Sunday, May 27, 2018

Occupier! Murderer! The Hypocritical War of Words on Gaza Between Israel and Turkey*

Haaretz: "The verbal volume of Erdogan’s attacks on Israel reflects genuine Turkish popular support for the Palestinians. But in a perilous election season it’s also cover for Turkey to maintain essential economic ties with Israel"

In what has become an almost scripted scene since the days of the 2010 Gaza Flotilla incident, Turkey recalled its ambassador from Tel Aviv in a response to the Israeli army’s killing of almost 60 Palestinians protesting at the Gaza border. 

Within 24 hours, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan also told the Israeli ambassador in Ankara and its consul general in Istanbul to leave, with Israel responding by expelling Turkey’s envoy at its Jerusalem consulate.

With the diplomatic relations between the two countries in free fall, PM Netanyahu took to Twitter to lash out at Erdogan, accusing him of supporting Hamas, and declaring that "he well understands terrorism and slaughter..." and that "he not preach morality." 

Erdogan struck the ball hard back into Netanyahu’s court, tweetingthat Israel is an apartheid state and that Netanyahu “has the blood of Palestinians on his hands,” suggesting that he take a lesson in humanity by reading the Ten Commandments. 

Later, in another tweet he defended Hamas, defining it as a resistance movement that "defends the Palestinian homeland against an occupying power."

Netanyahu answered back in Hebrew that Israel won’t be lectured to by the leader of a country that occupies Northern Cyprus, invades Syria and has the blood of “countless Kurds” on his hands.

The mud-slinging by Netanyahu and Erdogan is both aggressive and defensive, because both countries have a long list of human rights violations, and in this sense, Israel and Turkey are like two peas in a pod.

Perhaps the main difference is that when Israel commits crimes they are often caught on camera. With the dismal state of journalism and freedoms in Turkey, victims of Turkish state violence, often Kurdish civilians, do not make the headlines, with their stories buried within human rights organization reports. 

Both states are guilty of applying extreme violence, in the past and present, and in that sense are quite similar, even if the conflicts they are dealing with are very different in nature. However, it’s necessary to point out is that the two countries’ relations have never been based on each other’s upholding of civil and human rights. 

Israel calling out Turkey on Kurdish rights and for being an occupying power essentially confirms its own state crimes. And, while it would preposterous to claim Turkey does not care for Palestinian rights, under Erdogan’s leadership, Turkey has shown time and again that for relations to continue with Israel, it has to avoid violent outbursts, keeping it to a minimum. Turkey has never made ending the (violent) occupation as a condition for Turkish-Israeli relations.   

With elections coming up in just over a month, there are accusations that Erdogan is exploiting Palestinian suffering to bolster his unsteady campaign. But as Palestine is regarded by a not insubstantial proportion of Turks as practically a domestic issue, and a cause of genuine concern and solidarity, Erdogan’s retaliatory actions won’t go unnoticed, or unappreciated, by his constituency. 

However, the idea his determined stance on Palestine will win him the election ignores the fact that Erdogan is, out of wider geopolitical considerations, not able, even if he wished, to engage in a full-throated campaign against Israel. That leads him open to charges of mere lip-service to the Palestinian cause; his performatively noisy actions this week on the diplomatic front are a form of damage control.

Erdogan not only faces strong objections within his own camp to Turkey’s significant economic ties with Israel, but also has to weather calls by opposition forces who accuse him at every given moment of hypocrisy: he curses Israel, removes ambassadors, but never cuts economic ties. Indeed, Tuesday, Erdogan's AKP party struck down a call in parliament by the mostly Kurdish HDP to cancel all economic, military, and political agreements with Israel.

This need to actively demonstrate his identification with Palestinians while keeping ties with Israel viable is what motivates Erdogan to concrete steps in the public sphere, such as his announcement of a mass demonstration this Friday after prayers, and to declare days of national mourning, as he has also done in the past. 

