May 29, 2016

Perceptions of the Middle East and the Gaza War: Views from Key Countries


  1. Steven J. Rosen, “United States
  2. Paul Michaels and Noah Shack, “Canada
  3. Colin Rubinstein, “Australia
  4. P R Kumaraswamy,India
  5. Heymi Bahar, “Turkey

Biographies of contributors can be found at the end of each section.


The perceptions of Western elites and publics, the policies of Western governments, toward the Middle East have always been viewed as vital to events in the region. Perhaps such concepts are exaggerated, yet this subject is well worth examining. Thus, in the wake of the Gaza war, people from a number of countries were asked to look at trends in the places where they live.

Three levels are examined: the policies of governments, the attitudes of intellectual-media-cultural-journalistic elites, and public opinion. We deliberately chose a wide variety of countries from a number of geographical locations to get some sense of whether these factors are changing and their current status.

Finally, the authors were asked to take an informal approach, as if speaking to a group of people at a small symposium.

–Barry Rubin



 Steven J. Rosen*

Washington, DC, USA

The new Obama administration has named most of its nominees for the key Middle East positions in the White House as well as in the State and Defense Departments. It is thus possible to make an initial assessment of where Obama is going from what is known about these people. The appointees include Dan Shapiro and most likely Puneet Talwar at the National Security Council; George Mitchell, Dennis Ross, Bill Burns, Beth Jones (most likely), and Jeffrey Feltman at the State Department; Tony Blinken in Vice-President Joe Biden’s office; and Michele Flournoy and Sandy Vershbow at the Defense Department.

A full list is provided as follows.

A Realistic, Pragmatic Approach

Those who wanted a radical redirection of Middle East policy, particularly those on the left, are not happy with most of Obama’s core team. Few of the people announced or reliably expected to be chosen are known as hostile toward Israel or apologists for Iran, Syria, Hizballah, or Hamas. There is no one with a history of participation in ideological organizations of the left, as Sandy Berger had been with Peace Now before joining the Clinton White House.  In the key positions, only Chas Freeman, who reportedly will head the National Intelligence Council, is an ideological Arabist with a record of anti-Israel fulmination.

By and large, Obama is assembling a team of intelligent centrists with a realistic, pragmatic approach. Many of them have experience. Few are starry-eyed and romantic. Further, many have a direct knowledge of Israel and some understanding of its strategic position.

Potential Problems in U.S. Policy Toward Iran

 On the other hand, nowhere on the list so far is someone identified with a tough position on the region.  Broadly, it is a team that represents the thinking in the center of the Democratic Party. In a situation of real duress–such as an imminent Iranian breakthrough to nuclear weapons–it is not clear who among them might ring the alarm and rally the others to consider measures beyond the ordinary.

 There could also be a tendency toward magical thinking about the transformative potential of diplomacy. Among those who believe most fervently that Bush missed key diplomatic opportunities and failed to work with allies, there may be some undue confidence that the problems in the Middle East will shrink steadily as Obama’s new envoys get to work and talk with previously hostile countries and movements.

 Wishful thinking could be a particular problem on the issue of Iran, because the time remaining to stop its drive for nuclear weapons is so short. The new administration believes it can get more cooperation on Iran from Russia and China, and induce changes in Iranian policy by putting together a package of bigger carrots and bigger sticks.

What if Iran exploits the American eagerness for diplomacy and uses dilatory tactics to “run out the clock” for its final sprint to obtain nuclear arms? What if Obama’s diplomatic initiative fails and Iran calls his bluff about nuclear weapons being “unacceptable”?  President Obama has said, “I will do everything in my power–everything” to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, but will he?

If he is faced, in the end, with a stark choice between a nuclear Iran or the use of extreme pressure or even force, would the president have the strength of the will necessary to overcome domestic resistance to the tougher options, including objections at the Joint Chiefs of Staff? Or would he veto, not just the use of U.S. forces, but also Israel’s?

Finally, if the United States capitulates to a nuclear Iran and attempts to fall back on deterrence to contain it, would these threats be credible since, after all, he had just accepted something he had repeatedly stated would be “unacceptable”?

U.S.-Israel Relations and the Peace Process

There are other issues that may cause stress in the U.S.-Israel relationship. Israeli settlements–always a sore point–take on greater importance when American diplomats believe that a diplomatic breakthrough with the Palestinians is achievable.

