcome change and a major step in the right direction. Unfortunately, at the same time, the mass purges that followed the failed coup attempt do not seem to be forging a new future for Turkey, but rather hark back to its much bleaker past. 

Since July 15, and since the subsequent three-month-long state of emergency was declared, the Turkish government has set out to eradicate Gulen followers from all civil and military sectors. Almost 15,000 have been detained, and the number of sacked workers is staggering: around 50,000. In addition, hundreds of university deans have been forced to resign and thousands of schools have been closed, along with universities affiliated with the Gulen movement. In addition, newspapers and radios have been shut down, and dozens of journalists have been arrested. If all this was not enough, reports have emerged of widespread torture of detainees.

There is no doubt that the government is responsible for protecting itself and its citizens from illegal organizations out to undermine it, which justifies some of the state's measures, but at the same time the net is being thrown wide and infringing on the rights of many individual citizens who had nothing whatsoever to do with the coup. 

The current purge follows a dangerous pattern that is well known in Turkey. From the first days of the Turkish Republic to the coups of 1960, 1971 and 1980, Turkey has found itself in vicious circle of purges and paybacks. One of the most recent followed the 1997 “post-modern” coup d’etat, which set out to cleanse the country of political Islam in the parliament and its influence within the ranks of the military and bureaucracy. As a result, politicians such as Erdogan, then Istanbul’s mayor, found themselves behind bars, together with Gulenists, who were also locked up or lost their employment. It was around this time, in 1999, that Gulen left Turkey in self exile. 

The AKP, which came to power in 2002, was founded as a direct response to the 1997 purge; it cemented a coalition of religious politicians, including Gulenists, and liberal ones, who challenged the military’s role in Turkish society. However, despite the overwhelming power of the AKP over the state’s institutions, the ruling party continued the tradition of “paybacks,” targeting those who they deemed responsible for the purge against them in 1997—the same ones believed to be responsible for crimes of the deep state—that become known as the Ergenekon trials. 

These trials led to the arrests of hundreds of high-ranking military personnel and civilians, including journalists, who were accused of plotting to overthrow the AKP government. In 2013, 275 suspects, including the former Chief of Staff, Ilker Basbug, were sentenced to long jail terms (many for life), in trials that lacked transparency and were built on fabricated evidence. In fact, even if there was a kernel of truth to some of the claims against those arrested, that truth was lost very quickly among the obvious injustices. 

This leads us to today, and the current purge against the Gulenists, which is an acceleration of a slow-burn purge that began over two years ago after a falling out between Gulenists and Erdogan’s AKP. In 2014, a group of Gulenists occupying key positions in the judiciary challenged the government head on with the December 17, 2014 indictments of AKP members for massive corruption, leading all the way to Erdogan’s family; for him, this was nothing short of a staged coup. Following this, Erdogan distanced himself from the Ergenekon trials, claiming that the Gulenists had duped him into believing that the convicts were indeed guilty of their crimes. Within a year, after a new trial, most of the convicted members of Ergenekon had been freed through the well-known revolving door of Turkish prisons (gaining Erdogan hefty political leverage among some of those released). 

Using the Ergenekon trials as a vantage point, it is much easier to understand today’s purges. In fact, it is no surprise which journalists have been arrested: those affiliated with the Gulen movement, or others who used Gulen media outlets to voice their staunch opposition to Erdogan. It is also unsurprising that many people who often staunchly oppose Erdogan’s rule remain silent in the face of the current purges, under the pretext: When our colleagues were being arrested during the Ergenekon trials, where were those writing for Gulen’s media outlets who justified the arrests of innocent journalists? The same holds true for academics. Where much noise has been made over leftist academics imprisoned recently for signing a pro-peace petition, a relative silence reigns over the arrest of academics for Gulenist affiliations. 

Unfortunately, just as with the Ergenekon trials, the recent foiled coup attempt also seems to lack a clear narrative. It is unlikely that Gulenists in the army acted alone, however, in the name of unity, and to “get” the Gulenists once and for all, it seems that all the major political parties, government and opposition alike, are glossing over this. 

Like past purges, it is unlikely that the rule of law will be upheld, and it is safe to say that many innocent people have already become victims of Turkey’s vicious historical circle. As with the Ergenekon trials, it will be almost impossible to keep track of those detained, arrested or put on trial. What we are seeing is a high-octane settling of accounts with the Gulen movement that has managed to anathematize more opponents than it can handle. 