Such actions allow Erdogan and his party to assert a tight grip, at least rhetorically, over the issue of Palestine. In a country where sympathy with the Palestinians is decades old and is strong enough to facilitate odd partnerships, such as between secular leftists and Islamists, Erdogan needs to keep a monopoly over the issue of Palestine. That allows him to maintain his balancing act between ongoing economic relations with Israel, and his status as being the sole leader in the Middle East (and arguably almost in the world) defending Palestinian rights.

This reality is exhibited by the fact that unlike Arab states who are still in a formal state of war with Israel, and those present Arab states cozying up to Israel, such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey does not boycott Israel.

Rather it has done the exact opposite, such as entrenching its national airlines, Turkish Airlines, into Israeli tourism, last year breaking a record of carrying over a million passengers to and from Ben-Gurion airport.

It is on these airlines that not only Turkish Jews come back and forth, but also Turkish secular Muslims looking to party in Tel Aviv; they sit together with American Jewish tourists, mixing also with Turkish pro-Palestinian activists who do not buy into the BDS campaign, but rather fly into Tel Aviv in order to take up Erdogan’s own advice to visit the Holy City of Al-Quds.    

In fact, it would seems safe to say that Turkey found, following the previous suspension of relations with Israel that being cut off from Palestinians came with a cost; true, rhetoric is nice, but they only can extend their soft power within the Palestinian camp, and the Middle East, by retaining (good) relations with Israel. 

Despite the absence of a reliable crystal ball, it seems certain that the strong economic ties between Israel and Turkey will be able to weather this storm. However, on the political front, the tit-for-tat rhetoric shot back and forth from Ankara and Jerusalem could, if they are not careful, break the scripted model of downgrading diplomatic relations and removing ambassadors, retaining ties, and then working to overcome the differences. 

Both Netanyahu and Erdogan have reason to feel empowered.

The Israeli economy is continuing to see stability and growth, its alliance with Saudi Arabia and Gulf States against Iran, gives it a new sense of strength, making Turkey relatively less important. Further, Netanyahu seems to have understood already during the 2016 reconciliation between the two countries, that Turkey now needs Israel; and not vice-versa.

As for Erdogan, even if he is clearly not interested in hurting mutual economic ties, he will have been fortified by his pride at the special place as loud advocate he holds among many Palestinians. World outrage at the Gaza death toll, that he is not alone in his quest against Israel, gives him a tailwind and may lead him to push too hard. And confronting a surprisingly perilous position in the upcoming Turkish polls, there is always the chance that Erdogan will choose escalation as a sure source of political capital.

*This article appeared in Haaretz on May, 16 2018. Click here for the link.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

After 15 Years, Is Turkey Saying 'Enough' to Erdogan?*

Haaretz: "If one day our nation says 'enough,' then we will step aside.' Erdogan's gaffe opened the gates of Turkish social media derision and gifted a slogan to a re-invigorated political opposition. But he won't give way without a fight."

"If one day our nation says 'enough,' then we will step aside," Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Tuesday in a speech in parliament, and opened the gates of Turkish social media derision and activism.

#Tamam ("Enough") took off like wildfire and became a trending Twitter topic worldwide, with over two million tweets telling Erdogan that, indeed, they have had enough of him. As journalist Rusen Cakir noted, the increasingly autocratic Erdogan had, strangely, just "offered the opposition a slogan to unite behind."

And they did, with the major political opposition heads tweeting the hashtag and declaring that the time had come.

That rare gaffe by Erdogan may be a sign of an unfamiliar stress the Turkish leader, and that he is, for now, facing the greatest challenge to his political survival since coming to power: Elections, with a newly revitalized opposition, are a month away.

It's almost three weeks since Erdogan declared snap presidential and parliamentary elections for June 24, more than a year earlier than scheduled.

That ended several months of speculation that signs of a major economic crisis in Turkey might trigger early elections. Some predict Erdogan and his party will benefit from the wave of Turkish nationalism that surged in the wake of a general consensus in Turkey that the military campaign against Kurdish forces in Afrin, northern Syria, succeeded in its objectives.