There is little support in Israel today for relinquishing control of the West Bank, given Israel’s bitter experience after removing all soldiers and settlers from Gaza. Israelis no longer believe that territorial concessions on their part will bring peace with the Palestinians. Most Israelis believe that the issue blocking “peace” with Hamas and its allies is Israel’s existence, not its settlements. With Hamas in firm control of Gaza and possibly seizing control in the West Bank some day, the Israeli public is unlikely to be persuaded to entrust their security to agreements signed with Palestinian leaders who can’t or won’t honor their commitments, or who might soon be overthrown.

 The mood in the United States is quite different. The theory among many here is that George Mitchell achieved peace between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, and now he can work his magic between the Israelis and the Palestinians if only Obama is willing to use a little “tough love” with both sides. Some want more public criticism of Israel by American officials.

Some enthusiasts in the “peace camp” are urging Obama to produce an American plan for the solution, one that by their definition would diverge sharply from the terms Israel considers vital to its national interests, lest the United States be seen as “Israel’s lawyer.” If Obama takes all this bad advice, it won’t bring peace to the Middle East, but it will bring tension between Israel and its most important ally.

 The “peace camp” is urging Obama to take a more “even-handed” approach in the Middle East. Yet the effect of even-handedness is not even. The Arab League has 22 members and large amounts of oil; there are 56 Muslim countries in the Islamic Conference; and much of the rest of the world automatically supports Arab positions. Israel depends uniquely on its close relations with one main ally, the United States.  When the United States is neutral, there is a huge imbalance, and the scale automatically tilts the other way.

 The new administration may also have a lower tolerance for the civilian casualties and diplomatic stresses that arise when Israel is compelled to take military action in its own self-defense. Even in quiet times, there is likely to be heartburn about checkpoints and other Israeli security measures necessary in the struggle against terror. Obama could cut back on U.S. vetoes to prevent anti-Israel resolutions at the U.N. Security Council.

The George Mitchell Factor

Mitchell’s appointment is being taken in the region as a message that Obama intends to pursue a policy less closely coordinated with Israel and less fully under the control of the secretary of state. Mitchell is of partly of Lebanese descent, and was brought up as a Maronite Catholic. To many, he is a prominent symbol of “even-handedness,” but he is not regarded as hostile to Israel. As a senator, he had many supporters in the pro-Israel community, and he generally favored legislation important to the U.S.-Israel relationship. He also has many friends among Israel’s leaders.

Mitchell is best remembered in the region for the commission he headed in 2000-2001, which called for a freeze on Israeli settlements and a Palestinian crackdown on terrorism. Its final statement, known as the “Mitchell Report,” very strongly emphasized Israel’s legitimate security interests. Yet it received more press attention for its conclusion that Israel “should freeze all settlement activity, including the ‘natural growth’ of existing settlements…. The kind of security cooperation desired by [Israel] cannot for long coexist with settlement activity.” It should be noted that then Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon accepted the Mitchell Report as a basis for negotiations.

Israeli governments have at times accepted a freeze on the construction of new settlements and on the geographic expansion of existing settlements, but they have reserved the right to continue what Israeli President Shimon Peres called “vertical growth,” such as adding a room to an existing home or building a new home inside the geographic perimeter of the existing “construction line” of an established settlement. Also, Israelis generally distinguish between construction inside the settlement “blocs” that are expected to remain under Israel sovereignty as part of a territorial compromise, versus settlements expected to be outside the blocs. The Bush administration gave some recognition to these distinctions, albeit with reluctance and inconsistently. It remains to be seen whether the Obama administration will accept the Bush understandings on the terms of a freeze on settlements, including natural growth.

Mitchell reportedly has asked Fred Hof to be his deputy. Hof drafted the 2001 Mitchell Report. He is an expert on Syria and Lebanon, and has a clear-eyed view of Hizballah. ”Hassan Nasrallah… and his inner circle do what they do first and foremost to defend and project the existence and power of the Islamic Republic of Iran…. [Their] diplomatic center of gravity is located in Tehran, not in some bunker in the southern suburbs of Beirut.”

Obama’s Mideast Team: A Roster

Not all the names on this list, assembled by Obama Mideast Monitor, have been confirmed officially, but the following are reliably reported to be the nominees for the key Middle East positions in the Obama White House and the State and Defense Departments:

