At the United Nations this week, Obama administration officials are touting the dividends that have accrued from President Obama’s foreign policy of engagement and international consensus-building.
Examples the White House cites include strong U.N. sanctions on Iran and North Korea, continued U.N. help in nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan, a rare U.N. Security Council mandate to enforce the “right to protect” civilians in Libya, and strong international support for nonproliferation measures proposed by the United States. Frayed relations with various countries around the world, administration officials point out, have also been repaired.
Yet when President Obama meets on Tuesday afternoon with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, it will highlight the limits of that repair job, and the degree to which the Israel-Palestinian conflict continues to drag on the administration’s efforts to build international consensus at the U.N.
Obama has already promised to veto an expected application for membership in the United Nations by Palestinian officials later this week, a stance that will once again put Washington in direct opposition to Ankara and much of the rest of the world. Earlier this year, the U.S. vetoed a U.N. resolution condemning Israeli settlements that was supported by all 14 of the other members of the Security Council, and 120 of the U.N.’s 192 member states.
Obama will meet Erdogan after administration officials spent weeks in intense back-channel talks with their Turkish counterparts trying to avoid the current rupture in Israeli-Turkish relations, and to stave off the Palestinian Authority’s application for statehood this week. That both efforts failed despite the administration’s best efforts speaks not only to the intractable nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but also to the increasing headwind it promises to exert on U.S. policy in a Middle East that has been transformed by Arab Spring revolutions and uprisings.
“In their talks, Prime Minister Erdogan is unlikely to reverse course and drop his support for U.N. recognition of Palestinian statehood, because he senses the mood has fundamentally changed in the region as a result of the Arab Spring, and the Obama administration should take that change seriously,” said Marwan Muasher, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “For better or worse, the Arab world today is different than prior to last January. When it comes to the Israeli occupation, the region is becoming increasingly angry and defiant that it must end. Erdogan knows this and has adopted a very populist stance towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and Turkish-Israeli relations were only made worse by Israel’s refusal to apologize for the Gaza flotilla incident.”
In fact, as recently as late August, U.S. diplomats thought they had a deal in place to mend the rupture in Turkish-Israeli relations as a result of that confrontation on the high seas last year, which left eight Turkish citizens dead after their flotilla to break the Gaza naval blockade was intercepted by Israeli security forces. In four rounds of U.S.-sponsored talks, sources say Turkish and Israeli officials had settled on the basic outlines of a deal that included an Israeli apology, $100,000 in compensation for the families of those killed, and an agreement by Turkey not to seek legal recourse against members of the Israeli security forces. A word was even settled on that implied “apology” in Turkish and “regret” in Hebrew. In anticipation of an agreement, Ankara named its next ambassador to Jerusalem.
After a U.N. report on the incident was leaked to the press, criticizing Israeli tactics but finding its actions defensible under international law, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared that no apology would be forthcoming. Turkey responded by expelling the Israeli ambassador to Ankara, and threatening to use Turkish naval ships to escort future flotillas bound for Gaza.
According to a Turkish diplomat, Israel seems to have written off Erdogan as an Islamist populist, forgetting that under him Turkey went to unprecedented lengths to secure peace between Israel and Syria and act as Israel’s intermediary with the Muslim world. “So for the unwillingness of Israel to utter one word -- 'apology' -- it may have lost its best friend in the region,” said the diplomat. “And then when Israel quickly issued an apology to Egypt after inadvertently killing some of its border guards recently, it only added insult to injury.”