Early elections also will allow the ruling AKP party to pre-empt, if not arrest, the growing momentum of the new opposition party, "Iyi" (Good), led by Meral Aksener.

This party offers a new home to those nationalists who are abandoning the MHP in the wake of its leader’s 180 degree u-turn from opposing Erdogan to becoming his staunch ally. Despite Erdogan’s denials, many believe the speed with which the snap elections were called was an attempt by the AKP to sideline the Iyi party. That went hand-in-hand with speculation that the timing provided convenient grounds to disqualify the Aksener's party from running, because it had been registered less than the mandatory six-month period prior to elections.

Amidst fears the Iyi party might be disqualified, the main CHP opposition party stepped up to ensure Iyi’s participation. The CHP transferred 15 of its own parliamentarians to the Iyi party’s bloc of five (defectors from the MHP) entitling it to run in the election, regardless of its registration date.

Had the AKP been outsmarted? It certainly seems so, but the real importance of the move was that it exemplified a rare moment where the Turkish opposition at long last set the agenda.

The CHP’s move naturally opened the door for an alliance with the Iyi Party, and was followed by them joining forces with two smaller parties, the Muslim conservative party Saadet (the political home from which Erdogan himself emerged before launching the AKP in the early 2000s),  and another smaller faction, the Demokrat Party. Importantly, the alliance will let those two smaller Saadet and Demokrat parties to jump over the decades-old high ten-percent threshold.

The elephant in the room of course is the fact that the HDP, the mostly Kurdish party, was left out of the opposition alliance.

When the HDP crossed the vote threshold in the June 2015 elections, it pushed Erdogan's AKP into a corner for the first time since coming to power in 2002.

Erdogan faced a choice: to agree to be partner to a coalition government or call snap elections. It did the latter, and in the November 2015 elections the AKP swept enough votes to once again rule alone. With renewed fighting between Turkey and the PKK, the outlawed Kurdish separatist party, the HDP has been under attackand all but delegitimized by the state; its candidate for president and former co-chair of the party, Selahattin Demirtas, along with eight of its MPs are all behind bars.        
Bringing the Kurdish-majority party into the alliance may never have been on the bloc’s agenda. But their exclusion was a deliberate ploy by the mainstream opposition parties not to risk losing the nationalist vote, the Iyi party’s main constituency.

If the opposition alliance plays its cards right, a majority vote - or at least a vote that greatly closes the large gap between the AKP and the opposition - could be in reach for the first time in a decade and a half. If the HDP gets makes it, that will cut into the AKP’s piece of the pie in the upcoming parliament, something the opposition alliance itself recognizes.

As much as this election is about each party galvanizing its own constituency, the overriding need to strategize and build informal coalitions is just as important.

That strategic horse-trading is a crucial window into what kind of coalition might be formed after the elections. However, it’s complicated by the fact that there are two election campaigns in train simultaneously, for the president and for the legislature.

The presidential election is even more crucial than usual because the executive presidential laws, legitimated by last year’s referendum come into effect after the elections. That means the president will appoint all government ministers in the next parliament, and that cabinet will no longer be answerable to parliament, which will continue to be the legislative authority despite the limiting of its powers.

Although it seems a long shot in a political and media context that systematically privileges Erdogan, the opposition is also gearing up cleverly for the presidential elections.

First, they rightly refrained from choosing a joint candidate. One of the names floated for this was Abdullah Gul, a founder of the AKP and a former president; however, it was far from clear that this soft-spoken politician, who has opted for a passive resistance to Erdogan, could ever get to the necessary 50% in the first round.

Instead, all the opposition parties will run their own candidates; each camp can rile up their own base without compromising their messages. The thinking is they will then stand a better chance of pushing Erdogan into a second round vote.  

