Sunday, July 3, 2016

'We got what we wanted' - Dror Eydar

by Dror Eydar

Hat tip: Jean-Charles Bensoussan

Professor Moshe Sharon, Israel's greatest Middle East scholar, tells Israel Hayom that the reconciliation deal with Turkey is a success for Israel • "There was a crisis, and now it's over. So it cost us $20 million -- that's small change for us."

Professor Moshe Sharon: Turkey is the biggest competitor the Islamic State can take on
Photo credit: Dudi Vaaknin

• "In the diplomacy of the bazaar of the Middle East agreements are upheld not because they are signed, but rather because conditions exist that force them [to be.] Moreover, in the conflict between Israel and the Arab states there is a fundamental problem that does not allow an agreement at all. The problem is that the Israelis on one side and the Arabs on the other are not talking about the same goods…"
• "The most important rule says that if you demonstrate your desire to acquire a certain item, the seller will immediately raise the price considerably, and the greater an interest you show, the more he will increase the price. The "item" we're talking about is peace. Israel is going out of its way to show that it wants to buy it more than anything. The Arabs, therefore, are creating the impression that they are actually the ones who hold the keys to the storeroom where the desired goods are kept, when in truth, those storerooms are completely empty. To the Arabs' credit, it can be said that they have already said so countless times. But in this case, the Jews have also lost their ability to hear…"
• "The Arab proverb says: 'What comes for free, gives you a lot.' Bazaar wisdom holds that if you are sharp enough and the other side is na├»ve or a food, or both together, you can sell nothing at all and receive a high price for it…"
• "The 'goods' of peace in the Middle East exist only in one place -- in the storerooms of Israel and in the archives of the Jewish people. Only Israel can offer those goods in the Middle East bazaar, and anyone who wants it will have to pay full price for it…"
• "Go and learn one consistent, important rule from the bazaar of the Middle East: never conduct negotiations when you're facing two people or more. Therefore, don't go into negotiations held as part of conferences; don't approach international bodies; stand firm that only you and the trader you're dealing with will negotiate. The goods are in the open because they're yours -- increase the price several times so you can manage 'discounts.'"- Excerpted from "The Bazaar of the Middle East," by Professor Moshe Sharon

Two events prompted me to speak with Professor Moshe Sharon: Israel's reconciliation agreement with Turkey and the massive terrorist attack in Istanbul on Wednesday. Sharon, the greatest Middle East scholar in Israel today and former head of the Department of Middle Eastern History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is an expert on Islamic history and Middle Eastern studies. He served as an advisor to former Prime Minister Menachem Begin on Arab matters and took part in Israel's peace negotiations with Egypt.
The list of Sharon's academic and diplomatic achievements is a long one. Even at close to 80, he continues to pursue his studies, which encompass 1,500 years of history. He has authored an extensive study of Arabic inscriptions in the land of Israel, which delves into their discovery, their deciphering and their historic, linguistic and geographic background. The third volume of that study has just been published. 

The inscriptions are an important historical source, both in terms of the history of Islam and the history of the land of Israel under Islamic rule. One of the most important inscriptions Sharon discovered in the past few years is one by Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II. Frederick, who was the king of Sicily, described in Arabic all the areas ruled by Europe. The inscription led Sharon to research the story behind Frederick's ties to Ayyubid Sultan al-Kamil of Egypt. Because of their special relationship, the Egyptian sultan gave him nearly all the land conquered by Saladin in 1187 -- including Jerusalem. Pay attention: A Muslim ruler gave Jerusalem back to the Crusaders. 

"That concession can teach us that well-ordered geopolitics and proper handling of negotiations can lead to things that now appear impossible," Sharon tells me. 

How do you see the attack in Istanbul? 