President Obama

Chief of Staff: Rahm Emmanuel

Deputy Assistant to the President for foreign policy: Denis McDonough


National Security Council

National Security Adviser: James Jones

Deputy NSA: Tom Donilon

NSC Chief of Staff: Mark Lippert

NSC Executive Director: Mara Rudman

Senior Mideast Director for Iran, Iraq, and Gulf Countries: Puneet Talwar

Senior Mideast Director for Arab-Israeli Affairs: Dan Shapiro

Vice President Biden

Chief of Staff: Ronald Klain

National Security Adviser: Tony Blinken

Middle East Adviser: To be announced


Secretary of State Clinton

Deputy Secretary: Jim Steinberg

Deputy Secretary: Jack Lew

Undersecretary for Political Affairs: Bill Burns

Undersecretary for Arms Control and International Security: Robert Einhorn

Iran Issues Coordinator: Dennis Ross

Mideast Peace Envoy: George Mitchell

Mitchell’s Deputy: Fred Hof

NEA Assistant Secretary: Jeffrey Feltman

Director of Policy Planning: Anne-Marie Slaughter


Secretary of Defense Robert Gates

Deputy Secretary: William Lynn

Undersecretary of Defense for Policy: Michele Flournoy

Principal Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Policy: James N. Miller

Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs: Sandy Vershbow

Deputy Assistant Secretary/ISA, Near East and South Asia: Colin Kahl


Chairman, National Intelligence Council:  Chas W. Freeman, Jr.


*Steven J. Rosen was AIPAC’s director of Executive Branch relations for 23 years and served at the RAND Corporation, a think tank doing research for the Defense and State Departments. He also taught at Brandeis University, the University of Pittsburgh, and the Australian National Unviersity. He chronicles the new administration on “Obama Mideast Monitor” and is a defendant in the AIPAC case.




Paul Michaels and Noah Shack*

Toronto, Canada


Initial reactions to Operation Cast Lead among the three largest federal parties–the Conservative Party of Canada, Liberal Party of Canada, and the Bloc Québécois (BQ)–were positive, while the left-leaning New Democratic Party (NDP) had a more critical stance. As the conflict continued, both the Conservative government and Liberal opposition maintained their support for Israel’s actions, while the BQ shifted its stance toward favoring an immediate ceasefire. In the final days of the operation, the NDP released a second statement more supportive of Israel’s strategy.

Compared to the 2006 Lebanon War, the political response in Canada was far more decisively supportive of Israel across party lines, notwithstanding the shift in policy from the BQ and the initial statement by the NDP.


Conservative Party

Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon issued a preliminary statement that was supportive of Israel followed by a second statement more pointed in its identification of Hamas as the principal antagonist. These sentiments were bolstered by Minister of State Peter Kent, who apportioned blame squarely on the shoulders of Hamas for the dire circumstances facing Gaza’s civilians. On balance–and certainly relative to statements issued by other countries–Canada’s position was exceptionally strong. The government’s position was sustained for the duration of the conflict, despite mounting international pressure on Israel to end its operation, and indicated a profound understanding of the contours of the conflict.

Liberal Party

Michael Ignatieff, Leader of the Official Opposition, delivered a generally strong and supportive formal statement on the conflict. The strength of the statement was diluted somewhat by poor choice of language, but featured an unequivocal condemnation of Hamas and affirmation of Israel’s right to defend against attacks aimed at its civilian population. Ignatieff’s statement was fortified by comments he delivered to the reporters, in which he decisively condemned Hamas for sowing conflict and willfully endangering civilians, and gave full support to Israel’s continuing response. In rejecting the prospect of negotiating with Hamas, Ignatieff stated that he “wouldn’t touch Hamas with a ten-foot pole,” and criticized them for manipulating the media. This represents the clearest and most positive statement on the part of the Liberal Party in recent years. Ignatieff also signaled to those in his caucus less supportive of Israel that his position and that of the Liberal party would not change.

Bloc Quebecois

The initial statement issued by the Bloc Quebecois explicitly affirmed Israel’s right to defend itself, and the absolute unacceptability of Hamas’ actions over a protracted period and its rejection of Israel’s right to exist. Other elements of the statement addressing the distribution of humanitarian aid reflected a more critical understanding of the situation, but were of secondary importance. Of greatest significance was the absence of moral equivalence or a mischaracterization of Israel’s response (i.e., disproportionate response). Following the UNSC resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire, the BQ issued a second statement calling on Israel to comply.

New Democratic Party

The initial statement issued by the NDP applied moral equivalence and failed to mention Hamas, let alone hold it accountable for the deterioration of the situation, including its cancellation of the ceasefire and previous attacks on the Israeli civilian population. This stance was articulated without caucus consultation and, following the engagement of pro-Israel MPs and party officials, a second release was issued in the final days of the conflict, laying out a more balanced position.

Canadian Media Reaction

 The Canadian media is not monolithic, yet two general points can be made of the Gaza war coverage: its was massive and, overall, it was fair.