The stand-out presidential opposition candidate for now is the CHP’s Muharrem Ince. He is a fighter with a sharp tongue who can stand up to the charismatic Erdogan. Close behind is the Iyi party’s Meral Aksener, who would also be sure to keep the government on its toes, and some predict could even lead in the votes. In the 2014 presidential elections the HDP’s Selahattin Demirtas received almost 10% of the vote and it seems that his chances to reach the same number this time, is certainly in range – even though he is submitting his candidature from jail

A second-round of voting for the president is thus likely, as long as the parties succeed in energizing each of their bases and the vote is further split with small percentages for the Saadet Party and other minor candidates will attract. That vote would take place two weeks later, on July 8.

And Ince knows that if this happens, his best chance to challenge Erdogan in a run off is to reach out to the Kurdish vote. Since the start of his campaign, Ince has sent strong signals to the HDP; he has publicly demanded Demirtas’ release, and this week held a meeting with him in prison.

While the new opposition stirrings will be brushed off by some as a return to the 1990s politics of endless coalition-building, this old-new dynamic has one cause above all: Erdogan’s usurping of more and more power  to the dismay of many Turkish citizens. Despite Erdogan’s popularity in certain sections of the population, the AKP is very publicly failing to deal with an ever-weaker economy.

That means its veneer of untouchability is tarnishing; and that it is beginning to resemble the very parties it threw out in 2002, who were deeply resented due to their bad economic policies and incompetence at connecting to the electorate.

There are other signs that the AKP’s momentum is stalling. Apart from Erdogan, the main faces of the AKP today are far from being charismatic campaigners or crowd-pleasers, but rather robotic mouthpieces for their boss. That same uninspiring cadre led the AKP to lose the vote in every major city, including Istanbul, in the referendum.  

There is a sense in Turkey that the political winds might be starting to turn against the AKP, and that Erdogan, the leader that has ruled for 16 years, miscalculated the political map when calling early elections.

True, the opposition does not have a magic wand to remove the many obstacles it faces, not least lifting the draconian State of Emergency, effecting the release of the HDP’s presidential candidate Demirtas, or claiming their legitimate right for equal mainstream media time. It also cannot influence the election board’s strangely lenient policy toward counting questionable ballots, as we saw in the last referendum.

However, despite the obstacles, and for the first time in years, the opposition is certainly giving the AKP a run for its money; as the millions who viewed, shared and participated in the #Tamam campaign shows, their grassroots support is substantial and their opposition to the president emphatic.    

But Erdogan hasn’t survived this long and centralized power so determinedly to let that opposition narrative play out. The more he feels the heat, the more efforts will made to delegitimize the opposition and to place new obstacles in their way

*This article appeared in Haaretz on May, 10 2018. Click here for the link

Sunday, February 18, 2018

On Ahed Tamimi: Once, Israeli Pop Culture Icons Publicly Criticized the Occupation. What Silenced Them?*

Haaretz: "One iconic but solitary Israeli poet celebrated Ahed Tamimi’s heroism: The backlash he endured means there'll be even less mainstream dissent in the future."

A rare voice of opposition rose up recently in Israel against the wave of justifications for the arrest of the young 17-year-old Palestinian girl, Ahed Tamimi, who slapped an Israeli soldier in her West Bank home town of Nabeh Saleh, and is being held without bail until her trial in a military court.

The iconic Israeli poet Jonathan Geffen posted this short poem on his Instagram feed, portraying the teenager as a victim of the occupation:

A young beautiful 17-year-old girl has done something terrible

And when a proud Israeli officer raided her home

She dished him out a slapping

She was born into this, and in that slap

There were 50 years of occupation and shame

And, on the day the story of the struggle will be told

Oh, Ahed Tamimi

The redhead

Like David slapped Goliath

You will be immortalized along with

Joan of Arc, Hannah Senesh and Anne Frank

The poem outraged many in Israel. How dare Geffen compare a "Palestinian criminal" with Anne Frank? Was Geffen comparing Jews to Nazis? Clearly, Geffen’s intention was to highlight Tamimi’s heroism, and to note it will become one day be part of the Palestinian national narrative.

