Argument

If All Else Fails, Blame the Israelis

The Turkish indictment of Israeli officials for the Mavi Marmara raid looks like a cynical ploy by Recep Tayyip Erdogan to shore up his popularity.

An eleventh-hour Turkish lawfare initiative may prevent Ankara's long-awaited rapprochement with Israel. Days shy of the four-year anniversary of the 2010 Mavi Marmara raid, the Istanbul High Criminal Court on May 26 indicted four former top Israeli military commanders for their involvement in the ill-fated flotilla to Gaza. In a 144-page indictment, the Turkish court ordered the arrests of Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Chief of General Staff Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, Naval Forces Commander Vice Admiral Eliezer Marom, Israeli military intelligence chief Major Gen. Amos Yadlin and Air Forces Intelligence head Brigadier Gen. Avishai Levi.

It is extremely unlikely that any of the Israeli officers will ever do time behind bars, of course. Interpol is unlikely to respond positively to the Turkish court's request that it issue a red notice, which would direct countries around the world to seek the arrest of the Israeli commanders. However, the move threatens to upend a crucial moment for Turkish-Israeli rapprochement efforts: According to the Turkish and Israeli press, a $20 million compensation deal for the families of 10 Turks killed by Israeli commandos during the Mavi Marmara incident was "imminent," and normalization of ties was expected to follow.

The Turkish charity responsible for organizing the provocative flotilla, the Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH), was reportedly among the primary actors pressing the Turkish government to shun a deal. Last week, IHH lawyer Ugur Yildirim told reporters that the foundation had been "in close contact" with the Turkish government and had warned the authorities against dropping the charges.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he had nothing to do with the indictment. But given the strong relationship between the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the IHH, as well as its increasing control over the Turkish judiciary, not everyone believes him. At least one Israeli official believes the decision to go forward with the indictment came directly from the prime minister.

Even if Erdogan was not involved in the judicial ruling, he will directly benefit in the court of public opinion. Turkey will hold its first presidential elections through a popular vote in August and it is widely believed that Erdogan, the dominant figure in Turkish politics since he became premier in 2003, will run -- and that he will win. The indictment will play well with his base: conservative Turkish voters who reject the normalization process. A Pew Research Center survey in spring 2013 found that only 2 percent of Turks viewed Israel favorably, while 86 percent had a negative view.

This is not the first time that Erdogan has used Israel as a way to drum up political support for his party. In a speech delivered in January 2009 before Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's visit to Turkey, Erdogan explicitly asked that Israel be barred from the United Nations. There was also the Davos incident that same year, where Erdogan stormed offstage during a debate with Israeli President Shimon Peres, telling the Nobel Peace Prize-winner, "When it comes to killing, you know very well how to kill."

In June 2010, following the flotilla incident, Erdogan delivered a fiery speech at the Turkish parliament in which he warned Israel not to "test Turkey's patience" and, to the delight of his conservative political base, accused the Israeli government of massacring Palestinians. Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal's invitation to the AKP convention in 2012 was also an apparent success for Erdogan; AKP voters cheered the Hamas leader as he took the stage.

Israel's leaders certainly understand that the indictment is a political tool for Erdogan during an election season. But even this might not necessarily stop them from moving forward with the compensation package. Indeed, a signed deal would likely require Turkey to pass legislation that would render the court order invalid.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu does not appear sold on the terms of the package, however. Although negotiators finalized the deal in February, the Israeli leader has neither signed it nor brought it to a vote. This unquestionably stems from his cabinet's mistrust in the Erdogan government. The Israeli government understands that putting the flotilla in the past does not pave the way for a rosy alliance with Turkey in the future.  

Under Erdogan, Turkey has quietly become a harbor for terrorism finance and other activity that threatens Israel. Most notably, Turkey allowed Iran to process $12 billion in gas-for-gold transfers, in an effort to circumvent international sanctions designed to prevent Iran from going nuclear. Istanbul Police Department officials also told Turkish media that Turkey's Finance Ministry was investigating another $118 billion in illegal transactions that benefited Iran. Needless to say, this has undermined Israel's interests, given Iran's longstanding antipathy for the Jewish state.

In addition, senior figures from Hamas and businessmen accused of financing al Qaeda are alleged to be roaming around in Turkey with Ankara's knowledge. A German court has also upheld Berlin's ban on the IHH, due to the fact that it contributed funds to Hamas. And while these issues were not what prompted it, the international watchdog body responsible for setting global standards for combating terrorism finance has found Ankara in gross violation of its responsibilities.

To be sure, strategic and economic interests may nevertheless pave the way for a loveless Israeli-Turkish rapprochement. But the Netanyahu government has no illusions: Erdogan's Turkey will never be the ally to Israel today that it was in the 1990s. Under an Islamist leadership that offers an anti-Israeli narrative for every domestic crisis, Turkey has become a hostile environment for Israel -- and appears likely to remain that way as long as Erdogan dominates politics in Ankara.