What are the goals of the Islamic State? The organization sees itself as the exclusive representative of true Sunni Islam, which should control the entire Islamic world. Therefore, any Sunni entity that represents the old rule, whether it's Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the Emirates, Egypt, and of course the most important Sunni state of all, Turkey, has to be destabilized from within. It has to create a situation of a lack of confidence to bring down these states, and then its great goal will be realized: the establishment of Islamic caliphates. 

Why Turkey? Or rather, why is a Sunni organization attacking a Sunni country? 

[Turkey] might be Sunni, but according to the ideology of the Islamic State, it's the biggest competitor it can take on, because Turkey also talks in terms of Islamic rule and Islamic caliphates. 

The way the Islamic State sees it, if we leave the Shiites aside, there is no regime in the Middle East that is not a target for destabilization, especially the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood has the same goals, but they want to achieve them in different ways. For the Islamic State, the Muslim Brotherhood -- like the rest of the Sunni states -- is heretical. 

There are "natural" heretics -- the Jews, the Christians, Europe, America and the rest of the world (Dar al-Harb). And there are Muslim heretics, who are no better than the original heretics and thus are "legitimate" attack targets. There is no Sunni state in the Middle East today that is not an object of attack for the Islamic State. 

The Istanbul attack was planned ahead of time. The Islamic State is striking Turkey because it cooperates with all the people who encompass all the heretics -- the Americans. After the current deal, Islamic State can accuse Turkey of cooperating with the worst heretics of all, Israel, by granting the Jewish state legitimacy. 

Do the Islamic State and Turkey hold different views of Islam? 

When it comes to the basic concepts, they are the same, but when it comes to the political goals of Islam, and in Islam politics and religion go hand in hand, Islamic State sees the political goals of Islam as going back to the time of the Salaf, the glorious past, and founding the Islamic caliphate that was destroyed by the Turks under Ataturk. [Turkish Prime Minister Recip Tayyip] Erdogan has taken propriety of "pure" Islam, but for the Islamic State he represents the old world order, while they represent a new one based entirely on the wonderful past. 

The Sunni-Shiite dispute is 1,350 years old. When did these bloody arguments begin among the Sunnis? 

They erupted from time to time. Sometimes as a messianic movement, like in Sudan at the end of the 19th century. Sometimes they erupted as they did in the case of the Islamic State, [which is] a phenomenon that goes back to the very early days of Islam, to a dispute over who was entitled to rule the Islamic world. It goes back to the days of the Khawarij [a group that appeared during the leadership crisis following the death of the Prophet Muhammad] leaving, when a terrorist movement arose that aspired to lead the Islamic state based on the principle that says that the most fervent believer should lead. The principle today is similar -- the Islamic State says that they know better than everyone else who should lead and what the correct interpretation of the Quran and Islamic tradition is. 

This week, I mentioned your classic article on the laws negotiating in the Middle East ["The Bazaar of the Middle East"], which you published after you identified failures in the Oslo Accords during the negotiation process. This time, in the agreement with Turkey, did Israel abide by the rules you laid out? 

Yes. Obviously, in "the Bazaar," both sides had to pay a certain price, but a price for something in return. The Turks didn't actually sell us anything; that's what is important. Generally, the Arabs want to sell us something -- "peace" -- that they don't have in stock. They do what a good stallholder does, sell something they don't have and you pay a lot for it. Under more stringent negotiating terms, it might have been possible to get slightly better conditions, but in general we know that it's over and that relations with Turkey will go back to what they used to be. When it comes to the Gaza Strip, we got what we wanted. 

The deal doesn't mention that we should remove the [naval] blockade on Gaza. In a certain sense, this is the first time there is agreement -- as is understood from the Palmer report ordered by the U.N. -- that acknowledges our right to enact a naval blockade on Gaza. 

The Turks want to send presents to the Gazans? By all means. There's a port in Ashdod, about 10 km (6 miles) from them. Send them to us and we'll pass them along, but if we don't check what goes in [to Gaza], nothing will. What's more, Israel allows building materials in, most of which aren't being used to rebuild Gaza. Gaza is in ruins, but these materials are used to build tunnels [attack tunnels into Israel]. The Turks can ask [us] to transfer humanitarian aid. By all means, let them send what they want. It's a savings for us. 