However, few in Israel had patience to hear him out. While he was portrayed as traitor among many in Israel’s political right, others, even from the liberal camp, quickly passed it off as a crazed moment of a great poet.    

As the story about the poem went viral, Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman demanded Israel’s popular Army Radio ban Geffen’s work, despite his canonical status in Israel akin to, or even exceeding, Bob Dylan. And, while Israel does not have a royal family, the Geffens belong to the legendary families of Moshav Nahalal, home also to his famous uncle, wartime hero and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan.

Lieberman slammed Geffen, suggesting his work was more suitable for the Hezbollah television network. He said: "The State of Israel will not provide a platform for a drunkard who compares a girl who perished in the Holocaust and a hero who combated the Nazi regime with Ahed Tamimi, a brat who attacked a soldier. Geffen's headline chasing is sickening and outrageous."

Joining Lieberman, Israel’s culture minister, Miri Regev blasted Geffen, calling Tamimi a "terror-supporting criminal," and commenting that "the ghastly comparison between the heroes of our people's Holocaust and terrorist Tamimi, on the same week the world marks International Holocaust Remembrance Day, is crossing a red line by someone seeking to rewrite history." 

Well, while calls to boycott Geffen grew on the right, Army Radio didn’t heed the call to boycott or censor, and its popular morning radio host, Razi Barkai, even opened his show with one of Geffen’s most famous songs, the 1970’s "Prettiest Girl in Kindergarten." Undermining Lieberman, the head of Army Radio rejected Lieberman’s demand, just as Israel’s Attorney General, who also clarified that the Defense Minister had no legal standing to order the boycott. 

Then, in a surprise move, Geffen himself issued an apology at an evening performance. In a question-answer session during his show, he clarified that he had no wish to harm the memory of the Holocaust and that it was a mistake to have brought Hannah Senesh and Anne Frank into the story and that, "Today, on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, I can tell you that it was a mistake, and I apologize for it, especially to those who were personally hurt."

He also seized the moment to reiterate his staunch opposition to the occupation, while stressing that he was an Israeli patriot, as if his lifelong contribution to Israeli culture was not enough to confirm this. 

Shortly thereafter, Lieberman accepted his apology via Twitter, stating the Biblical phrase, "He who confesses and recants shall find mercy." Geffen may have apologized, but he didn’t delete the poem from his Instagram account.

But rather than anger, Israel’s right-wing should have felt satisfaction from the whole affair. After all, Geffen was the only public figure they had to try and censor. Geffen’s was a lone voice highlighting Tamimi’s plight. And a lone, 71-year-old artist, who belongs to the old elite of Israel, is no challenge to 50 years of occupation and colonization. Let’s face it, most of Israel’s youth could care less what’s written on his Instagram account.

Geffen is a relic of Israel’s past where major cultural figures raising their voice in resistance to Israel’s policies regarding the Palestinians was actually a mainstream phenomenon.

That was a generation of singers such as Nurit Galron and Chava Alberstein, or the younger Si Hayman, who, during the First Intifada in the late 1980s, were banned from Army Radio, and shunned generally by public radio, for songs protesting the occupation.

Galron’s "Après nous, le déluge" (Ahkrenu HaMabul) in fact could be about Tamimi herself: "Don't tell me about the 12-year old girl" who lost her eye, her home, her childhood; "It just makes me feel terrible....We have a state of stones and Molotov cocktails, while in Tel Aviv we have parties, live our lives,  we eat and drink."

And, while Tamimi did not lose her eye, the same day she slapped a soldier, her 15-year-old young cousin, Muhammad, was shot in the head at close range, acquiring severe injuries and a recovery that will take years, if not a lifetime. 

Then, in the late 1980s, these singers were a threat to the establishment: they had large popular followings, hits in the charts. There was a need to censor Si Hayman, who in "Shooting and Crying," asked, "When did we learn to bury people alive? When did we forget that our own children were once killed?" as she learns from a Palestinian street cleaner that his life in the territories has been turned upside down by the Intifada.

