July 9, 2010
My man of the week is Syrian President Bashar Assad. His call to calm the crisis in Israeli-Turkish relations seems like a serious attempt to cool the mutual invective between Ankara and Jerusalem. “If the relationship between Turkey and Israel is not renewed, it will be very difficult for Turkey to play a role in negotiations to revive the Middle East peace process,” Assad said on Monday in Spain. And he added that failure to mend these ties would “without doubt affect the stability in the region.”Assad’s balanced position was a surprise. Instead of getting up and cursing Israel for its “aggression” against a Gaza-bound flotilla in May, he acted like a responsible neighbor by trying to calm the dispute. His remarks are being interpreted as a diplomatic warning to Turkey’s leaders: If you continue quarreling with Israel, you will lose your influence and encourage the extremists who undermine stability. Cool it. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, have turned out to be talented diplomats. The flotilla that set out for the Gaza Strip under their aegis resulted in the easing of Israel’s blockade on Gaza. And Davutoglu’s recent meeting with Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer did more to undermine the unity of Israel’s governing coalition than any other incident to date. Even U.S. President Barack Obama, for all his efforts, was unable to so threaten the stability of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s rule. But the Turks are not resting on their laurels. They are presenting the discord with Israel as an issue of national honor. They demand that Israel apologize for the killing of Turkish civilians during its boarding of the Mavi Marmara, or alternatively, that Israel allow itself to be investigated by an international commission and pledge to accept its conclusions. Otherwise, Ankara will cut its ties with Israel. Netanyahu, however, has made it clear that Israel will not apologize “for our soldiers being forced to defend themselves.” The moment the run-in becomes an issue of honor, it is difficult to find a solution. How can one compromise on national honor and look like a dishrag to the rest of the world? And Turkey’s alternative demand, that Israel agree to an international probe, is less humiliating than the demand for an apology, but still very problematic. First of all, by easing the blockade of Gaza after the flotilla incident, Israel admitted in retrospect that its previous policy was wrong. No international commission will justify the blockade after Netanyahu has renounced it. Second, there is no “objective” commission. An international commission headed by Alan Dershowitz will rule completely differently than a commission headed by Richard Goldstone, even if they are shown the same evidence. Clearly, the third option, cutting off ties, would be very bad for Israel, and Netanyahu must make every effort to prevent it. He seems to understand this, and therefore dispatched Ben-Eliezer to meet with the Turkish foreign minister. But the meeting was fruitless. There is another way out of the entanglement: Move the disagreement from the field of honor to the field of interests, and thereby give both sides an opportunity to emerge from the corner into which they have painted themselves. This is where Assad comes in. The Israeli establishment, which admired Assad senior, tends to disparage his son and depict him as a confused, bumbling child. But that is foolishness and conceit. In his 10 years in power, Bashar Assad has maintained Syria’s internal stability and secular character, retaken control of Lebanon and nurtured Hezbollah as a strategic deterrent against Israel. That is quite a bit. Assad’s decision not to respond to the 2007 bombing of the nuclear reactor he built in the desert shows that he is a rational and restrained leader. It is not hard to imagine how Israel would respond to an attack on a military base in its territory: with strategic bombing, all-out war and anxieties about holocaust and destruction. Assad showed that sometimes, it is better to sit quietly. The bombing may have destroyed the reactor, but Syria’s strategic standing in the region has only grown stronger since then. After the attack on the reactor, in which Israel once again violated Turkish sovereignty, former prime minister Ehud Olmert was quick to renew talks with Syria, mediated by Erdogan and Davutoglu. The Turks restrained themselves over the flight across their airspace and set to work to lead a diplomatic effort that calmed tension in the north. Now, Assad is proposing the same deal, in the opposite direction: Let’s renew talks on the Syrian channel and give the Turks and Israelis something important to deal with instead of mutual recriminations over the flotilla. Instead of competing over who has more honor, it would be better to work to improve the region’s situation. Erdogan and Netanyahu should listen to their responsible neighbor. They might discover that the road from Ankara to Jerusalem can also run through Damascus.