Turkey’s payback-purge pattern, especially in its current and extreme form, will not solve the country’s greater problems; it will not bring justice to those killed fighting for democracy, and it certainly does not bode well for Turkey over the long run. Rather, it only shows Turkey regressing to past behaviors—and just as previous mass purges have only come back to haunt the country, so will these. 

If Turkey wants to take the high road and show that July 15 is indeed a new beginning for the country, it can do so only by making sure everyone who is responsible for this heinous crime is convicted to the fullest extent, and that innocent people, regardless of their affiliation with the Gulen movement, be afforded legal recourse and self-dignity. This also pertains to those liberals who opted to use Gulen media outlets to attack the government, and who, like those mentioned above, have nothing to do with the disgusting July 15 attack staged against Turkey.

*This article appeared in Haaretz on August 9, 2016. Click here for the link

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Why We'll Never Get a Full Accounting of Turkey's Failed Coup*

Haaretz: It was a wild, confusing night of gunfire, unscheduled calls to prayer and sonic booms in Istanbul. But with an nontransparent government, a media that's state controlled or under pressure, and wide-scale purges, Erdogan's narrative will be hard to challenge.

Louis Fishman, July 17, 2017

On Friday night just after 10pm my cellphone started buzzing and the deluge of WhatsApp messages started. “Go home immediately!” After that: “Turkey is in the midst of a coup d’état!”
Rumors had already started taking off on Twitter that the Bosphorus Bridge connecting Istanbul's European and Asian sides had been blocked and that tanks had taken to the streets. Some of the reports seemed exaggerated: A coup was underway? Others reported that it was extreme measures taken to secure the city in the wake of fears of another possible terror attack. That same day there had already been a number of false alarms in a country already on edge after the ISIS attack on Istanbul’s Ataturk airport just weeks before, which left almost 50 people dead.
It took no time at all for the Twitter rumors to spread like wildfire. Reports were emerging from Ankara that jet fighters were racing through the sky nonstop. Something was happening, but a coup? Was this really possible?
About two hours later, it seemed Turkey had been brought back to 1980, when the army briefly overran the state television channel TRT, which has functioned in the last few years as a mouthpiece for the Turkish government. This time, after a brief hiatus, the TV anchor came back on air to read the official coup statement, announcing that the “Turkish Armed Forces have completely taken over the administration of the country to reinstate constitutional order, human rights and freedoms, the rule of law and general security that have been damaged.”
This confirmation propelled residents of my Istanbul neighborhood out to get water and food, and for many others to line up at ATMs to withdraw money. For many in Turkey, this behavior was already hardwired as a coup survival instinct. Either citizens remembered first hand from the coups of 1960, 1971, 1980 (and the “post-modern coup" of 1997 that played out differently), or — for the younger generation who hadn't themselves lived through a similar scenario — they remembered the lessons of stories endlessly retold by their parents' generation and, in any case, were receiving enough advice through SMSs and social media to know what to do.
While chatter was emerging of how the country could be ruled by a “Peace Council,” and who was behind the attempted overthrow of the government, Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan ( love him or hate him) quickly pulled the carpet from out under their feet, not disappointing his supporters for a second. Having left his vacation on Turkey’s southern coast he appeared on no less that ten television channels live via FaceTime. Back in the coup of 1980, Turkey only had one television station; channels have multiplied since then, including several 24-hour news channels and other that wear their support for Erdogan on their sleeve.
