While we were sitting back eating our matza and enjoying Pesach (or Easter) the Middle East didn’t take any days off, with political machinations and violence spreading in all directions.
We start with The Apology™, the one made by PM Binyamin Netanyahu to Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Recep Erdogan for “operational errors” during the fatal Mavi Marmara flotilla, and including the offer of payment of compensation. The apology was very carefully worded by Netanyahu, regretting the loss of life without admitting culpability, and yet it was a very hard frog for Israelis to swallow, especially since Erdogan immediately upped the ante and demanded outrageous sums of money in compensation as well as the lifting of the Gaza blockade. Naftali Bennett, head of the Bayit Yehudi party, said that Erdogan was making Israel regret the apology, while Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman said that Israel had made a mistake in offering the apology, although other Israeli politicians reacted more or less along expected party lines.
Israel’s opinion writers were also divided as to the wisdom of the apology, with Efraim Inbar agreeing with Liberman that it was a mistake, because:
The Israeli apology will hardly stop Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s regular Israel-bashing rhetoric. Nor has it secured a clear Turkish commitment for the resumption of full diplomatic relations.
Moreover, Erdogan already has conveyed his intention to visit Hamas-ruled Gaza. Such a visit is a slap in the face to both Jerusalem and Washington.
Turkey, under the AKP, an Islamist party, has gradually adopted a new foreign policy, fueled by neo-Ottoman and Islamist impulses, whose goal is to gain a leadership role in the Middle East and the Islamic world.
Attaining this objective requires harsh criticism of Israel, which has generated great popularity for Erdogan and Turkey. Unfortunately, vicious attacks on Israel come easily for Erdogan, who is plainly and simply an anti-Semite.
What is also important is how the Israeli apology will be perceived in a region whose prism on international relations is power politics. Inevitably, Israel under Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu will be seen as weak, bowing to American pressure. Public regrets about use of force erode deterrence and project weakness.
Perceived weakness usually invites aggression in our tough neighborhood.
However Ron Torossian in Arutz Sheva reluctantly concludes that there must have been a strategic reason behind the apology although he himself is obviously against the decision:
Netanyahu is no push-over when it comes to Jewish pride and cares intently about protecting Israel from its enemies. Undoubtedly his decision was strategic and in what he believed to be in Israel’s best interest. One doubts anyone can believe Netanyahu in his heart of heats wanted to apologize, but in the world of politics one may never know the whole truth.
The most positive reading of Netanyahu’s apology comes from Tablet Magazine (hat-tip to Brian Goldfarb) where Lee Smith gives great credit to Netanyahu:
Jerusalem has long been looking to mend relations with its onetime strategic ally in Ankara. Contrary to popular narrative, it was Erdogan who was intransigent—not Netanyahu. Nor was Obama the prime mover here, “prodding” the Israeli prime minister to do his bidding. If anything, it was Netanyahu who used the commander in chief as something like a blunt instrument to force Erdogan to accept the same deal that his government had first put on the table at least 18 months prior: Israel would apologize; it would pay compensation; but it would not, as Erdogan had demanded, end the maritime blockade of the strip.
From Netanyahu’s perspective, it’s all to the good that Obama is getting the credit for the reconciliation. Bibi got what he wanted from Erdogan and gave Obama a big trophy to put on his shelf. The Turkish premier, despite his bluster, has little choice but to swallow it, and the American president now owes Bibi a favor. Netanyahu—often denigrated as a clumsy politician and preachy ideologue—is in fact a much more adroit statesman than he is typically believed to be.
Clearly Erdogan’s three conditions were not met, a disappointment that he apparently came to terms with last month, when Turkish and Israeli negotiators hammered out the exact terms of the deal that came to pass last week. As the Turkish newspaper Radikal explained, Israel would apologize for “operational mistakes,” pay compensation, and Ankara would drop the demand that Israel lift the blockade. Thus, the stage was set for Obama’s entrance as mediator and his exit as peacemaker. In pocketing the deal until Obama’s visit, Netanyahu’s timing was perfect: He handed an American president a truly wonderful souvenir of his all too brief stay in the Holy Land.
With the news of Israel’s new Tamar natural gas field coming online, and the need to build a pipeline via Cyprus or Turkey, the Apology™ takes on a whole new perspective, as mentioned in my previous post, and presumably was one of the major reasons behind it.
Another view on the Apology™ is that it was necessitated by the Syrian crisis, as Herb Keinon writes in the Jerusalem Post:
“The fact that the crisis in Syria is getting worse by the minute was the central consideration in my eyes,” Netanyahu said on his Facebook page of his apology Friday afternoon in a phone conversation with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan for “any errors that could have led to loss of life.”
“Syria is disintegrating, and the huge advanced weapons stockpiles are beginning to fall into the hands of different forces,” Netanyahu wrote on his Facebook page.
The Syrian reality, which includes global jihadist elements on its border with Israel on the Golan, creates tremendous security challenges for Israel, he wrote. “It is important that Turkey and Israel, which border Syria, can communicate with each other, and this is true regarding other challenges as well.”
