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Report no. 2; Istanbul, Turkey; April 2012

Impressions from the Region is a series of publications by Mitvim - The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies, which present the Israeli public and decision makers with perceptions and questions by Arabs and Muslims, as these are reflected in international policy conferences where representatives from Israel and the region take part. At times when channels for communication between Israel and its neighbors are limited, we find it crucial to distribute this information as a tool for promoting an Israeli foreign policy that encourages peace and regional belonging.

In April 2012, Dr. Nimrod Goren, Chair of Mitvim, participated in a conference on Turkey's new global activism, organized by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the Friedrich-Ebert Foundation. The conference served as an opportunity for an open conversation with Arab and Turkish policy analysts, scholars and journalists on the Arab Spring, the Arab Peace initiative, channels for Arab-Israeli dialogue, the Palestinian issue and Israel-Turkey relations. An early takeaway from the meeting was the common perception among the Arab and Turkish participants that Israel misinterprets the recent regional changes and adopts a policy that impedes the peace process, increasing its regional isolation. Below are records of the discussions with the Arab and Turkish peers.

A. The Arab Spring

Israel seems to be among the few states that support the status quo and the old order in the Middle East. Israel supported Mubarak, refrains from joining the Arab and Western call for Assad to step down, and pressures the US not to supply arms to the Syrian rebels due to a concern that this weaponry will end up in hostile hands. In contrast to its current position, Arab and Turkish participants of the conference believe that Israel should have responded to the Arab Spring by welcoming democratization in the region, renewing efforts to promote Israeli-Palestinian peace, and putting an effort to mend its ties with Turkey.

Among the countries of the Arab spring there is a general admiration for Erdoğan's Justice and Development party and its achievements. However, it is not seen as a viable model and there are little to no efforts to visit Turkey and learn its ways. There is more willingness to accept Turkey as a partner in the process of change in the region then to relate to it as "the big brother" who guides the way. There appears to be a collective will among the countries of the Arab Spring to create a unique model of their own which will serve as an example for others in the region.

B. The Arab peace Initiative

According to a Saudi representative, Saudi Arabia remains very serious about the Arab peace initiative and continues to stand for its realization. The initiative is still relevant and on the table. Now it is Israel's turn to act and make some positive step regarding the initiative. Therefore, there is no place now for an Arab move to promote the initiative or to launch back-channels for related dialogue or negotiations. If Israel presents even the slightest positive sign of its preparedness to discuss the initiative, it will be surprised to discover how easy it is to meet with many Arab representatives and how fast this will happen.

C. Channels for Israeli-Arab Policy Dialogue

Until there is a progress on the Palestinian issue—which ultimately means a significant shift in Israel's position—there is no room to expect institutes and organizations in the Arab world to be in touch with Israelis besides through international multilateral conventions and meetings. An Egyptian participant once infamously noted: "You had peace with Mubarak, but not with me". However, there is an interest in what is happening in Israel, there are those who read reports by Israeli research centers and there are those who stay in touch with Israelis they have previously met.

There is a criticism about the tendency of Israeli politicians and journalists to publish names and pictures of Arab representatives they have contacted with informally without any request for permission. At times this causes a severe damage to the Arab partners and may discourage others from getting in touch with Israelis they meet in international forums.

D. The Palestinian Channel

Fatah depends on the two-state solution. They initiated it and express their obligation for it for 20 years. If this solution becomes irrelevant—which is increasingly the case these days–Fatah will lose its legitimacy and its right to exist. Its days will be numbered. Obama has convinced Abu Mazen to cease from advancing its UN initiative until the elections in the US in November. Right after that, the efforts for recognition by the General Assembly are expected to be reintroduced and that is in order to save the two-state solution and to internationalize the process towards it.

The Palestinians claim that Israel should realize that time limitation is not in its favor, because the dismantling of the Palestinian Authority will lead to the rise of more extreme groups in the West Bank. Still, in Israel there is no sense of urgency. The state of economy in Israel is healthy, there are no major acts of terror, there is little to none international pressure and it continues to take advantage of Palestinian resources (water and soil). There is little incentive for Netanyahu to move forward, and it seems that only a negative dramatic event such as intifada, war with Iran or settler terrorism can push things or make the world intervene.

Palestinians sense an absence of an international player who is capable of progressing the peace process. The US is not engaged in it today, the European Union is deeply concerned with solving its economic crisis, and other Arab states are concerned with the consequences of the Arab Spring. Change is not expected in the near time and therefore there is a need for a new player. Turkey has potential to fill the vacuum. Turkey can mediate between Fatah and Hamas and offer Hamas a package of political and economic incentives to convince it to agree for implementing the conciliation agreement with Fatah. Under the current terms of agreement, Hamas is required to voluntarily give up the political power it has accumulated in Gaza, without getting something substantive in return.

E. Israel-Turkey Relations

Turkish participants expressed surprise over Israelis' security concerns regarding visiting Turkey and attending conferences there. At the same time they expressed unease over visiting Israel themselves. Their main concern is about the public reaction in Israel and Turkey, possible harassment on behalf of Israeli policemen and mainly about the security checks in the Israeli airport. They wonder whether Israelis are even willing to meet Turks these days.

There is criticism in Turkey towards Erdoğan for not keeping normal ties with Israel and for impeding Turkey's ability to participate in the peace process. In parallel there is an expectation for an Israeli apology over the Flotilla events and an understanding that until there is an apology, there is not much space for cooperation. They do not believe that the current government will apologize, but they hope to see a change within the next coalition. In the eyes of Turks, Avigdor Lieberman is more problematic than Benjamin Netanyahu. They believe that there is space for work with Netanyahu, just as Erdoğan worked with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in the past (although his image in Turkey was very bad), however as long as Lieberman stays foreign minister – they believe that there is no chance for progress.

Turks wonder why many in Israel has chosen through the years of Erdoğan's rule to pledge for a military revolution and the return of the old regime instead of investing in creation of ties with the new elites (including businessmen supportive of Erdoğan who make their profit from noteworthy trade with Israel). Even the liberals in Turkey do not miss the Kemalist regime, despite the criticism they have on Erdoğan. The Turkish participants claimed that it seems that Israel does not comprehend the change that Turkey is going through in the last few years and it is still stuck in a thought that Erdoğan's Turkey is turning to Iran.

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