On air, Erdogan confirmed the coup attempt, and reiterated PM Binali Yildirim's words that the coup plotters would pay a heavy price. More importantly, Erdogan called on Turkish citizens to take to the streets, fill the squares, and make their way to the airport, where the army had rolled out its tanks. Within hours Erdogan himself landed there, once the masses had indeed forced the army to pull out: He was back in control. Erdogan supporters also heeded his call to take back the streets and challenged the army’s presence in different parts of the city.
From the moment the unrest started, Erdogan, Yildirim and other government ministers reassured their constituency, and the opposition, that they were in control, providing no room for any discussion of a possibility of a coup. At the same time, the coup plotters seemed unorganized and ill-prepared, unable to sustain control of state television. The coup participants' somewhat embarrassing takeover of the Dogan Media’s building, which brought CNN Turk’s live television broadcast to a halt, led to their arrest shortly after.  
Through the night in Istanbul we heard continuous gunfire mixed together with mosques that blared unscheduled prayers over their loudspeakers, anti-coup demonstrators shouting, and massive sonic booms, which many mistook for explosions.
However, if Istanbul was bad, Ankara was much worse: The live TV streams showed the parliament being bombed by a helicopter and fighter jets. Civilians protesting the army's presence were at times being shot at with live ammunition; in one sequence we could see a helicopter shooting at a crowd from the sky.  
I finally crashed out at 5:30 am, as sonic booms shook the house. I woke up a few hours later to the news that the soldiers controlling the Bosphorus Bridge had surrendered, and only vestigial clashes remained in Ankara.
The coup had failed, and it did so radically. However, it came at a high cost for Turkey. Its citizens have been left in a literal state of shock. Not only were anti-coup protesters protesters (defending the state’s democratically-elected government) shot by some soldiers, but some of the protesters lynched soldiers, leaving dead on both sides. For many Turkish citizens this is what they feared most: Turkish citizens fighting each other on the streets of its cities.  
Only 12 hours after the last coup plotter fired on the building from an F-16, Turkey's Parliament was the scene of a moment of hope. In a rare moment of unity, all the political parties joined together in solidarity against the attempted coup, all calling for democracy. Despite the fact that the general public played a major role in challenging the coup, suggesting the diminishing likelihood of such an upheaval in the future, the polarization in the Turkish state has only grown stronger.
Turkey’s government can certainly claim a major victory. Its supporters own the city squares where there were scenes of intense celebration. However the coup is also an object lesson for how unstable the country has become. Turkey has seen an immense amount of civil strife this year; the hundreds who died in this week’s failed coup attempt will be added to a very long list of people who have died in recent terrorist attack and political violence.
In a country where there is no accountability or transparency, where most of the domestic press is in the hands of the government, while other media outlets are under immense pressures to minimize the extent and critical tone of their reporting, it is highly unlikely that we will ever get the real picture of what happened before, during and after the coup-that-wasn't.
It's great news the coup did not succeed. What's more worrying is that the events, though shocking, fail to engender much surprise: During the last three years the country has been in constant crisis and following the attempted coup, and subsequent purge, it seems ripe for even more internal strife.
*This article appeared in Haaretz on July 17, 2016. Click here for the link

