Netanyahu mends fences, but not where it counts

Against the backdrop of successive wars between Israel and Gaza, a storm is raging around the recent reconciliation agreement between Israel and Turkey. Two Israeli families whose dead sons are in the hands of Hamas accuse Netanyahu of abandoning them because he did not condition the reconciliation on Hamas’ return of the bodies (the assumption being that Turkey could pressure Hamas). In another development, referring to Israel’s raid in 2010 on a Gaza-bound flotilla from Turkey that was meant to break the blockade of Gaza, Hanin Zoabi (Joint List) caused uproar in the Knesset when she referred to the soldiers who killed nine flotilla members as “murderers.” An interesting question is this: what led Netanyahu and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, two leaders whose worldviews are light years apart, to reach an agreement that once seemed unattainable?

In the reconciliation, both sides have acknowledged errors. Israel has agreed to pay compensation to Turkey, a move that constitutes recognition of a “mistake.” Housing Minister Yoav Galant, who served on the IDF General Staff at the time of the flotilla, claimed in the security cabinet that the plan to occupy the ship Mavi Marmara was flawed, and that the killing of the nine was avoidable. He had presented an alternative plan, he said, which was rejected by then Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi.

Erdogan too acknowledged a “mistake.” The Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH), which owned and operated the three flotilla ships, criticized the agreement because it left Israel’s siege on Gaza intact. In response, Erdogan inveighed against IHH for not asking his permission to sail in 2010.

Netanyahu will pay Erdogan, who, in turn, will compensate Russia for the Turkish downing of a Russian plane above Syria. Netanyahu issued a kind of apology to Erdogan, who, for his part, gave Netanyahu a kind of apology, while, almost in the same breath, he apologized to Putin in hope of restoring Turkish-Russian relations. The three-sided reconciliation serves all parties, each having strategic interests in Syria: Russia wants to maintain a massive military presence there and play a role in any future agreement; Israel wants to prevent the deployment of Hezbollah and Iran in the Golan Heights; Erdogan wants to thwart the establishment of a Kurdish entity in northern Syria along his border. Just as the Kurdish problem touches Turkey’s raw nerve, Gaza touches Israel’s. Therefore Netanyahu and Erdogan, despite the bad blood between them, agreed to turn over a new leaf.

Moreover, both sides have deep concerns over Obama’s Middle East policies. The Kurds have become America’s main partner in its fight against the Islamic State in Syria. This forces Erdogan to seek new allies. Netanyahu also has bitter disagreements with Obama, and he must solve the problem of Gaza before it bursts in his face. In the thick of Operation Protective Edge (2014), the Turks and Qataris gave him an option for ending the blockade and building a seaport in Gaza. Hamas favored the idea, and it received American support as well, but Netanyahu rejected it and chose an Egyptian option: a mutual cease-fire but no end to the blockade. The result was just more fighting. The war continued an additional six weeks until Hamas surrendered.

The current Egyptian policy toward Gaza is to topple the Hamas regime and restore the Palestinian Authority under Mahmoud Abbas. Egypt’s President el-Sisi has closed his border with Gaza and destroyed the tunnels leading into Gaza from Sinai, thus exacerbating the humanitarian crisis. From Israel’s viewpoint, however, the last thing it wants is a humanitarian crisis in Gaza, for this will be seen as a result of its siege. Furthermore, Israel does not believe that Abbas can regain power there, nor does it want him to. The separation of Gaza from the West Bank plays into the hands of Israel’s right-wing government, which wants to perpetuate the occupation of the West Bank and keep Gaza apart. The split between Hamas and Fatah strengthens the argument that there is no partner for peace. As long as the West Bank and Gaza are ruled by different Palestinian groups, Israel can claim that Abbas does not speak for all.

In the new reconciliation agreement with Erdogan, Turkey has given up its demand to lift the blockade on Gaza and build a seaport. Instead it has agreed instead to transfer goods and aid through the Israeli port of Ashdod. No wonder Gaza responded with deep dismay. Hamas tried to explain the Turkish surrender by saying that the Israeli position is supported by the Palestinian Authority, Jordan and Egypt, so Erdogan cannot be expected to be more Arab than the Arabs. In any case, Hamas understands that Erdogan must look out for Turkey’s interests first. Nonetheless, the reconciliation still prevents Gazans from escaping the siege.

Israel’s concession, allowing the Turks to bring goods through Ashdod into Gaza, does not reduce the blockade. It gives it legitimacy and leaves Gaza dependent on Israel’s whims. The agreement does not provide a solution to Gaza’s poverty and unemployment, does not alleviate the restrictions on movement, and does not repair the destruction left by Operation Cast Lead. In fact, the agreement reveals the absurdity of a war that sowed so much death and destruction while leaving Hamas intact as ruler of Gaza.

You could say that the agreement is good for Erdogan, benefits Netanyahu, and, in its Russian extension, grants Putin the recognition of Russian might that he so wants. The problem is that this tactical victory, while resolving the Israel-Turkey crisis, does nothing toward resolving the conflict with the Palestinians. Netanyahu rushes forward, tightens relations with the Kremlin, repairs relations with Turkey and Africa, but does not deal with his own backyard, and this is where the ground is burning. Palestinian youths come out with knives and stab civilians, soldiers and settlers; the army demolishes houses, encircles villages and revokes work permits. The cycle of bloodshed widens.

Hamas has already surrendered, Turkey has relinquished its dignity, Abbas continues the “sacred” security coordination with Israel, and the leaders of Jordan, Egypt and the Gulf states strengthen Netanyahu’s hand. Yet despite all this, the situation continues to deteriorate. Netanyahu’s peace with Arab rulers does not translate into peace with ordinary Palestinians. Israel’s strategic situation is strong, and the reconciliation with Turkey certainly improves its position. There is no external threat to Israel’s existence, and there is no army in the region that is a match for Israel’s military power. However, Israel’s problem is not external, but internal, and for this Netanyahu has no remedy. He can negotiate with the Turks, but when it comes to the Palestinians, he has no maneuverability. He has nothing to give, and he doesn’t know what to demand.

The fate of the Occupied Territories has been hanging by a thread for 50 years. Israeli governments, left and right, have been unable to come up with a political plan that addresses the roots of the conflict. Rabin signed the Oslo Accords without tackling the core issues, thus creating political chaos that benefits the extreme Right. The time for decision is approaching. The stabbing intifada and the right-wing’s inability to deal with it intensify the need for a courageous alternative. Given the present political climate, however, it is doubtful that anyone will offer one. This much is certain: the resolution of the conflict with the Palestinians resides not in Istanbul, Moscow, Nairobi, or Cairo, but in Ramallah and Gaza. Netanyahu adamantly refuses to seek it there.

Translated from the Hebrew by Robert Goldman

About Yacov Ben Efrat