Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s airport telephone call apologizing to his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdoğan for the death of Turkish citizens during a military operation against the ship Mavi Marmara in 2010 came within a day of the PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan’s, declaration of truce and call for “the guns [to] be silenced and politics dominate.”
As much as these two developments are clearly independent of each other they point to the possibility of a very different Middle East from the prevailing one of violent conflicts that are spreading across the region, from Syria, to Gaza, to Egypt and Iran. One striking common denominator to all these persistent conflicts is the absence of negotiations, let alone negotiated settlements. It is against the background of such a picture that Netanyahu’s apology and Öcalan’s truce acquire significance and may raise the prospects of an alternative Middle East where conflicting parties become capable again of talking to each other to resolve their differences.
Öcalan’s March 21 announcement came after long months of partly secret negotiations. It promises to transform the long standing Kurdish problem in Turkey from a stalemate marked by intermittent bouts of violence to a political negotiation. The violence surrounding the Kurdish question in Turkey has taken more than 40,000 lives since 1984 and has prevented the Kurdish populated parts of Turkey from participating in its decade-long economic growth. The government’s efforts to suppress Kurdish nationalist manifestations by undermining freedom of expression and association have also raised questions about the quality of Turkish democracy. In turn this has tarnished Turkey’s image as a model for the transformation of the post-Spring Arab world. The emergence of an autonomous Kurdish area in the north-eastern corner of Syria dominated by a group with close ties to Öcalan’s PKK has also created an additional security challenge for Turkey, compounded by Turkey’s rivalry with Iran over Syria’s future.
Prison writings: The PKK and the Kurdish Question in the 21st Century
By Abdullah Ocalan, translated and edited by Klaus Heppel; preliminary notes by Cemil Bayik
Transmedia Publishing, London, 2011
This picture of deadlock and stalemate over the Kurdish question in Turkey may dramatically change. The announcement by Öcalan and the support given to this development by the Turkish government amounts to a “paradigm shift,” according to a prominent Turkish columnist and expert on the Kurdish question, Cengiz Çandar. Öcalan — a convicted terrorist — had long been ignored by the Turkish government and society. The reforms introduced in the first half of the 2000s granting cultural rights were primarily adopted to meet the European Union’s conditions for starting accession negotiations and did not actively involve representatives of Kurdish political aspirations let alone Öcalan. The significance of the paradigmatic shift lies in the Turkish government’s clear recognition that Öcalan and the Kurds he represents are legitimate partners in the political process to resolve the Kurdish problem. The fact that the timing of this announcement coincided with Newroz, the celebration of the spring as a symbol for a new beginning, symbolizes its significance for both sides.
Netanyahu’s apology may seem to have come as a surprise but the issue itself had long been on the agenda of Israel, Turkey and the United States in their triangular relationship. The Obama Administration made repeated behind the scenes efforts to reconcile both sides. Those efforts all fell victim to competition between Prime Minister Netanyahu and his hawkish minister of foreign affairs, Avigdor Lieberman, and the harsh anti-Israeli rhetoric of Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan . Most recently, just before the Secretary of state John Kerry’s visit to Turkey, Erdoğan had equated Zionism with racism and called it a crime against humanity provoking rebukes from the U.S. and Israel. However, throughout the three years of tension, both sides managed to leave room for gestures of reconciliation and pragmatism and managed to avoid escalating their differences to the point of breaking relations. In 2010, Erdoğan did not hesitate to dispatch airborne fire fighters to help Israel extinguish a major forest fire on Mount Carmel. Netanyahu reciprocated the gesture in October 2011 when the heavily Kurdish populated city of Van was hit by a destructive earthquake. The pragmatism was reflected in keeping the free trade agreement — in place since 1996 — untouched while many of the military agreements were discontinued. Actually, in spite of the deterioration in diplomatic relations, and a plummeting in Israeli tourism, trade between the two countries continued to grow after the 2010 crisis at a rate higher than for example between Turkey and the EU. The challenge will actually be recreating the positive climate that had existed in Israeli-Turkish relations before the crisis. This climate had enabled Turkey to play a mediation role with concrete results between Israel and Pakistan as well as Afghanistan. Erdoğan had also used his good offices to promote indirect peace negotiations between Israel and Syria, which had come close to being upgraded to direct ones before they collapsed when Erdoğan, provoked by Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, excoriated Israel’s leaders.
The Middle East clearly needs a return to such a climate but whether Israeli-Turkish relations can be revived to the point where Erdoğan would again host an Israeli prime minister for a five hours long dinner at his residence is too early to say. In the words of a Turkish diplomat the apology will at least scatter away the dark clouds over Israeli-Turkish relations, opening the way for a further growth of economic relations between Israel and Turkey. Businessmen in Turkey had long been discreetly grumbling about the political climate that was preventing economic relations from reaching their full potential. Cooperation at the political level may come more slowly if not much progress is achieved on the Israeli-Palestinian front. Nevertheless, the avenues that might open up with this apology may have positive implications, especially for the transformation process in Egypt by strengthening the hand of pragmatists among the ranks of the Muslim Brotherhood. Much more importantly, the apology will surely open the way to closer cooperation between the U.S. and Turkey that may significantly change the equation on the ground in Syria but also with respect to challenges beyond Syria.
A word of caution is also needed, however. As much as both Netanyahu’s apology and Öcalan’s declaration can be welcomed as potential game changers, all three leaders will face tough challenges within their constituencies. Erdoğan’s supporters will be sensitive towards what happens to the Palestinians. If settlement activity in the West Bank continues and rocket-firing from Gaza provokes an Israeli response, will Erdoğan be able to refrain from using flamboyant rhetoric against Israel again? Will Öcalan be able to control the PKK and especially radical groups within the PKK and will Erdoğan and the Turkish political system be able to sustain a political process that would have to reconsider the core values of the Turkish republic and of Turkish national identity? These are tough questions that demand a strong dose of realism. Nevertheless, in the midst of the violence, instability and conflicts that have engulfed the Middle East, Israelis, Kurds and Turks have found a way to negotiate and give politics a chance over violence. As Winston Churchill famously noted, “It’s better to jaw-jaw than war-war.”