 Journalists and editors commented that in the period leading up to, and including, the first stage of the Gaza campaign, Israeli officials did an excellent job in getting its message out: that Israel had exercised restraint through years of rocket and mortar firing onto its southern communities; that Israel wanted to extend the truce, which expired in December 2008, while Hamas refused; and that Israel was justified in acting in self-defense due to the intensification of rocket fire from Gaza.

A minority of reporters focused on the “carnage” of Israel’s bombing and downplayed the rocket fire into Israel. However, once the ground assault began, charges of “disproportionate” Israeli attacks gathered steam. Attention turned from Hamas’ provocations toward the wide disparity between the civilian toll on both sides and the growing destruction in Gaza. To a degree, this shift in attention can be attributed to the greater drama and sensationalism of the images coming from Gaza, and also to the frustration of many correspondents banned from entering Gaza by Israel.

Nonetheless, Israel still found widespread support in Canadian newspaper editorials and opinion pieces, and on radio interview shows. Some editorials even tried to defend Israel against the accusations of disproportionate response. For example, the January 6, 2009 Globe and Mail lead editorial, “Measured Action on the Ground,” noted the predicament facing Israel: “It is true that many more Palestinian than Israeli civilians have been killed in the current conflict. But the government of Israel, like that of any other nation-state, is answerable above all for the safety of its own people; it cannot acquiesce in violent deaths by rocket attack. By such an invasion, the [Israeli Defense Forces] can greatly diminish the number of such killings, but cannot prevent them all.”

The January 10, 2009 National Post editorial “Moral Clarity on the Middle East” commended Liberal party leader Michael Ignatieff and Minister of State Peter Kent for acknowledging that “Israel is justified in its campaign to defend itself from Hamas rocket attacks.”

In Quebec, some of the electronic media provided more balanced coverage than has been the case in the past. The French-language news networks Radio-Canada and LCN gave considerable air time to reputable analysts, Israeli officials, and eyewitness testimonies by Israeli citizens. While there is still much room for improvement, the networks’ reporting on Operation Cast Lead was much improved from the one-sided coverage of the 2006 conflict in Lebanon.

In Quebec, the print media’s record was more ambiguous. The news pages tended to be sensational, focusing on Palestinian civilian losses with little to no background information on the realities on the ground, notably Hamas’ use of human shields. However, the editorial pages showed unprecedented support for Israel’s right to protect its citizens from Hamas’ rockets, and understanding that Hamas was squarely to blame for the conflict. This was notably the case of La Presse’s Editor-in-Chief André Pratte and the Gazette’s editors.

Canadian Public Opinion

 Two major Canadian polls were conducted during the conflict:

On January 9, 2009, Ipsos released its survey of Canadian attitudes on the conflict. It showed that among those who followed events, 36 percent sided with Israel, 13 percent with Palestinians and Hamas, while half (51 percent) favored neither side.

 On January 22, 2009, Angus Reid, released its survey that found:

–21 percent sympathize with Israel; 15 percent with Palestinians; 32 percent have no sympathy for either side.

–41 percent say Israeli actions in Gaza were unjustified; 36 percent say they were justified

–45 percent say Israel did not try to limit civilian casualties in Gaza

–43 percent say Israel did not exhaust all diplomatic alternatives before launching Operation Cast Lead.

Despite the evident criticism for Israel’s operation, the majority of Canadians (57 percent) agree with a statement by Foreign Minister Peter Kent, who said that “Hamas bears a terrible responsibility for [Israel’s attack] and for the wider deepening humanitarian tragedy. The burden of responsibility is on Hamas to stop its terrorist rocketing of Israel.”

*Paul Michaels is Director of Communications and Noah Shack is the Government Relations Research Associate at the Canada-Israel Committee.



Colin Rubinstein*

Melbourne, Australia

The reaction of Australia’s government, media, and elite, and public opinion to Israel’s December 2008-January 2009 military operations against Hamas in Gaza was mixed. At the government level, both the Labor government as well as the Liberal opposition voiced strong, consistent, and principled support for Israel’s right to defend itself and clearly blamed Hamas’ rocket attacks for the violence and the end of the six-month ceasefire. As Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard said at the outset of the conflict (December 29, 2008), while serving as acting prime minister, “Clearly the act of aggression was engaged in by Hamas, which commenced shelling with rockets and mortars into Israel. That is what breached the ceasefire, and Israel responded.” Ms. Gillard also expressed concern over civilian casualties and called for the ceasefire to resume, but the emphasis of her comments was clearly on Hamas’ violence.           