What disturbs many Israelis is the $20 million payment [to be disbursed among the families of the Turks who were killed in the Mavi Marmara raid]. While the contract stipulates that the payment is ex gratia, in good will, beyond the letter of the law. There is no admission of anything, and they can't sue us, etc. Nevertheless, the feeling is one of giving in and compensating the attackers. How do you see the Israeli payment to the Turks? 

Israel paid them "surra," a bundle of money the Ottomans would give to tribal leaders not to attack the convoys returning from Mecca, laden with goods. That's what we did now: 'You won't sue us for anything and we'll give you surra, we'll pay you to spare our blood, and that's the end of it. It's ex gratia -- out of good will; the Ottomans understood it well. You have a chance to harm me, so I'll pay you not to. I don't know how much you can hurt me, but you can. You know what? Take $20 million and stop all this. Let's not fight anymore. 

Does this give Erdogan a way of climbing out of the predicament he got himself into and presenting the deal he secured to the Turkish people? 

Yes. He'll say, "The Jews paid me." He can even present it as a jizya that the dhimmi (the protected class) pays to the Muslim. Fine. We'll say: We're paying you just like you would pay the Bedouin tribal leaders not to attack your convoys returning from Mecca. 

Does this payment affect our status with them? 

It will be forgotten, and within two or three weeks matters will go back to normal. Tourists will fly off, trade will develop. Everything will be over and forgotten. The standoff is over. It's not like there are suddenly diplomatic relations again, there always were. There was a crisis, and it's over. Everyone got off his high horse. It cost $20 million. That's small change for us. 

We made a great achievement in that nothing will enter Gaza. The Turks can set up a power station and other things there, so that the destruction in the next war will hurt. The more outside entities build in Gaza and promote expensive ventures, there will be more pressure on the Hamasniks not to upset us because we might destroy it in a day. Just like they built a big airport and it was razed in a single day. 

On a personal level, the demand of the families of [soldiers Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin, whose remains are being held by Hamas and Israeli civilian Avera Mengistu, who has been in Hamas captivity since he crossed the border fence in September 2014] is certainly understandable. But can the Turks exert influence over Hamas on the matter of the soldiers' bodies? 

No. One has nothing to do with the other. What do the Turks have to do with the bodies -- did they fight a war with us? Hamas also won't give them a thing, because they want to use the bodies for their own gain. [The Turks] don't have that kind of ability to pressure [Hamas]. Maybe Egypt does. The Turks aren't in charge in Gaza. They make a lot of noise and want to look like the leaders of the Middle East. Will they give to Hamas? After a ship or two of Turkish aid to Gaza, that will stop, too. 

In principle, is it right to tie diplomatic agreements to the return of bodies? 

Any pressure on the government that might, heaven forbid, lead to the release of murderers in exchange for bodies is very dangerous. First and foremost, it's our own internal matter, not the Turks' and not anyone else's. We ourselves should understand that pressure on the government, like there was in the case of [captive IDF soldier Gilad Schalit] is a disgrace, and even turned Schalit into a hero. The soldiers' bodies have nothing to do with the Marmara or this agreement. The Turks can't do a thing. Were we supposed to scrap an important agreement because of something impossible? 

You are a student of Bernard Lewis. About five years ago, I published a conversation with him in which he spoke about the ancient historical tensions between the Persians and the Turks. Where does Turkey fit in today in the Middle East puzzle? 

First, the Sunni-Shiite struggle always exists in the background, the tension between Turkey, which wants to establish itself as the speaker for Sunni goals, and Iran, which expresses the goals of the Shiites. This tension is currently playing out in two war zones: Iraq and Syria. 

Despite being a minority, do the Shiites want to turn all Islam into Shiite Islam? 

