Commentary

Israeli-Turkish Relations and a New Government in Lebanon

Middle East In Focus

Middle East In Focus

Two developments in particular have drawn the attention of the public and observers in the Middle East: the visit of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to Turkey and the appointment of a pro-Western politician as the new prime minister of Lebanon.  Mr. Kerry’s visit to Turkey, his second in the space of two months, takes place immediately after Israel offered its apology to Ankara for the deaths of several Turkish citizens aboard a ship headed for Gaza. The visit was aimed at shoring up the relationship between the two erstwhile allies: Turkey and Israel. Tammam Salam’s appointment as Lebanon’s next prime minister, on the other hand, has raised questions about his ability to wrangle Hezbollah into giving up its parallel army as well as his ability to minimize the spill-over of the Syrian conflict into Lebanon.

As far as the Khaleej Times editorial staff is concerned, Secretary Kerry was right to focus his attention on Israeli-Turkish détente: “His 10-day sojourn to capitals in Europe and Asia is an endeavour to sell America’s soft power, and the U.S. secretary of state has rightfully put Turkey and Israel in focus. A fortnight after clinching a deal in the form of reconciliation between Ankara and Tel Aviv, Washington is now eager to cement their relationship, and ensure that in an era of upheavals these two strategically important states do not fall out in bad blood.”

The visit comes after Turkish observers themselves admitted that U.S. mediation was much needed to catalyze the improvement of relations between the two countries. For example, in an interview with Hurriyet Daily News’ Barçin Yinanç, Professor Ilter Turan from Istanbul’s Bilgi University noted: “’The U.S. still has a role to play in facilitating Turkish-Israeli relations,’ Turan said....The apology opened the way for the restoring of relations, but there is still some distance to be covered and efforts must be made to make sure there is no relapse. The U.S. has played an important role in facilitating Turkish-Israeli relations, but the question of compensation is going to come up and one has to make sure that this does not evolve into protracted, highly publicized negotiations. Additional talks may also be useful in clarifying what the loosening of the embargo on Gaza will mean.”

That the relationship between the two countries is important is demonstrated by a recent article in the Jerusalem Post by Abraham Rabinovich, which discusses the impact of the ongoing conflict in Syria and the importance of alternative trade routes for Turkish truckers, who, “cut off from Persian Gulf destinations by the civil war in Syria, have begun crossing by ferry to Haifa and continuing on to their destinations via Israel and Jordan....Although diplomatic relations between Israel and Turkey were virtually frozen following the maritime clash three years ago — and the flood of Israeli tourists to Turkey dwindled to a trickle — commercial relations have thrived during this period. Turkey’s imports from Israel increased from $1.3 billion in 2010 to $1.85 billion in the past year.”

That is not to say that Mr. Kerry’s trip to Turkey has gone smoothly. Many in Israel are still unhappy about having been forced to apologize to Turkey, with many convinced that the Americans sided with the Turkish government throughout the ordeal. It is not surprising then that, as Herb Keinon reports for the Jerusalem Post, “ Israeli officials expressed astonishment on Sunday that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry praised Turkey for responding ‘sensitively’ and without triumphalism to Israel’s apology for the Mavi Marmara incident....’What country is he talking about?’ one Israeli official responded…. The official said those reports were full of interviews and statements by both Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Davutoglu and other government ministers gloating over the apology.”

According to the Turkish daily Today’s Zaman, Israeli government officials have also pushed back against any suggestion that Turkey might have a role to play in the peace talks between Israel and Palestine: “Israel has rejected Turkey’s possible mediation between Israel and Palestinians if the peace process aimed at achieving a two-state solution is successfully revived. Israeli Minister for International Affairs Yuval Steinitz told IDF Radio on Sunday that the process did not require any additional mediation to that already provided by the International Quartet — Russia, UN, U.S. and the European Union. The report said diplomatic sources told Yedioth Ahronoth that ‘While Erdogan can definitely assist by putting pressure on Hamas to accept the Quartet’s conditions; with all due respect, we have had bitter experience with him in the Syrian context. Erdogan is not a neutral mediator.’”

Meanwhile, next door to Israel, Lebanon’s newly appointed Prime Minister Tammam Salam is wrestling with the nearly impossible task of forming a new government after outgoing Prime Minister Mikati tendered his resignation. Even though the pro-Western Salam received tacit support from Hezbollah, there is little doubt his is a difficult assignment: “Although Salam has personally won endorsements from across the Lebanese political spectrum, it is not certain whether his own March 14 Alliance and Hezbollah will be able to reach an agreement on the form of a proposed government. Leading figures within the March 14 Alliance, speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat on the condition of anonymity, stressed that the talk about the composition of the next government is premature. However, the source emphasized that Hezbollah’s commitment to its ‘people, army and resistance’ formula is doomed to failure. The source said that the ball is now in Hezbollah’s court, adding that the Shiite militia was responsible for the failure of Mikati’s government, through which it was controlling Lebanon’s executive authority.”

Two main concerns seem to be at the top of the list for many in the country as well as regional observers: providing domestic political stability and preventing a potential spill-over of the Syrian conflict. The Daily Star’s editorial is especially concerned about the former, asserting that “In his efforts to form a government, it will be important for Salam to be guided by the principal objectives of the body. Only then can the best government be formed, comprised of reasoned and experienced personalities, who are ideally suited for the tasks at hand....Having given him their confidence as a leader the parties must now give Salam the confidence to do his job as an independent leader, isolated from their self-motivated wishes....The Lebanese people need guarantees of security and stability now more than ever, and in order to achieve this, the new government must address the burning issues at hand, not pander to age-old political party motivations and grievances.”

For the Peninsula editorial staff, on the other hand, “The toughest challenge of new Lebanese Prime Minister Tammam Salam will be to shield his fragile nation from the disastrous fallout of the Syrian conflict and bridge divisions between the country’s Sunni, Shia and Christian communities. The conflict in Syria between mainly Sunni rebels and Alawite President Bashar Al Assad has driven deep wedges in the inter-communal relations in Lebanon, which haven’t been rosy even in the best of times....The new prime minister will...have to perform the trapeze act of satisfying all sides. The best course of action would be to steer clear of the conflict in Syria though the pressures will be huge to side with one group or the other.”

The two issues are, of course, related, and both hinge on the ability of the new government to reign in Hezbollah.  Judging from Mr. Salam’s recent statements, the intention and desire to do so exists, though whether that will be possible remains to be seen: “Newly appointed Prime Minister-designate Tammam Salam said Sunday the resistance against Israel was legitimate but the decision to go to war should remain in the hands of the state....In an interview with Agence France Presse Saturday, Salam said he supported the freedom of the Syrian people while insisting his country remain neutral in its neighbor’s civil war.”


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