By Greg Sheridan*
THERE’S no doubt Israel tactically mishandled the naval operation against the flotilla of six ships ostensibly trying to deliver aid to Gaza. Any police operation that results in the tragedy of nine deaths is in some sense a failure.
But consider Israel’s dilemma. It cannot possibly allow Gaza under Hamas to become another South Lebanon under Hezbollah, in which tens of thousands of long-range rockets are accumulated for a devastating attack on Israel at a time of Iran’s choosing.
In seeking to board the ships, Israel did so with an intentionally light hand. Most of its soldiers did not carry rifles but pistols to be used only as a last resort.
In five of the six ships they boarded there was no very violent resistance. Imagine the criticism Israeli naval units would have attracted if they had boarded those vessels in the manner necessary when expecting savage violence. Instead, the Israeli commandos went in light and were nearly beaten to death. Not until after 20 minutes of clubbing and stabbing by the wonderfully misnamed peace activists did the Israeli soldiers fire in defence of their own lives.
This was exactly what the protesters wanted and it has aroused the predictable storm of global protest, including from Kevin Rudd and Stephen Smith. On these big global issues so much of Australian foreign policy consists merely of the sanctimonious restatement of conventional wisdom, a kind of high-toned channelling of the zeitgeist without any sign of serious moral or intellectual input.
All this is a PR blow to Israel, but it is the sort of blow that in some measure any democracy fighting for its life against terrorists will from time to time sustain.
What is harder to evaluate is the incident’s strategic consequences. Within Israel, the best strategic thinkers see the whole tragedy as a successful Turkish government exercise. Three of the six boats were Turkish. The only boat on which violence took place was Turkish. It may be we are witnessing a huge strategic realignment, Turkey’s defection from the West and entry into the Sunni Islamist world, defined by hatred of the West. Hatred of Israel is a subset of this.
If Australians are familiar with any Turk, it is Kemal Ataturk. His brilliant defence of the Gallipoli peninsula paved the way for his rise to national leadership. His immense prestige allowed him, something like a Turkish Deng Xiaoping, both to modernise Turkey and to define the terms of that modernisation.
Ataturk determined that Turkey, in succession to the Ottoman Empire, would be a modern, secular republic.
Secularism became a central part of Turkish national identity and the institution at the heart of Turkish national life was the military. Turkey was tough in enforcing its secularism. Turkish women, for example, could not wear the hijab at university or in the civil service.
Over time, Turkey became the most important majority Muslim nation allied to the West. Turkey is a member of NATO, the only Muslim majority member. Since the mid-1990s it has had an intimate military relationship with Israel. The two nations helped each other with hi-tech military equipment and intelligence.
But Turkish society was not immune to the currents of Islamisation and extremism running through the Muslim world. In 2002 it elected a seemingly moderate Islamist government, led by Recep Erdogan.
A few years ago I spent some time in Turkey and, like most new visitors, was entranced by the beauty of Istanbul, the vigorous diversity of Turkish society and its robust democratic debate.
But many of the secular Turks I met in Istanbul were deeply worried about the long-term intentions of their government, which they believed wanted to Islamise Turkish society but was moving cautiously and slowly because of the power of the military.
In the past year or so more than 200 Turkish military officers have been jailed on the most preposterous conspiracy charges, allegedly for plotting a coup. Like many Muslim societies, Turkey is always rife with conspiracy theories. When I was in Turkey the bestselling novel there was called Metal Firtina and concerned a US military invasion of Turkey. Many of the secular Turks who denounced their own government to me also told me they thought the Firtina scenario quite plausible, even realistic.
Similarly, I visited several city campuses in Istanbul, where smart young people, the sons and daughters of affluence and secularism, formed the student body. But the virulence of the anti-Israel propaganda was astonishing. On one campus there was a display explaining how Israeli tanks, when they entered Palestinian towns, strapped Palestinian children on to the front of the tanks so Palestinian fighters would not fire on them. Needless to say, this is completely nuts.
Now these conspiracy theories are being used against the military, which prosecutors allege wrote out a 5000-page planning document for their military coup. Similarly, some of the most powerful and liberal media proprietors have gone to jail.
At the same time, Turkish foreign policy has lurched in a sharply anti-Western direction. The Turks host Hamas leaders as honoured guests and have a warm relationship with Iran and Syria. They recently offered to enrich Iran’s uranium as a way of avoiding UN sanctions on Iran.
Turkey will hold elections next year and the secular parties are showing signs of greater competitiveness than they have for a decade. The murderous conflict between secular and Islamist Turkey is at the heart of a number of novels by Nobel prize-winner Orhan Pamuk, especially the magnificent Snow, in which an Islamist fanatic murders a high school principal for enforcing the no-head-scarfs rule.
The Turkish government is expressing maximum outrage over the Gaza incident, although it has been vastly more brutal in suppressing Kurdish separatists and suspected terrorists than anything Israel has ever dreamed of. The Gaza incident has nonetheless allowed Erdogan to demonise Israel. It is beyond even Erdogan to revolutionise his society overnight. If Israel loses Turkey’s friendship it will be a severe blow for Jerusalem.
If this is part, as it seems to be, of a more general defection by Turkey against the West, with Turkey holding who knows what ultimate military or even nuclear ambitions, that is a grave development for the entire world.
Oh, and having Barack Obama as US president instead of George W. Bush has made not the slightest difference.
* Greg Sheridan, journalist, The Asutralian`s Foreign editor.