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd issued a strong statement of his own. Speaking on January 5, 2009, he stated that “Australia recognizes Israel’s right to self-defense,” while also calling on both parties to avoid harming innocent civilians, supporting efforts for an immediate ceasefire, and pledging an addition A$5 million in aid for Palestinians in Gaza. Importantly, Rudd singled out Hamas as a “terrorist organization” and noted that any diplomatic solution to the Israel-Hamas violence had to include an end to Hamas’ rocket attacks on Israel and arms smuggling into Gaza.

Support for Israel was bipartisan as well. For example, Liberal MP Malcolm Turnbull, the leader of the Opposition, welcomed the provisions of the UN Security Council’s ceasefire resolution that explicitly condemned terrorist attacks against civilians and demanded an end to the smuggling, calling both “necessary pre-conditions for an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza.” The bipartisan support was also deep, with backbenchers of both major parties voicing private and public expressions of support throughout the conflict (largely drowning out the limited discord from a few backbenchers of both parties who have long been vocal on this topic and pro-Palestinian sentiment from the Australian Green Party).

The Rudd government’s supportive stance extended beyond Australia’s borders, all the way to the United Nations. There, Australia abstained on the UN General Assembly’s (GA’s) one-sided ceasefire resolution. Following closely what the prime minister and foreign minister had previously articulated, Australia’s UN ambassador expressed support for the Security Council’s resolution and belief that both sides should avoid actions that would harm civilians. However, he indicated that Australia could not vote in favor of the GA resolution because it did not call for an end to rocket attacks against Israel or of weapons smuggling into Gaza, and thus would not achieve the goal of a “durable” ceasefire.

Australia showing support for Israel’s position at the UN may be particularly noteworthy, since in November-December 2008 the Rudd Government had switched Australia’s position on two of the nearly twenty annual anti-Israel resolutions voted on by the GA (moving from voting “no” on both to voting in favor of one and abstaining on the other). Some analysts in Australia had sought to portray the switch as a move by the Labor government away from Israel and/or as an effort to garner support from Arab and Muslim states for Australia’s Security Council bid. The government’s vocal defense of Israel’s actions in Gaza would seem to undercut that theory, however.

In contrast to the supportive response of the Australian government, the reaction of Australian media outlets was mixed. Melbourne’s The Age newspaper and the capital’s Canberra Times were particularly critical of Israel. With respect to The Age, this included inflammatory and sensational headlines, captions, and photographs; news articles that adopted various “lawfare” arguments, such as alleging illegal use of white phosphorous, as their premise; an editorial that argued, “Killing civilians will not make Israel safer”; a hefty imbalance to its opinion articles–including one by Hamas leader Khalid Mash’al–and a bizarrely placed, antisemitic piece in the business section for which the paper subsequently apologized.

The Canberra Times opinion page was similarly unbalanced, with regular columnists criticizing Israel’s conduct of the war and reprinting anti-Israel commentary from the UK’s Independent and The Guardian. Even the Australian Financial Review, which has a business focus, got into the act. One of its weekly columnists cum analysts ignored both geographical and historical facts to argue that Israel’s goal was to drive Gazans into Jordan and further its expansionist aims, and it ran an editorial screaming: “Might is not all right: Israel has gone too far.”

On the other hand, the Sydney Morning Herald showed much more balance in its coverage. For example, despite having the same publisher as The Age and even sharing a Jerusalem correspondent, the Sydney Morning Herald’s articles were accompanied by more neutral headlines and captions; and although a regular columnist repeatedly used his space to proffer various conspiracy theories, the paper’s editorial at the outset of the operation was well-balanced.

The Australian had several strong editorials defending Israel’s response to Hamas’ rocket attacks and deconstructing many of Israel’s critics’ most transparent arguments. The paper’s opinion page also provided a range of viewpoints, from those supportive of Israel to those quite critical.

As for the public broadcast media, the two main television stations’ broadcasts frequently adopted the criticisms of Israel, particularly the lawfare criticisms (e.g., illegal use of white phosphorous, disproportionate response) as their initial premise for many of the stories. However, in those cases the broadcasts almost invariably interviewed an IDF spokesman and provided Israel the opportunity to respond to the allegations. Moreover, the stations’ performance was much improved from that in the 2006 Lebanon War.

Public opinion on Israel’s military operations against Hamas was also divided. Mirroring what happened across much of the world, anti-Israel protests were held in every major Australian city. Like their international counterparts, these demonstrations exhibited a dose of not just anti-Israel sentiment but also clear-cut antisemitism. This included the now familiar tactic of comparing Israel to the Nazis, Gaza to the concentration camps and Warsaw Ghetto, the Star of David being interchanged with the swastika, and, in one case, being burned, and even a young girl carrying a placard that stated: “Jews havent[sic] learn[sic] they need [a swastika] more than before.”