Amidror added that this move was also important because Israel wanted to upgrade its ties with NATO, something that Turkey, as a NATO member, had continuously vetoed.
The Syrian civil war is certainly going from bad to worse, apology to Turkey or not, with the civilian death toll mounting ever higher, reaching 6,000 dead in March. Amongst the non-human victims in this war was the 2,000-year old Jobar Synagogue in Damascus, which was looted and destroyed this week (after having been partially destroyed a month ago), with both Assad’s fighters and the rebels blaming each other for the destruction:
The 2,000-year-old Jobar Synagogue in the Syrian capital of Damascus — the country’s holiest Jewish site — was looted and burned to the ground.
The Syrian army loyal to President Bashar Assad and rebel forces were blaming each other for the destruction of the historic synagogue, according to reports on Sunday.
The fighting in Syria has been creeping ever closer to Israel’s border with Syria to the extent that it has spilled over into several times recently, either by accident or by design. Israel has now built a field hospital in the Golan to treat injured Syrian fighters:
Israeli officials confirmed that the hospital was set up to treat injured Syrians near the border fence and avoid having to evacuate them to hospitals inside the country.
In the past month, several Syrians who were injured in the fighting between rebels and forces loyal to President Bashar Assad have been treated in northern Israel hospitals. According to AFP, eight of them were repatriated and three have remained in Israel for further treatment.
On Wednesday a number of injured Syrians made their way to the border with Israel. Two of the Syrians, who were critically wounded, were evacuated to Israeli hospitals with the authorization of IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz.
Israel’s treatment of wounded Syrians was on humanitarian grounds and did not reflect a change in official policy refusing entry to Syrian citizens.
Lest one think that the fighting in Syria is only of concern to Israel, it should be noted that Jordan has closed off its border with Syria because of the threat of spreading violence:
Arab media outlets quoted officials in Jordan as saying that the move stemmed from the deteriorating situation around the border shared by Jordan, Syria and Israel: Syria’s southern Deraa province, located just off the Jordanian border, is a vital battleground between the rebels and the Syria Army.
The rebels have stepped up fighting for control of the border area, after gaining territory in the countryside and capturing several army bases. They have also overrun several towns near the Golan Heights, fueling tensions in the sensitive military zone.
Israel Hayom reported on Monday that the Jordanians were concerned about the situation on the border as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime continues to topple. Twenty-four hours later the decision to close the border was made final. A Jordanian defense official explained that “after the disintegration of Assad’s divisions, the territory is now controlled by militias and terrorists.”
There have also been unconfirmed reports that Turkey has deported hundreds of Syrian refugees back to Syria because of clashes with the military police in their refugee camp.
And where has the UN been in all this? They have been “expressing concern” that the Syrian violence will spill over into the Golan:
“The members of the Security Council expressed grave concern at all violations of the Disengagement of Forces Agreement,” the council said, adding that it also voiced “grave concern at the presence of the Syrian Arab Republic Armed Forces inside the area of separation.” UNDOF has the task of monitoring an “area of separation” between Syrian and Israeli forces, a narrow strip of land running 45 miles (70 km) from Mount Hermon on the Lebanese border to the Yarmouk River frontier with Jordan.
In its statement, the council also “expressed grave concern at the presence of armed members of the opposition in the area of separation.” The council “called on all parties, including armed elements of the Syrian opposition, to respect UNDOF’s freedom of movement and the safety and security of its personnel, while recalling that the primary responsibility for safety and security … rests with the Syrian Government.” Israel captured the Golan plateau from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war.
I’m sure that’s going to have both sides quaking in their boots. Not.
Meanwhile this evening another Syrian mortar shell landed in Israeli territory, and an Israeli patrol reported hearing gunfire.
Following the incident, the IDF fired tank shells at the source of shots. The target was accurately struck, the IDF said.
It remains unclear whether the mortar was fired deliberately into Israel, or as part of an exchange of fire between army forces loyal to the regime of Basher Assad and rebels.
And to round out this update and bring some geographical symmetry, Israeli planes carried out a strike against Gaza following a round of rocket fire into southern Israel:
Earlier in the day, three missiles were fired at Israel from the central Strip. Two landed inside Gaza and a third struck an open area in the Eshkol region, the IDF said.
There were no injuries in the attacks.
The Mujahadeen Shura Council took responsibility for the attacks, saying they were in response to the death of a Palestinian inmate in an Israeli jail Tuesday morning. The death of Maysara Abuhamdia of cancer sparked violence among Palestinian security prisoners and violence in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
Rocket fire from Gaza has largely tailed off since the end of Pillar of Defense, but there have been sporadic attacks.
Two weeks ago, four rockets were fired at Israel from Gaza, likely timed to coincide with the visit of US President Barack Obama.
On Tuesday, parents and teachers found one of the rockets in the yard of a Sderot kindergarten, which had been on Passover break during the attack.
Every time we read stories like this one above, we are reminded how many miracles have saved us from tragedy. But Jewish law tells us we must not rely on miracles, and so we had better hope and pray that our leaders know what they are doing and that the IDF is well-prepared to protect us.