Then, there was Chava Alberstein, who did a rendition of the traditional Passover Had Gadya song. In her version, she added one more question to the festive four questions of the Haggadah: "How much longer will this circle of violence continue?" adding that she no longer knows who she is: "Once a lamb and now a savage wolf."

It would be foolish to claim that these songs led to the rise of Rabin in 1992, and the subsequent peace process that led to the Oslo Accords, but the banned songs of 1988 were part of cumulative effect of protest parallel to the growing voice of the Peace Now movement and the Israeli disillusionment with the 1982 Lebanon War.

During this time, voices like peace firebrand Shulamit Aloni’s rang out daily in the Knesset, reminding us that we were no longer the oppressed, but now the oppressor. This came in tandem with nightly political shows discussing Benny Morris’ groundbreaking work, "The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem," exposing Israelis to the mass expulsion of Palestinians in 1948. It was in these years they started to hear for the first time the word "Nakba" as well.

Back then Israel only had one television channel, and the whole country tuned into the nightly news at the same time. I will never forget walking in the summertime in Tel Aviv’s streets, hearing an entire unbroken news broadcast, newscaster Haim Yavin’s voice perfectly audible as it was relayed through successive open balconies.

During the First Intifada, a whole nation watched as their boys as soldiers beat Palestinians, and Palestinian women, very much like Ahed, were crying and slapping the soldiers as their young boys were dragged away to detention. It was during these years that many Israelis came to terms with the fact that this reality could not continue.

Well, Rabin was assassinated, the Oslo Accords failed, the Second Intifada came and went, and Alberstein’s "vicious circle" only became more entrenched in blood. Walls were built and a new generation was born in Israel.

For those coming of age in Israel today, the conflict is a well-maintained one (all the while for Palestinians it remains a daily struggle), and Israel today is the safest it has been in decades. For most young people today, there is no Green Line, rather there is a wall that most will never cross, and there is even an university in Ariel built on occupied land, while one can reach the Holy City of Hebron today without almost not seeing any Palestinians. Politically speaking, what was once right wing is, today, mainstream.

                                         (See Haaretz clip on Tamimi arrest).

Ahed Tamimi was only arrested after the video of her went viral in the Israeli media, meaning the soldiers who she slapped did not see fit to arrest her, rather she was arrested only after the media held a campaign against that "blonde" Palestinian girl. It was the media that put her on trial, and it was the Israeli public that found her guilty.

Nowadays most of the Israeli public isn’t watching critical news programs. As TV channels opened up to private competition, they focused on completely depoliticized pop culture figures, who appear on endless reality shows. And, if by chance Arabs are participants on these shows, they are handpicked and sanitized for the Jewish majority. There’s no "conflict" on primetime.

It is in this atmosphere that Israel’s right wing, together with the media, has  enough political and cultural power to sell Ahed Tamimi to the Israeli public as an almost existential nightmare for the nation.

Even they, however, won’t be able to erase the iconic status she’s achieved: Her slap gave a human face to the Palestinians that the world sees, but most Israelis are blind to. Sad, but true, if she’d had a knife in her hand, she’d most likely had been shot dead, and would barely have made the nightly news, remaining the invisible enemy the Palestinians have become.

However, Ahed Tamimi is very much alive, and she is not going anywhere. She is here to stay, and will be with us long after the debate over Geffen’s poem dies out. As for Israel’s  current culture heroes, it’s likely Geffen’s case will act as as a lesson, or a warning. If they do speak out that they will be tried in the public square, and say goodbye to their careers. That’s the power of self-censorship.

In any case, that silence, or deliberate ‘forgetting’, of the injustices Israel is committing against the Palestinians puts them in good company: most of Israel’s center-left, whether Labor or Meretz, have also adopted the same operative strategy.

*This article appeared in Haaretz on February 7, 2018. Click here for the Link: