U.S. President Donald Trump stunned and confounded even his closest allies in Congress and his military advisors when he announced Monday that he would withdraw American troops that were helping safeguard Kurds who have valiantly held off ISIS and battled the blood-soaked regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
Turkey’s President Recep Erdogan is threatening an incursion into Kurdish-held Syrian territory and analysts say the offensive could include massacres of Kurds, a longtime enemy. The move is a brutal betrayal of the stateless Kurdish people who have been steadfast allies of the West against the worst forces in the world today. Trump’s irrational, inhuman act could lead to mass murder of the very people who are – or were – our greatest allies in that horrific battle. His motives are opaque and suspect. He appears to be doing the bidding of Turkey, Russia and Iran and, at the same time, emboldening ISIS. Trying to understand the inner workings of his mind, in this case, as in most, is probably fruitless.
Stateless people are endangered everywhere, nowhere more than in the contentious and violent region the Kurds are condemned to live. Jews understand the perils of statelessness in a dangerous world. That was one of the lessons of the 20th century. Another lesson was to depend on no one else for survival. Repeatedly, Israel has had to defend itself alone from existential threats. The Kurdish people are in a deeply precarious position now and, in an ideal world, alternative forces would come to their aid.
Meanwhile, for those supporters of Israel who insist that moving an embassy and having a Jewish daughter make Trump a reliable friend of Jews, let this be a lesson about the capriciousness of the man’s loyalty and humanity.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu kisses Adel Banita’s 2-year old son on the forehead in Hadassah Hospital on Oct. 5, 2015. Netanyahu was visiting Banita, who was stabbed by a Palestinian terrorist in Jerusalem’s Old City. Her husband, Aharon, 22, died later of his injuries. (photo from Ashernet)
The Jewish year 5776 could be probably best described as a year of diplomacy and terror. Despite the toll of death and misery being inflicted by radical Islamic terror groups around the world, Israel this past year has been relatively quiet in so much as it has not had an outright war with its neighbors. Terror, however, has been present, with the knife and automobile being the weapons of choice to inflict fear and mayhem on the long-suffering citizens of Israel.
Radicalized, mostly young, Arab terrorists have been responsible for murdering or seriously injuring innocent men, women and children by stabbings or ramming their vehicles into groups of people, usually standing at bus stops or hitchhiking posts. Death and injury have also been caused by throwing large stones at passing cars in the West Bank. In several instances, firearms have been used by terrorists to kill people enjoying an evening out. On Aug. 17, a terrorist from the West Bank shot dead four people and injured a further six individuals at a restaurant in Tel Aviv. Perhaps the most outrageous attack was the murder of 13-year-old Hallel-Yaffe Ariel as she slept in her bed in her home in Kiryat Arba on June 30.
The year has been marked by intensive diplomatic activity, particularly as far as the African continent is concerned. Major countries, such as Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia and Rwanda, played host to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu this past summer. Their leaders have also visited Israel and trade agreements were signed. One African leader said the visit of the Israeli prime minister to Africa was to “reset Africa’s diplomatic relations with Israel.” Many African countries are anxious to use Israeli technology for water management and agricultural development. It is also worth noting that many African nations have also been victims of radical Islamic terrorism.
Israel’s Mediterranean neighbors were not forgotten this past year. Mutual interests of both energy and security have brought Greece, Israel and Cyprus closer. Greece and Israel have conducted military exercises in each other’s country, and the three countries are working together to maximize the natural gas deposits that have been discovered in the eastern Mediterranean.
Despite the tensions in the Middle East, beneath the surface, much is happening between Israel and its neighbor Jordan. Perhaps the most significant long-term change is the soon-to-be-completed Jezreel Valley railway project. Apart from the advantage for Israelis living in the north and working in the Haifa area, the new rail link will enable Jordanians to have a Mediterranean trade outlet, via Haifa. The only link to the sea for Jordan at present is at Aqaba on the Red Sea.
Another project between Israel and Jordan concerns the rapid evaporation of the Dead Sea. Already the lowest point on earth, the sea level is getting lower every year. Also, the annual replacement of water from rivers in the north does not reach the Dead Sea. This river water is being used for agriculture and domestic purposes. In principle, the two countries have agreed to build a water feed from the Gulf of Eilat to the Dead Sea. On the way, the flow of water would power generators to produce electricity.
As regards her other neighbors in the region, the terrible humanitarian crises being played out in Syria and Libya have once again demonstrated that Israel will never turn her back on those in need. As thousands of refugees have been pouring onto some Greek islands via Turkey to escape the unrelenting wars in the Middle East and North Africa, Israel’s aid organizations and medical teams have been on hand to offer help and expertise.
Among other happenings during the year, another state-of-the-art submarine was delivered during the summer from a German shipyard to augment Israel’s submarine fleet. And, finally, former prime minister Ehud Olmert was sent to prison after being found guilty of corruption and bribery. The positive side of this? The rule of law is the same in Israel for all of its citizens.