Using the Holocaust imagery and analogy against Jews and Israel was also a common tactic in Australia. One group, the Socialist Alliance, even specifically advised its supporters to use the “Israel equals Nazi Germany” line of attack, and provided a website from which supporters could print signs to this effect. Continuing this theme, in a press release, the chairman of the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils made the claim that “one is witnessing the very victims of the Holocaust now perpetrating much worse atrocities against Palestinians.”

In addition to the anti-Israel protests and the rhetoric exhibited at them, there was also a spike in antisemitic incidents in parts of Australia that coincided with Israel’s operations in Gaza. There were reports of at least one physical attack in Sydney and reports of verbal and written abuse in Melbourne, including the vandalization of a memorial in a Jewish suburb, antisemitic posters affixed to a synagogue, and various incidents of Jewish people being harassed when walking on the sidewalk. Finally, there was also an increase in efforts by left-leaning student groups on Australian campuses to enact resolutions decrying Israel’s conduct in Gaza and calling for academic boycotts of Israel, Israeli academics, and Israeli institutions. Most of these resolutions were either defeated or did not come up for a vote.

Anti-Israel rallies and antisemitism were countered by pro-Israel sentiment by many in Australia. There were counter-rallies expressing support for Israel held in Melbourne, Sydney, and Perth, drawing crowds in or near the thousands. Both Jews and non-Jews participated. Members of parliament from both the Liberal and Labor parties, some of whom spoke at the rallies, strongly supported Israel’s right to defend itself while laying the blame for the violence squarely at the feet of Hamas.


*Colin Rubenstein was a senior lecturer in politics, specializing in the Middle East, at Monash University, Melbourne, Australia, from 1975-1998. Since January 1999, he has been executive director of the Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC).




P R Kumaraswamy*

New Delhi, India

Indian reactions to the Gaza crisis were rather interesting. Much of the media and other elements of the elite were at odds with the government, for all the wrong reasons. Traditional pro-Arab positions came to forefront, many expressing their support for the Palestinian people. The destruction and casualties in the Gaza Strip were featured prominently, but many did not see Hamas’s culpability. For example, an academic described the 5,000-odd Hamas rockets as mere pinpricks.

The circumstances leading up to the crisis became immaterial and their attention was focused on the “disproportionate and brutal” force used by Israel. The clarion calls of the Damascus-based Hamas leaders became more credible than the relative quiet prevailing in the West Bank during the 23-day conflict. Some were looking forward to the outbreak of a third intifada. The alleged use of prohibited weapons by Israel generated widespread attention, and one leading media pundit went to the extent of advocating a special tribunal by the International Criminal Court to prosecute “for war crimes committed by the Israeli armed forces during the savage attack on the people of Gaza.”

Then there were security experts who drew parallels between the Israeli handling of the rocket attacks with the Indian mishandling of suspected Pakistani involvement in the terror attacks in Mumbai in November 2008. For them, India has a better case for a proactive counterterrorism strategy against Pakistan. In their enthusiasm to draw lessons from the Operation Cast Lead, they glossed over critical differences. When it comes to pursuing an assertive security policy, India is not Israel; and in term of responses, Pakistan is not Hamas. Above all, the many did not factor in the centrality of American guarantees obtained by Israel during the crisis.

The reactions of the political parties were along traditional lines. While the national parties were less vocal, the Communist parties and regional parties were in the forefront of criticizing the Israeli actions. They used the death of civilians to reiterate their erstwhile demands vis-à-vis Israel; namely, end of relations with the Jewish state or at least termination of military ties with it.

With the Lok Sabha (parliamentary) elections slated for this summer, many could not ignore the electoral advantages of a pro-Palestinian and, by extension, a pro-Muslim stand. The Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), which is part of the ruling coalition, demanded that its representative E. Ahamed must resign from the government. For his part, the minister of state for external affairs has expressed his satisfaction over the official stand. It is certain that the electoral battle between the IUML and Left parties in Kerala would soon be fought over the Gaza crisis.