They want to turn the entire world Shiite. They have a long-standing emotional historical grudge against the Sunnis. It doesn't matter to them that they're a minority. In the end, they want to get even, even if Hussein [ibn Ali, the grandson of Muhammad] was murdered 1,350 years ago -- as far as they're concerned, it happened yesterday morning. 

This is a point I've addressed in my research: that in ultra-conservative societies, time is less linear and more a frozen loop, mythological. In other words, historic events didn't take place in the far distant past, but are constantly present. 

Very true. While the Shiite world says that it has a long grudge against the Sunnis, the Sunni world says that its answer to the Shiites and the world as a whole is to go back to the days of Muhammad, back to the caliphate. The Shiites talk about the Mahdi -- the living, hidden messiah. The Sunnis say that the world of Islam, which has sustained serious blows and almost reached the point of collapse, can be revived. Not by democratization or modernity -- the opposite: by returning to the time of Abu Bakhr [the first caliph after Muhammad], the time of Muhammad. If we revive the pure, clean Islam of the days of the Prophet, we'll found the caliphate. 

Why, after six years, did the Turks conclude that they had to compromise? 

Turkey wants to be accepted in Europe. Not just economically, but also to open the gates of Europe to the millions of Muslim migrants who will pass through it. It can't be in a situation of dispute with Israel. The Turks' feeling is that Israel is developing a ring of countries around it. The important one is Russia. The Russians are old enemies of the Turks. Recently, Israel is developing a relationship with Russia, which is of great concern to the Turks. 

I heard that Israel was secretly behind the Turkish apology to the Russians [for downing the Russian fighter jet]. Since when are they enemies? 

Since the days of Peter the Great (1672-1725.) The Russians very much want to reach what they call "the warm waters" -- the Mediterranean Sea, in other words. The only access they have to the Mediterranean, which is also why they're busy in the Ukraine now, is via the Black Sea, the Dardanelles strait and the Bosporus. So the Turks have one eye on Russia, and the other on Europe and NATO. NATO is their insurance policy against the Russians. Israel is part of that quartet. Aside from the economic and other reason, the Turks want to play a part in the Middle East itself. The roles they can play are to get deeply involved in the wars in Syria and Iraq, or to play some part in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. So the Turks say, let's dig in and we'll be a moderating influence in Gaza, we'll get closer with Egypt. At the same time, they acknowledge Israel's power. 

Why [Hamas-controlled] Gaza, and not Ramallah and [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud] Abbas? 

As far as they're concerned, Abbas is irrelevant. They don't like him. Gaza is good for them for a simple reason: It echoes in the world. The Marmara [incident] was part of that -- Turkey wanted to look like the one that was lifting the Gaza blockade. It didn't lift the blockade, but looks like it's in charge in the region. Israel doesn't care, so long as we keep an eye on what the Turks are doing, and they know that. 

Don't forget that Erdogan wants to be a Muslim leader, to inherit the Turkish sultanate and caliphate. If it was up to him, he would declare himself caliph tomorrow. Because he sees himself as someone who is reversing the revolution of Kemalism [sweeping societal changes designed to differentiate the modern state of Turkey from its Ottoman predecessor, led by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk]. 

Do you really see that a great change has taken place in Turkey over the past decade? 

The revolution of Kemalism succeeded in the big cities, but in the villages, which is most of Turkey, Kemalism had only the most limited success. So long as the villages used primitive agricultural methods, there were a lot of working hands there. But when modern agricultural tools appeared, the villages didn't need a lot of hands. So people left for the cities and in Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir, Antalya, and other places, established neighborhoods that were essentially pure Muslim villages. The school system did cut them off from Arabic writing, but not from Islam. So Erdogan is depending not only on the villages, but also the Muslim areas in the cities -- that's his power. As long as the villages stayed villages and the cities stayed cities, the cities were the most important stronghold for the army and the revolution. But starting from the 1960s, the villages invaded the cities, and the picture changed. That's the rule.

Dror Eydar


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