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International Apologies and Honor in IR: The Turkish-Israeli Conflict

09/05/2013

“God forbid we apologize…National pride is not just something people just say on the street, it holds strategic significance”. Former Israeli Minister for strategic affairs, Moshe Ya’alon

The official apology issued by Israeli PM, Benjamin Netanyahu to Turkey a few weeks ago caught me by surprise while I was sitting in what is a fairly ironic setting to receive such news: a conference about honor in the Middle East in Ottoman and contemporary times. And even though most debates and papers presented by my peers dealt with 19th century honor in imperial politics of the old Levant, they could have been easily written about current events thus enhancing the notion of the concept’s enduring resonance.

To those of you who do not follow Middle Eastern news feverishly (shame on you!) this long Turkish-Israeli saga would probably seem like something out of a “The knights of the round table” legends. Nevertheless, it is a true story – one that has affected the strategic relations in the Middle East for the last three years and demonstrates that even today, honor can serve as an influential factor in international politics, even when this goes against pre-defined national interests of regional actors.

But while the story of the Sir Lancelot and King Arthur starts with a table, the Israeli-Turkish ‘epos’ starts with a chair, a low chair actually. A symbolic one which was offered by the former Israeli vice minister of foreign affairs, Danny Aylon, to the Turkish ambassador to Israel as a sign of disapproval for the Turkish PM Erdogan’s harsh criticism of Israel’s regional policy. Trying to adhere to old traditional honor discourse, Ayalon sowed wind and reaped a whirlwind – his empty gesture was registered in Turkey as nothing less than a full blown national humiliation.

This rather symbolic act was one of the first in a chain of events during which the former close alliance between the states was reduced to bitter hostility. The crisis reached a summit with the tragic clash at sea between Israeli naval forces and what was defined as the “Free Gaza flotilla” of ships, resulting in the death of nine Turkish activists.

Despite the physical manifestations of the conflict, important battle was fought on the symbolic field of national honor; for three years this battle evolved basically around two issues: which side was to blame for the flotilla incident and the question of the “grand apology” – would Israel accommodate the Turkish demand for a formal apology (and pay compensations to the Turkish casualties’ families).

The demand from Turkey for an official apology may seem to most observers of international politics as nothing more than a symbolic political maneuver. Yet, the implications of this apparently cost-free gesture and the Israeli refusal to grant the request have meaning far beyond the symbolic-ceremonial level, damaging the relations between two states who, only a decade ago, were seen as strategic partners. Moreover, honor considerations have severed these vital relations during a time when both sides needed them most, including when Israel and Turkey were confronted with the challenge posed by the collapse of their regional neighbor, Syria, into chaos.

Our story can stop here and thus be considered to be just another Middle Eastern anecdote in an honor-saturated conflict. So what if in the Middle East honor still matters? – what relevance does it have to us in the so-called “post-honor” Western world? Yet, something in the identity of the involved parties hints, in my very cautionary view, that this seemingly Middle Eastern tale might not be just about the Middle East.

If Turkey and Israel are normally perceived as examples of a “westernized” version of the Middle-Eastern nation-states, then this honor-conflict between them and its impact on “rationally-acquired” interests makes you wonder if this Western “post-honor” notion can be applied globally. It is even easier to question the validity of these “post-honor” ideas when one gives a closer look at the importance given to international apologies, not just in the warm waters of the Bosporus and the Jordan River, but around the world. The Israeli-Turkish affair is hardly unique in exposing states’ reluctant to apologize even at the cost of damaging more materialistic and rationally based national interests. One striking comparison can be made to the 2001 Hainan Islands diplomatic crisis between China and the U.S, following the shooting down of an American spy plane. As in the Israeli-Turkish case, an American refusal to issue an apology (limiting themselves, just like in the Israeli case, to expression of regret) has resulted in an international dispute between in the two super powers.

The aftermath of the Israeli apology and the relatively fast pace with which things are going “back to normal” between Israel and Turkey leaves me wondering. If honor is (either consciously or not) such a powerful factor in the national decision making (at least in the Middle East), can honor gestures, such as apologies, perform not merely as causes of escalation but also as constructive tools? Can honor’s influential impact be leveraged from its traditional role as “the stuff that problems are made of” to a positive element promoting regional co-operation. Maybe, Dominic Moisi was right after all when he argued that “just like cholesterol”, honor (and humiliation) “takes both good and bad forms”.

This originally appeared on irblog