Humanitarian goods from Turkey arrive at the Kerem Shalom crossing point into the Gaza Strip; it was the first such shipment to arrive in Israel from Turkey since the reestablishment of ties between the two countries at the end of last month. (photo from Ashernet)
The families of Israel Defence Forces soldiers Oren Shaul and Hadar Goldin – both of whom were killed two years ago in Operation Protective Edge and whose bodies are still held by Hamas – were dissatisfied with the reconciliation agreement between the two countries, as it did not include the return of their sons’ bodies or the return of two Israeli citizens, Avraham Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayyad, imprisoned in the Gaza Strip. Many also objected at the apology by Israel to the Turkish government, together with a $20 million compensation package, over the May 2010 IDF raid on the Gaza-bound Turkish ship Mavi Marmara, which resulted in the deaths of 10 Turkish citizens after the activists on board attacked the IDF soldiers; it was this event that caused the break in Turkish-Israeli relations.
Israelis buying a Japanese car in Tel Aviv might be surprised to learn that the car was actually built in Turkey. Tourists buying dried figs in Israel’s Machane Yehuda market probably don’t know that the figs might also be imported.
These are just two of the examples of the burgeoning trade between Israel and Turkey, trade that has more than doubled in the past five years, according to the Turkish Statistics Institute, and confirmed by Israeli officials, to $5.6 billion. About half of that is exports from Israel to Turkey, and the other half, Turkish goods, like the cars, coming to Israel.
“The economies of Turkey and Israel complement each other and the trade ties are flourishing,” Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nachshon told this reporter. “That’s the good news. Unfortunately, the political ties are not as good, and this is a consequence of the harsh attack by the Turkish leadership against Israel.”
Ties between Israel and Turkey have foundered since Israeli naval commandos killed 10 Turkish activists on a ship that was trying to break Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip. Three years later, U.S. President Barack Obama brokered a telephone apology from Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu for the deaths of the 10 Turkish citizens, but relations have not returned to normal.
Israel and Turkey do not currently have ambassadors in each other’s countries, but do have lower-level diplomatic representatives. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has consistently made anti-Israel comments, including last month, commenting on Netanyahu’s trip to Paris after the killings at Charlie Hebdo and the kosher supermarket. Referring to last summer’s fighting between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, Erdogan said Netanyahu must “give an account for the children, women you massacred.”
In response, Israel’s Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman called Erodan an “antisemitic neighborhood bully.”
That type of Turkish rhetoric has been stepped up in advance of the June 2015 election for 550 new members of the Grand National Assembly, the country’s parliament.
“We’ve repeatedly seen that whenever there is an election campaign there is an increase in anti-Israel rhetoric,” a senior Israeli official told this reporter on condition of anonymity. “It’s almost part of the electoral campaign and the more anti-Israel you are, the more popular you are. That is something we can’t accept.”
Yet both Israel and Turkey seem happy to distinguish between their political and economic connections.
Paris terror suspect Hayat Boumedienne’s recent escape from France to Syria has renewed concern about Turkey’s ability and willingness to prevent terrorists from transiting through its territory.
Boumedienne is the romantic partner and alleged accomplice of Amedy Coulibaly, who was shot dead by police after killing four people in a kosher supermarket and shooting a police officer in Paris on Jan. 9. Airport footage shows Boumedienne’s arrival from Madrid to Istanbul on Jan. 2, and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavusoglu said she crossed the border to Syria six days later.
Turkey has been the subject of intense criticism from Western governments and commentators over its perceived lack of effort in stemming the flow of foreign fighters crossing its borders. However, some think this isn’t quite fair.
“I think it’s somewhat of a misplaced criticism,” said Sinan Ülgen, a scholar at Carnegie Europe. Though the Turkish government may have formerly looked the other way at the activities of Islamist groups because of a desire to bring down the Assad regime at any cost, “that policy by and large had changed by April 2014,” according to Ülgen.
At that time, Interior Minister Efkan Ala made an effort to enhance border security, “having realized the risks of getting into that sort of relationship with extremist groups,” said Ülgen. However, researcher Gareth Jenkins says it’s still very easy for foreign fighters to cross through Turkey.
“When you look at the ease with which [terrorists and would-be fighters] are able to go back and forth across the border, there still isn’t a full clampdown,” Jenkins said. “It’s not as easy as it used to be, but it’s still pretty easy.” He said he recently personally witnessed fighters in a Turkish village near the Syrian border. “There were jihadists sitting around waiting to go across.”
With some 40 million tourists visiting Turkey every year, border security is no easy task, but Jenkins says security forces could be doing a lot more. He claimed that difficulty over border security isn’t the only reason for Turkey’s failure at curbing the flow of foreign citizens seeking to join the ranks of ISIS and other groups.