MUSTAFA OZER/AFP/Getty Images

Argument

Is There a Hidden Message in the Taliban's 2014 Fighting Season Plan?

The forgotten history of the Battle of Khaibar offers some alluring hints.

Mid-May marks an annual rite observed in Afghanistan for the past 35 years: the start of the spring fighting season. The patterns of nature shape the patterns of warfare: Plant poppy, hunker down for the winter, harvest opium, then go to war. Now that this year's opium crop has been mostly harvested, it is time to fight.

On May 27, President Barack Obama outlined his plan to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan -- leaving 9,800 by the end of 2014, with a full withdrawal by the end of 2016. A couple weeks earlier, however, the Taliban, with their estimated 30,000 soldiers, announced "Khaibar," their own plan for the operations they will be conducting this spring and summer.

The Taliban generally name each year's offensive after an event or person from early Islamic history. In the strategically significant Battle of Khaibar, fought in the seventh year of the Islamic calendar, or 628 CE, the Muslim forces defeated a much larger army composed of several Jewish tribes and their Arab allies. If the Taliban's choice of this ancient battle has a specific symbolic meaning -- and, as in past years, any precise correlation between names and meanings remains conjecture -- it could mean several interesting things.

Most importantly, the Taliban's strategy in the following months may be to launch head-on attacks on U.S., U.N., and Afghan forces. The Battle of Khaibar was a frontal assault on a strongly fortified oasis -- that was what made it so epic. Indeed, the Taliban's announcement of its spring campaign explicitly notes that the battle "resulted in the conquest of heavily fortified enemy castles and bases." On May 12, the first day of the campaign, the Taliban launched rockets at the massive U.S. base at Bagram and the well-protected Kabul Airport. No casualties resulted from the rocket attacks, but Taliban assaults on the provincial justice department office in the city of Jalalabad and several police checkpoints in the city of Ghazni left 10 Afghans dead. If they are following the playbook of the original Khaibar campaign, the Taliban will attack positions of military strength rather than focus on soft targets among civilians.

Khaibar was not a religious conflict between Muslims and Jews: During this period, the nascent Muslim community allied with, and fought against, tribes composed of both Jews and unconverted Arabs. Indeed, the Prophet Mohammed was invited to Medina (near Khaibar) to serve as an arbiter between tribes whose feuds were based on politics rather than faith.

How does this relate to Taliban strategy? In regards to Khaibar, the Taliban clearly see themselves as the Muslim forces. Their enemy consists of misguided cousins: at the original Khaibar, Arab tribes that hadn't accepted Islam; today, Afghan government troops and outsiders. At Khaibar, the outsiders were Jewish tribes; today, U.S. and NATO forces. The original Khaibar was fought over politics rather than ideology. The Prophet Mohammed's intent wasn't to forcibly convert or obliterate his enemy; it was merely to defeat them. The Taliban's statement likewise focuses on conventional military objectives: While it warns that Afghan collaborators will be targeted, it vows to "inflict maximum losses on the invaders while preventing corporeal and financial losses on the ordinary civilians."

Despite the stern tone, the reference to Khaibar -- a conventional battle in which noncombatants were left unharmed -- might actually hint at a Taliban strategy aimed at post-conflict reconciliation.

Perhaps the most important result of Khaibar was the creation of a successful modus vivendi for Jews and Christians living in Muslim communities. After his victory, the Prophet Mohammed spared his enemies, and even permitted the Jewish tribes to continue living in the oasis; he imposed a financial penalty, which would provide the foundation for the jizya (community tax) imposed on Christians and Jews, in exchange for religious tolerance by Muslim rulers for the subsequent 12 centuries. Like most taxes, the jizya often caused resentment -- but it exempted these communities from obligatory military service, and stood in contrast to the treatment accorded to Muslims and Jews in Christian Europe.

What might this mean today? If the drafters of the Taliban statement are serious about modeling their strategy on Khaibar, they may be signaling a future pact with the West. In this modern version of jizya, perhaps Americans and other foreigners would be welcome to live and trade in Afghanistan -- for a price. It is noteworthy that the Taliban statement speaks of the "complete defeat of the foreign invading forces" and warns that a mere reduction in the numbers of foreign troops will not stop the battle -- but it does not suggest carrying the fight beyond Afghanistan, nor a continuation of hostilities once the last foreign soldier has left. The "infidel" is never portrayed as an existential threat -- merely as an invader to be repelled.

It is possible, therefore, that the Taliban are sending a subtle message about their willingness to strike a post-withdrawal deal with the United States. The end of fighting may be the beginning of negotiation. Of course, clearly the U.S. Congress is not about to appropriate funds for an annual bribe, and the Taliban are in no position to dictate terms to an Afghan government in the process of conducting the most widely supported exercise of popular democracy in the nation's history.

But for understanding the battle strategy this summer season, the name the Taliban has chosen for its final effort is a good place to start.

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