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Turkey must get its priorities straight and focus on ISIS*

Haaretz: The country is in a dire situation, and needs to get its act together and fight the real terrorists while holding talks with Kurds.

Louis Fishman, July 1, 2016

Tuesday night seemed like just another Istanbul summer evening as people hurried home after work to make it to the late evening Ramadan Iftar, leaving the city's famous traffic all but a myth. However, later on in the night people came out to stroll and enjoy the cool air. 
I was on the Asian side of Kadikoy enjoying the atmosphere. It seemed like the old days in Istanbul, as if the country had no problems: Lovers sitting on the shore, families eating ice cream and young people just hanging out.
However, this serene feeling was shattered once the news started to spread about a suicide attack that had just taken place at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport. The trip back home to the European side in the minibus was eerie, with everyone sitting quietly. Finally, one person broke the silence and asked the driver to turn on the radio; silence continued as we listened in shock. 
Tuesday’s is but another in a long list of attacks that have occurred since last June, when an HDP (the mostly Kurdish leftist party) rally was hit by an ISIS sympathizer just days before the election, killing five and injuring hundreds.
In the following months, ISIS set off more blasts targeting both HDP members and other leftist groups: 33 were killed in Suruc last July, and 109 were killed at an Ankara rally in October. 
In the meantime, Ankara also saw two major bombings set off by TAK, an offshoot of the outlawed PKK (the Kurdish Workers’ Party). Since last summer, the Turkish government has once again become entrenched in all-out war with the group in the southeastern regions of the country. The TAK bombings in Ankara in February and March added 66 more civilians and security forces to the list. 
Lastly, ISIS struck in Istanbul, killing 13 German tourists in January and a group of four Israeli tourists in March. In fact, one Turkish online newspaper, Diken, has recorded a total of 15 bombings (including Tuesday’s attack) in the last 12 months, leaving 290 civilians dead and over 1,500 wounded.  
The year of violence has left Turkish citizens on edge. Tuesday’s bombings only reinforced the feeling that attacks can happen at any time and in any place. It also showed that ISIS, which is currently the main suspect, has become much more sophisticated, increasing fears of when and where it will attack next.
The Kurdish TAK, which could also attack at any moment, only adds to the growing atmosphere of terror.    
Further, Tuesday’s attack once again sent out a strong message to tourists to stay away from Turkey, which dampened the glimmer of hope that – following Turkey’s reconciliation with Israel and its apology to Russia for shooting down its military jet last November – quick and much-needed relief could be brought to a sector that is set to lose $15 billion this year alone (fortunately, following Erdogan’s conversation with Putin, the Russian president has lifted sanctions on tourism).
By hitting its airport, ISIS also struck at Turkey’s pride, damaging Istanbul's status as a major international hub due to Turkish Air. In fact, even when tourism dropped in Turkey due to fears of terrorism, many travelers continued to choose Turkish airlines.
However, Turkey’s problems do not start or stop with terror. Once placed within the current political state of instability, a much more volatile picture emerges. In fact, in addition to the 290 civilians killed (including foreigners) in terrorist attacks since June 2015, over 500 members of the security forces have been killed fighting the PKK. And, according to the Turkish government, at least 7,500 PKK insurgents (also Turkish citizens) have been killed as well. The deaths of civilians caught in the crossfire also reaches the hundreds, according to opposition parties.
In other words, Turkey is a state that is being torn apart at the seams and the numbers of dead when considered in total is simply astonishing. 
The Turkish government needs to reassess its domestic policy, like it did with Israel and Russia in terms of its foreign policy, and see where it is possible to create an atmosphere of dialogue in order to take on ISIS and TAK. The more it continues to deem human rights activists dangerous, like Reporters Without Borders, Erol Onderoglu, author Ahmet Nesin, and the Head of the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey, Sebnem Korur Financi, who were arrested earlier this month for spreading “terrorist propaganda,” the more it will continue on a path of instability.
This includes its treatment of opponents as terrorists, such as journalists and academics tried on terror charges, affiliates of the Gulen Movement (now declared a terrorist organization), or the HDP MPs who could face prison terms now that their parliamentary immunity has been lifted.
In fact, it has become clear as day that the United States and Europe are hesitant to move forward building coalitions with Turkey to fight terror as long as there are fears its opponents are being unfairly tried. 
Turkey is in a dire situation. If it doesn't get its act together, set its priorities straight and fight the real terrorists, while reigniting peace talks to reach a just solution to the Kurdish question (or at least work to ease the tension), it seems it will be doomed to continue to see more unrest. Within this greater polarization, the ground could become even more fertile for terrorism to wreak more havoc and chaos among its citizens.
This article appeared in Haaretz on July 1, 2016. Click here for the link

Netanyahu's Turkish coup: How Erdogan realized he really does 'need Israel'*

Haaretz: Rooted in the AKP's staunchly anti-Israel past, often tainted with blatant anti-Semitism, rooted in internal Turkish politics, Erdogan has always treated Turkey's relations with Israel with disdain. What changed?

