Thursday, April 28, 2011

The White Elephant in the Room

By David Romano

Last week Turkish President Abdullah Gul published an op-ed in the New York Times. He argued that the “Arab Spring” can not result in democratization without a resolution of the Israeli-Arab conflict, adding that “The plight of the Palestinians has been a root cause of unrest and conflict in the region...”

President Gul’s op-ed reminded me of a joke someone once told me: “The United Nations asked a Frenchman, a German and a Palestinian to prepare a study on elephants. After a year of work on the topic, they returned to the U.N. with their manuscripts. The Frenchman held aloft an elegantly bound, slim volume of some thirty pages – ‘The Elephant in Poetry.’ Next, the German presented a thick, hardcover tome with 600 pages of authoritative scientific findings – ‘Das Elephant.’ Finally, the Palestinian came forward with a 300-page book -- ‘The Elephant: As It Relates to the Palestine Question.”

Given the trauma they suffered and their continuing statelessness and insecurity, most of us can understand the Palestinians’ obsession. It’s a bit more difficult to understand, however, why leaders of Turkey’s Justice and Development Party seem to obsess about Palestine. For decades, the Palestine issue was used by Arab autocrats to distract their population from domestic tyranny and injustice. They used the “Zionist threat” to justify the establishment of police states, failed development plans and all kinds of government abuses. Even long after national independence, frustrated Arab masses vented their anger at the whipping post of anti-colonialism, anti-imperialism and anti-Zionism.

The beauty of this year’s Arab Spring comes from the popular realization that Palestine is not the root cause of unrest and conflict in the region – not for Tunisians, Egyptians or Libyans anymore than for the Kurds, Berbers or Baluchis. When the people decided they had enough of blaming all their societies’ ills on Western powers and Israel, their emperors suddenly stood naked before them. Although Tunisians and Egyptians still yearn for justice on behalf of the Palestinians, they also finally demanded freedom for themselves, no matter what happens in Israel or Palestine.

So just as much of the Arab world is finally curing itself of an unhealthy obsession (if not abandoning a popular cause), today’s leaders in Ankara seem determined to catch this very same affliction for the first time. Following every loss of Palestinian life in the cycle of fighting with Israelis, Prime Minister Erdogan and some of his ministers explode into public rages and level the worst possible accusations against Israelis. Now that the Syrian regime busily massacres completely unarmed peaceful demonstrators, yet the most they can seem to muster in Ankara is a private phone call to Damascus “urging restraint.”

It may prove difficult for a rising Turkey to build an aura of principled diplomacy and regional leadership in this way. Turkey stopped being a valuable mediator between Israelis and Arabs when its Prime Minister adopted Palestine as his pet elephant. Although I think President Gul may have meant well with his op-ed and possibly friendly advice to Israelis, it’s as if the Justice and Development Party leadership imagines a Palestinian elephant in every room of the house.  When it’s always about Palestine, it becomes a white elephant and very hard to get rid of. 

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