Quiet in contrast to this, the official stand was sober and balanced. It is true that the prime minister publicly criticized Israel over the conflict. Inaugurating the Indian Naval Academy in Ezhimala along the Arabian Sea in early January 2009, Manmohan Singh observed: “I strongly condemn the hostilities taking place in Gaza and express dismay at the unfortunate killing of hundreds of innocent civilians.” Later that day addressing the annual conclave of non-resident Indians in another city, he pointed out that there were five million Indian expatriate laborers in the Persian Gulf area. Hence, he added, India was, “Concerned at the rise of tension in the region as a result of the attack in Gaza that has led to the needless loss o many innocent lives.” Strongly condemning ”these incidents” he hoped that the international community would work together toward restoring an early peace in the Middle East.

However, the official statements over the Gaza crisis have been more nuanced. The intellectuals’ one-sidedness was at odds with the tightrope-walking done by the Indian government. This time around, the officials were more nuanced than they were over the Second Lebanon War in 2006. In its first statement, issued within hours after the hostilities began in June 2006, the Indian government ”condemned” Hizballah, whose abduction of two Israeli soldiers had precipitated the crisis. This balanced position quickly disappeared thanks to domestic pressures from the Left. The unanimous resolution adopted by the Lok Sabha on July 31, 2006, declared India’s unqualified support for the Lebanese civilians who were at the receiving end of Israeli offensive. The lawmakers pretended that there were no Katyusha attacks against Israeli civilians. Even the BJP, known for its pro-Israel stance, joined the majority.

This time around, the Indian government was less partisan. Since the conflict began on December 27, 2008, the government has come out with five statements, all of which blamed Israel for the violence and deaths and demanded an unconditional ceasefire. Still, they were not as one-sided as this summary makes it seem.

In its first statement issued within hours after the hostilities began, India admitted that it was, “Aware of the immediate cross-border provocations resulting from rocket attacks particularly against targets in southern Israel.” In later pronouncements it accused Israel of using “disproportionate force” and “indiscriminate force,” which were “unwarranted and condemnable.”

In a statement issued after Israel launched the ground offensive, India demanded “an immediate end to military action by all concerned,” an indirect reference to Hamas. A few days later it described the offer of a “three-hour cease fire” as insufficient, because ”nearly three-fourths of the Gaza population” was without basic amenities like electricity and food. Welcoming the peace initiatives of Egypt and France, New Delhi hoped for “an early end” to the plight of the people of Gaza Strip and resumption of the peace process. Through these statements, India expressed its recognition of the complex Middle Eastern realities than in the past. One could fathom a few possible explanations for the Indian refusal to join to the worldwide anti-Israeli chorus.

The Gaza crisis unquestionably highlighted the internal Palestinian schism. The West Bank remained quiet when the Gaza Strip was literally on fire. Fatah and Hamas did not see eye to eye over the crisis. This naturally called for a measure of caution and balance by even those Indians who saw themselves as pro-Palestinian.

For New Delhi, there is only one Palestinian leadership: the Palestinian Authority headed by President Mahmoud Abbas. India has not recognized, though it doesn’t make this explicit, the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. Due to security concerns in August 2003, more than a year before the death of Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat, the office of the Indian representative was shifted from Gaza City to Ramallah. Thus, New Delhi could not ignore Abbas partially blaming Hamas for the current round of violence.

Furthermore, the position of the Left parties has weakened over time. Their withdrawal of support for the current UPA government over the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal has diminished their influence. Ever since the formation of the government of Prime Minister Singh, the Left parties have been demanding a “course correction’’ in India’s Israel policy. Recognizing that the termination of relations was impossible, they have been calling for an end to military-security ties with the Jewish state. Much to their consternation and disappointment, the UPA has enhanced the level of security ties with Israel. The launching of an Israeli spy satellite in January 2008 was a case in point. The influence of Communists upon Indian foreign policy has lessened, too.

There were those who felt that India should have followed the Venezuelan leader (soon to be president for life) Hugo Chavez and expelled the Israeli ambassador. India seldom emulates such maverick examples. If it were to play any diplomatic role in the current crisis, as demanded by the Left, it would have to engage constructively with all the principal parties. Its partisan reactions to the Second Lebanon War, for example, did not enhance India’s diplomatic influence in the Middle East, and India was not prepared to repeat the same mistake this time.

*P R Kumaraswamy teaches at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.




Heymi Bahar*

Istanbul, Turkey

The Turkish government has often criticized Israel, especially during periods of conflict. Yet as long as the identification of Israel’s adversaries was primarily Arab or Palestinian, this friction remained limited in both time and intensity. After all, Turks are not Arabs nor has Turkey enjoyed good relations with many Arab countries. Moreover, even if Israel’s adversaries were identified as Muslims, Turkey as a secular republic did not identify with that category either.

By the time of Israel’s Gaza operation, however, something had changed in Turkey: the entrenchment in power of an Islamic-oriented government led by the AK party. As a result, the criticism became far more intense and began to incorporate both Islamic religious and antisemitic themes.