Louis Fishman, June 27, 2016

The renewal of ties between Turkey and Israel marks a major turning point in this history of their bilateral relations, frozen since the 2010 Gaza flotilla incident, in which nine Turkish citizens died. Since then, Turkey has demanded an official apology from Israel (that came at President Obama’s urging in 2013), and financial compensation to be given to the families of the victims.
However, the major stumbling block was Turkey’s demand that Israel lift the Gaza blockade, something that Israel insisted was unacceptable, as it was an issue directly related to its security. 
For the last six months Turkey and Israel have worked on reaching a compromise concerning Gaza. Turkey has received guarantees that it will be able to supply humanitarian aid to the Palestinians, and in addition it will also be able to build a hospital, supply much needed electricity and clean water to the Strip, in addition to other steps aimed at improving the lives of Palestinians there.
Netanyahu snatches victory from the jaws of crisis 
While Turkey’s achievements are impressive, Turkey’s acceptance of Israeli monitoring of these goods and services is an achievement for Israel, since it essentially is de facto recognition of the Gaza blockade itself, and something Israel has offered in one way or another since the crisis broke out. Israel received assurances that Hamas would not act against Israel from Turkish territory, allowing Turkey to save face as well, by not having to expel them. Importantly, it also received assurances that IDF soldiers who participated in the Flotilla Raid will be free from criminal charges in Turkish courts.  
Putting aside the details of the agreement, the real story however is how Israel was able to transform the international crisis it found itself in following the raid into a diplomatic victory. It’s one that should be fully credited to Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu.
Essentially, this agreement has the potential to create a new regional reality, advancing relations not based on the glory of the once strong Turkish-Israeli military alliance of the 1990s, but a new paradigm in sync with an understanding of Turkey’s current political situation.    
Turkey’s political Islamist: Disdain for Israel – and Jews 
Since the AKP came to power in 2002, its influential leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has always treated his country’s relations with Israel with disdain. This view was tied not only to his party’s staunchly anti-Israel past, often tainted with blatant anti-Semitism,  but was rooted in internal Turkish politics.
During the 1990s, criticism of Turkey’s alliance with Israel was to a great extent taboo. In fact, one of the events that hastened the 1997 military coup, which led to the resignation of Turkey’s Islamist Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan, was when Turkish military tanks rolled into the Ankara neighborhood of Sincan where an Islamist evening of solidarity with Palestine, the al-Quds (Jerusalem) Night, was taking place; the mayor, among others, was arrested.
However, even after the coup, the secular establishment continued to weed out Islamists from the system. In 1999, Erdogan, who was then Istanbul’s influential young mayor and a member of Erbakan’s party, served a four-month prison term for the public reading of a poem deemed anti-government and was suspended from politics.
Few could imagine that the same jailed politician just five years later would lead the country on a new revolution (much to the dismay of his opponents who in the last few years are experiencing increasingly oppressive measures) Since coming to power in 2002, Erdogan succeeded in ending the days of military tutelage and continues to transform the country into what he defines as the “New Turkey.”
During the first years of power, he did give Israel a grace period, visiting Israel in 2005, but Erdogan never paraded his relations with Israel and from 2007 onwards relations quickly deteriorated.   
The Erdogan about-face on Israel 
Today’s agreement is the first time that Israel has reached an agreement with the “New Turkey,” and it is Erdogan who is for the first time treating Israel as an equal partner. So, what has changed?
Why has Erdogan, the man who never missed an opportunity during the last few years to regularly berate and curse Israel at political rallies, and turned to a cheek to the blatant anti-Semitism filling the pages of Turkey’s pro-government press, suddenly changed to a leader that just last January stated, “Israel is in need of a country like Turkey in the region. We have to admit that we also need Israel”
Since the days of the Gaza flotilla, Turkey has found itself more and more isolated in the Middle East. From its failed policy in Egypt, to its miscalculations in Syria, Turkey is desperate not just for friends, but also to regain some of its political clout in the Middle East. Turkey’s potential role in Gaza will bring it a step closer to reaching this goal. More importantly, Turkey’s falling out with Russia only highlighted its deep need to diversify its natural gas resources, and any deal with Israel cannot move forward domestically without dealing once and for all with the flotilla Incident.
The very fact that Erdogan has at last come to the conclusion that Turkey is in dire need with relations with Israel is what makes this agreement even more agreeable to Israel.
During the last six years, Israel waited patiently for Turkey to come around and bowed its head at regular outbursts of Turkish hate (although some Israeli politicians took the chance to reciprocate by slinging mud at their Turkish counterparts .
Public hostility, private understandings 
However, Israel, like Turkey, was well aware that the public image of Turkey defying Israel stood in stark contrasts to the booming trade between the two countries over the last six years.
It continued its diplomatic work in Istanbul and Ankara, and even in the worst of days, during the 2014 Gaza War, it continued to present a public face; its Consul General even appeared on Turkish television to explain the Israeli side of the conflict.
While it is still too early to see if this new phase in relations will usher in a reformatted strategic alliance between the two countries, it is clear that Israel has succeeded in shifting its relations with Turkey’s former military secular elite on to the new political elite, which despite its historical hostility to the Jewish state is now paving the way for stronger mutual ties. 
*This article appeared in Haaretz on June 27, 2016. Click here for the link

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