Why Apologize?

Some folks at Commentary are, as expected, unhappy that Israel has apologized to Turkey for the deaths of Turkish citizens (and one Turkish-American) on the Mavi Marmara. Jonathan Tobin argues that it means far less than assumed, since the Turks aren’t interested in a genuine reconciliation (though he later wrote that he wasn’t as worried about Israel’s future being endangered by the apology as others on the right are).

On the other hand, Michael Rubin called the apology a “disaster.” Contending that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyp Erdoğan is “a deeply ideological man who, at his core, does not believe Israel should exist,” he believes that the apology will makes matters much worse for Israel because it emboldens its enemies, including those—like Erdoğan—who facilitate and support terrorism.

There has long been a debate over whether Erdoğan and the AKP more generally are radical Islamists in disguise, or whether they are pragmatic religious conservatives. Rubin seems to follow Daniel Pipes’ perception of Erdoğan as a wild-eyed fanatic bent on re-imposing the Ottoman Empire on the Middle East.

Putting that specific argument aside, Rubin and, to a lesser extent, Commentary pundits generally harbor a vision of Israel that harkens back to Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir—that of a people who dwells alone in the world. In this conceptualization Israel’s rivals, antagonists, and enemies can never be trusted, and so Israel—supported by the Jewish diaspora—must hunker down into a defensive position and never leave the “safety” of its shell. Because when it does, it will always be attacked. Instead, it must wait for others to come around to its own perspective.

This argument is a self-fulfilling prophecy. It doesn’t allow for any Israeli agency or initiative, and it puts Israel at a disadvantage by making it reactive instead of proactive. It prevents Israel from controlling of its own security and forces it to rely on the actions and dictates of others. And, in its darkest moments, it opens the door to accusing those in Israel and abroad who support a less aggressive policy of bad faith, weakness, or ill intent.

There’s no evidence that hunkering down and refusing to engage with others out of anger or fear benefits states. Indeed, it seems more petulant than anything else.

On the apology specifically, there is a growing body of work that explores the benefits of apologies in international relations. It suggests that Jerusalem can be unhappy with Turkish policy and remain at odds on some issues, but still reap several advantages from apologizing.

First, the specific type (or “ritual”) of apology is important, not least because there are cultural differences in how apologies are offered and received (which may, in turn, be at the heart of Rubin’s and others’ negative perception of the issue). There is a world of difference between prostrating oneself before an adversary, and acknowledging mistakes that were made. Recognizing the latter is a common form of communication. Note that Netanyahu’s specific apology was for “operational mistakes” that led to the loss of life. It was not—as Tobin does point out—a recognition of the wrongness of the military action. Nor does it absolve the flotilla members of any responsibility, or say anything about Israel’s future use of force.

Second, apologies of whatever sort are useful for putting embittering issues behind the parties and then moving forward to discuss contemporary issues of importance, or common interests. There is some evidence that acts of contrition can serve as a first step toward reconciliation (though not in all cases), and certainly trust between countries engaged in negotiations is critical to success.

But when an act of violence in particular is left to fester as an act of perfidy in the minds of the group against whom the “crime” was committed, it reifies the violence itself and grows into a larger obstacle to normalization; and the longer it remains the harder it is to overcome. In this case, it’s clear that Israel has much to benefit from improved relations with Turkey (shared intelligence, airspace, trade, to name only a few); allowing the Mavi Marmara affair to continue to block progress on these other fronts is just counter-productive. If the lack of an apology serves to remind Turkish negotiators of Israel’s untrustworthiness and inability to empathize with Turks’ needs (as they see it), then the negotiations are more likely to falter.

Third, apologies between political leaders can trickle down to societies, which may come to view each other in more positive terms. This can have a feedback effect on leaders who wish to account for public opinion. In Turkey’s case, Erdoğan’s populism has long been remarked on. If the Turkish public sees Israel more positively, he, too, will have to incorporate that into his own policies.

Fourth, a country that refuses to acknowledge when it was wrong, or when its actions led to serious and unintended harm to others, is less likely to be taken seriously when it demands the same from others. Terrorism is an ever-present threat to Israelis. Jerusalem cannot expect sympathy and support from others when its citizens are murdered if it doesn’t provide the same. No, I am not saying the deaths on the Mavi Marmara are akin to terrorism. I am putting the killing of civilians in a larger context, and like it or not Israel does have to operate in the broader world of norms and legal structures. If it ignores these norms and laws even in more ambiguous cases such as this one, it will be harder to demand justice for its own causes.

While Turkey under the AKP may well sympathize more with the Palestinians, even Hamas, than Israel, there are still plenty of issues that draw the two countries together that need to be addressed—including terrorism, Syria, Iran, energy, trade, and relations with the United States. It’s simply good foreign policy to recognize the differences between enemies, rivals, friends, and neutrals, and to recognize the importance of common interests.

Perhaps most telling when considering the balance sheet of the Israeli apology is that most Israeli security and political leaders attributed strategic and tactical benefits to one. Avigdor Lieberman was the only main player in Israel who opposes the apology as vehemently as Rubin.

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5 thoughts on “Why Apologize?

  1. Think you also need to look at this apology as a way to means of Turkish agenda setting.. Erdogan has domestic reasons for wanting this such as fortifying his popularity in face of dissent. Why enable his popularity? It only leads to another 10 years of non-secular regression at a neighbor which used to be a trusted ally…

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