Talking Turkey – Why Israel won’t recognize the Kurds

Henry Kissinger famously said that in the world of diplomacy, “We must learn to distinguish morality from moralizing.”  This is what Dr. David Altman fails to appreciate in his article “Forget Turkey; Israel must take up the Kurdish cause,” during which he outlines why “human morality” should take precedence when determining Israel’s regional foreign policy.  Though I sympathize with Altman’s dissatisfaction with Kissingerian realpolitik, I reject his misguided solution to the current freeze in Israeli-Turkish relations.

According to Altman, Israel has chosen to ignore “Turkey’s brutal treatment of the Armenian minority…[and] managed to overlook the Armenian Holocaust” for the sake of maintaining positive relations.  But now that Turkey’s “unequivocal stand” with Hamas during Operation Cast Lead and the Gaza Flotilla has freed Israel of its loyalty “to a country that used to be our friend,” we can now voice support for a Kurdish independent state in the name of social justice.

Turkey and Israel have seen better days, but the window for reconciliation is far from closed.  Just this week newspapers in the two countries enthusiastically published reports that Foreign Ministry Deputy Director General Pinhas Avivi advocated for mutual interests to overcome previous grievances.  Although Turkish officials declared there would be no change in the status quo, there is decidedly more room for optimism now than in the past two years.

In recent weeks, multiple conferences organized by Kültür University’s Global Political Trends Center (GPoT), the Van Leer Institute of Jerusalem, and Mivtim – The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies have been hosted in Istanbul in order to encourage dialogue between academics and journalists from both countries.  Israeli institutions are expected to host their Turkish partners in the coming months.  These efforts are a small step towards developing a vital cultural link between Israel and Turkey: one that was virtually nonexistent, even during the “love affair” years of 1990s.  It is also indicative of how, in spite of the often inciting political rhetoric, the situation is not damaged beyond repair.

Altman’s suggestion that Israel turn its back on Turkey in favor of the Kurdish independence movement not only ignores the positive work done to rebuild Israeli-Turkish ties, it advocates for the burning of historical bridges in favor of pipe-dreams and dangerously rejects realism in favor of knee-jerk moralization.

While Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was wrong for lambasting Shimon Peres in Davos, and should have done more to prevent the departure of the MV Mavi Marmara for Gaza, Israel must continue to respond with pragmatism and patience.

Publicly supporting an independent Kurdish state would lead Israel into a moral and political minefield that we are not prepared to navigate.  Kurds are an enormous ethnic group that lives in a largely contiguous geographic territory divided by four international borders that do not accurately reflect the shared identities across them.  However, Kurds are fragmented by ideology, religion, and tribal affiliations that inhibit their ability to cooperate as a unified movement.  Their efforts to gain independence have often adopted a path of violence and terrorism.  The PKK’s war with Turkey has resulted in over 37,000 total deaths since 1984 (nearly triple the number killed in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since 1948), many of them civilians.  How can Israel successfully identify with a unified Kurdish independence movement if one does not exist?  How could it support Kurdish self-determination without compromising its moral high ground by associating with an internationally recognized terrorist organization?  How would this be any different than Turkish support for Hamas?

The difference, according to Alterman, is that the Palestinians are an “undefined virtual entity with no historic past.”  Ah, I forgot that two wrongs make a right.

Altman’s argument is filled with falsities that expose his calls for “social justice” as the angry tantrums of an embittered ex.

He claims that Israel has participated in a “world conspiracy of silence” towards the Kurds.  This simply is not true.  He ignores the fact that the United States, both in 1990 and 2003, actively supported the establishment of an autonomous Kurdish region in Northern Iraq. Perhaps more egregiously, Altman ignores the level of Turkish investment in Northern Iraq since the end of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Israel may officially be “silent” on the topic of Kurdish independence, but reports have indicated that for years it has fostered relations with different Kurdish groups in Iraq and Syria.  What, then, would Israeli support “going public” bring?

I am not advocating on Turkey’s behalf.  In the decade since Erdoğan came to power his party has raised Turkey’s traditional Muslims to a more egalitarian position with their secular neighbors for the first time in history while simultaneously approving the prosecution of dozens of journalists, and incarcerating many of the country’s military leadership.   When circumstances dictated a need for the Kurdish vote, he proclaimed that Turkey “needs to face up to its past,” yet his policies waffled and have resulted in increased PKK violence.  He has also rapaciously castigated those who wish to politicize the Armenian Genocide, a sign that the country is still not prepared to face its past in a constructive manner.  These are significant events that deserve thoughtful critique.

Nevertheless, these troubling characteristics are not unique to Erdoğan or the AKP.  They are symptomatic of the Turkish Republic’s historical struggle between democracy and secularism.

It is perfectly legitimate for Israelis to be upset with the current state of affairs between Israel and Turkey.  I am one of them.  However, Israel’s foreign policy should be grounded in reality.  Turkey recognizes Israel’s right to exist.  Trade has never been higher.  The rapidly deteriorating situation in Syria, coupled with Iran’s nuclear ambitions, present an opportunity for reconciliation, and a stronger tomorrow.

Kissinger believed that “a country that demands moral perfection in its foreign policy will achieve neither perfection nor security.”  This is what Israel would risk if it listened to the vitriolic suggestions of a few mistaken pundits.

About the Author
Gabriel Mitchell is a PhD candidate in Government & International Affairs at Virginia Tech University and the Israel-Turkey Project Coordinator at Mitvim – the Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies. Born in the United States, Gabriel moved to Israel in 2005. He writes regularly about events in Turkey and Israel and has been published in a number of newspapers and journals, including The Jerusalem Post, The Times of Israel, The New Republic, The American Interest, Hürriyet Daily News, Turkish Policy Quarterly, and The Washington Review of Turkish & Eurasian Affairs. Gabriel holds an MA in Political Science from Hebrew University and BA in European and Middle Eastern History from The Ohio State University.