The passionate statements of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan blurred the thin line between criticizing a state and a religion, as well as the distinction between attacking Israel’s policies and implying it was an evil entity that should not exist. As a result the basis of Turkish-Israel relations was called into question and perhaps jeopardized. Large numbers of people in Turkey were mobilized around these slogans, and their anger and hatred raised to a fever pitch.

A government-backed foundation placed posters across Istanbul calling to raise funds for Gaza Palestinians using a slogan similar to one employed by the prime minister: “You Can’t Be Moses’ Child,” ”Israel Stop this Crime,” and ” “Moses, even this is not written in your book.”

In addition, the Ministry of Education sent an official statement, signed by the minister himself, to all primary and high schools ordering all students to pay homage to civilians killed during the Israeli operation and ordered teachers to organize a painting and writing contest on the subject “Human Drama in Palestine.”

Most dramatically of all, Erdogan walked out of a panel discussion at the Davos conference after Israeli President Shimon Peres made a presentation defending Israel’s actions. Erdogan shouted, “You know how to kill people,” addressing Peres by a Turkish pronoun used with inferiors, and telling reporters that the confrontation was a new Gallipoli, referring to Turkey’s greatest modern military victory.

While Erdogan explicitly rejected antisemitism, his harsh rhetoric mobilized the Turkish public toward hatred both of Israel and also led to antagonism toward Turkish Jews that had been unprecendent for many decades. For over two weeks, demonstrators beseiged the Israeli Consulate in Istanbul around the clock, chanting anti-Israel and anti-Jewish slogans.

In a number of stores, albeit relatively few in number but with great publicity, signs were displayed refusing to serve Jews or, in the case of Jewish shops, stating, “Do not buy from here, since this shop is owned by a Jew.” A group in Eskisehir placed posters on its building: “Jews and Armenians are not allowed, but dogs are.” Graffiti appeared as well with such slogans as: “Kill Jews,” “Kill Israel,” “Israel should no longer exist in the Middle East,” and “Stop Israeli massacres.”

In Izmir, the threat, “We will kill you” was written on the doors of the synagogue. An Israeli women’s volleyball team was attacked by the crowd, which shouted at policemen trying to protect the players, “Muslim police, let us in so we can kill the Jews!”

On his return from Davos, PM Erdogan was welcomed by an estimated 5,000 people carrying Hizballah and Turkish flags, who chanted, “Tell us to die, we will die; tell us to hit, we will hit.”

These developments, however, had a great deal–and were perhaps even more–to do with Turkish domestic politics than with Israel. Since taking power in 2002, the AK Party has slowly pushed an Islamic and even an Islamist agenda to transform Turkey.

Internationally, Turkey’s position as a Western ally has begun to be questioned, given the AK Party’s broadened relations and supportive statements regarding Sudan, Iran, Syria, and Hamas, while raising anti-EU and anti-U.S. perceptions among the public. In August 2008, Turkey welcomed Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad warmly in order to cooperate for energy deals. Although Turkey seems to position itself against a nuclear Iran, in one of his speeches, Erdogan stated that “countries which are against Iran’s nuclear weapons, should themselves not have nuclear weapons.”

Meanwhile, the government expressed its empathy for the Sudanese Islamic regime by welcoming President al-Bashir, known for advocating a regime under Shari’a law (Islamic law) and considered by international organizations to be responsible for mass killings in Darfur, in order to discuss oil investments.

By seeking close relations not just with Muslim or Arab countries but with the most radical among them, Turkey’s negotiation for EU membership is at its lowest level since 2004. While some of these problems can be blamed on European unwillingness for Turkey to join, the AKP government has only worsened matters. Turkey’s relationship with the United States may also be jeopardized, with for example Erdogan sending the new President Barack Obama a message asking him to redefine terrorism in a way that would exculpate Hamas and Hizballah.

Turkey has had significant economic and military relations with Israel since the mid-1990s, and these long-term, mutually beneficial relations are unlikely to break apart even after the Gaza crisis. Yet having created a wave of anti-Israel sentiment, it is unlikely Erdogan will do anything to add to these relations. Thus it is unlikely Erdogan will once again play a role in Israeli-Syrian negotiations or play an important role in a Gaza Strip ceasefire. The irony is that–taking into account its relations with Europe and the United States– the recent friction in Turkish-Israeli bilateral relations may hurt Turkey more than Israel.


* Heymi Bahar is a government relations manager at a corporate public affairs company, Mmd.