With several international aircraft maneuvering the skies, the scene resembled a synchronized air show with airplanes diving and peaking in perfect tune. Bright yellow fire-extinguishing aircraft ascended sharply among the green pine trees spraying bright orange fire retardant and in the distance the yellow and red flames of the Carmel fire danced. Israelis of all walks descended upon Danya--a posh Haifa neighborhood--to witness what many Israeli onlookers called the "rescue operation". Fathers graciously pointed out to their young children where each of the aircraft originated (France, the United States, Sweden et cetera) while others criticized the Israeli government for not having enough materials and equipment to extinguish a fire of this magnitude. "I hope that they learn some lessons," remarked one onlooker, presumably referring to the Israeli government.
But as I watched the fire rage, listened to endless statements of support from the international community, including no less than US President Barack Obama and the Palestinian Authority, I could not help but think about the world's many double standards--even as they relate to disasters. Don't misunderstand me: Haifa is no less dear to me (or to any Palestinian) than any of its current residents. But Gaza is also valuable to me.
Where were the international forces--those belonging to Azerbaijan, Britain, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Egypt, France, Germany, Greece, Holland, Italy, Jordan, Russia, Spain, Switzerland, Turkey and particularly the United States--when Israel brutally set Gaza ablaze two years ago this month killing not 41 but more than 1,400 civilians? Where were these same countries when Israeli forces, using illegally banned weaponry, similarly devastated Lebanon four years ago? Where were the beautiful airplanes in the sky maneuvering to try to stop Israel's man-made disaster? The only airplanes we saw then were the ones that destroyed nearly 60,000 Palestinian homes and factories, completely decimating 3,500 structures; aircraft drones designed to terrorize 1.5 million Palestinians; and aircraft designed to plunge Gaza into perpetual darkness or ensure that thousands are without a clean water supply.
Back to the Israeli onlooker--indeed there are many lessons to be learned. Israel has undoubtedly learned that it is better at setting other nations on fire than at extinguishing its own fires and that lighters are more devastating than Qassams and Katyushas. One can dream that Israel will learn that those in glass houses should not throw stones. But as is often the case, Israel will simply take away what it needs to boost its rescue services before it sets another country aflame. It is hoped that Israel has learned that non-indigenous objects--such as pine trees planted in place of ethnically cleansed Palestinian villages such as at-Tira and Ayn Hawd--do not survive well in the Middle East (though looking at the latest settlement announcements, it is clear that this message about non-indigenous objects has not yet registered).
For Palestinians, there are also lessons. We cannot take comfort in outward statements decrying Israel's actions, in the face of a history of warm relations. For example, despite Israel's point- blank killing of Turkish activists aboard the Gaza-bound flotilla in May this year, Turkey is once again cozying up to Israel--just as it cozied up to Israel in the aftermath of Israel's brutal attack on Gaza in order to purchase Israeli military equipment.
But if there is one fundamental lesson that all parties have learned it is this: the different treatment between the international "rescue" of Israel and the lack of similar aid to Palestinians has little to do with trees, nature or the environment. Rather, the international community will always rush to Israel's side when it is on fire, but will never stop Israel from setting others aflame.-Published 16/12/2010 ©bitterlemons-international.org
Diana Buttu is a human rights lawyer and a former legal advisor to the Palestinian negotiating team.
Chuck FreilichThe flames in one of Israel's most beautiful areas were extinguished a week ago, but decades will be needed to restore the environmental devastation. Neither Israel nor the Middle East has decades to deal with its problems. The Middle East is smoldering, on the verge of a conflagration.
The good news is that Israel was given a badly needed wake-up call and its grossly insufficient firefighting capabilities will finally get a major upgrade. The bad news, as in 2006, is that the wake-up was needed to begin with and required numerous fatalities. Usually, only two or three people have to die before the government finally deals with some major danger, such as "red" roads or railroad crossings.
The even worse news is that we may badly need the improved firefighting and other civil preparedness capabilities in the coming years. In the three primary scenarios for military conflict in the coming years--a further round with Hizballah, a strike against Iran and renewed strife with the Palestinians--the home front is likely to be hit hard.
Hizballah now has approximately 45,000 rockets, a vast arsenal dwarfing the 13,000 it had in 2006, of which 4000 were actually fired. If a similar ratio is maintained next time, Israel could face a barrage of 15,000 rockets or more. If just some of these cause fires, the recent blaze may pale in comparison. The next round with Hizballah is probably just a question of timing; the current flap in Lebanon over the international investigative tribunal may provide the spark that lights that fire.
Significant international sanctions have been imposed on Iran. No one, however, the Obama administration included, truly believes that sanctions will stop Iran's nuclear program. Sometime in the next few years, we will face a moment of reckoning. Computer viruses and other means can delay this, but a military strike may still prove necessary and could cause massive retaliation against Israel. Further Iranian progress toward a bomb, let alone a declaration thereof, may provide the spark that lights that fire.
With the peace process deeply mired in a mutual lack of vision and leadership, renewed confrontation with the Palestinians may also be near. Some warn of a third intifada, probably an over-hyped threat; why should the Palestinians resort to such drastic means when one piece of charcoal, carelessly thrown in a forest, causes such destruction? An outrage committed by the radicals on either side, a single Qassam rocket that hits a school or playground, could provide the spark that lights that fire.
Various intra- and inter-Arab developments could do so as well, e.g., the ongoing Sunni-Shiite enmity, including the Sunni Arabs' deep fear of Iranian hegemony and nuclear weapons. Egypt and Saudi Arabia will soon face critical processes of succession, which could lead to domestic instability and even to their transformation into radical Islamist states. Both have large armies equipped with the very latest American weaponry, which could fall into radical hands, and Egypt could rejoin the war-fighting camp. Lebanon may still come apart. The West Bank and Gaza will likely remain divided for years, the PA may be taken over by Hamas, or collapse due to its own lack of legitimacy. Iraq may implode, or fragment, following the final American withdrawal. The future of the regimes in Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Sudan is similarly unclear. The burgeoning populations of the region, including a huge youth bulge, are increasingly confronting the combustible mixture of an absence of economic opportunity, political freedom and social restrictions.
The tragic fire in Israel almost begs the question; so what's new? Time and again, we encounter the same decision-making pathologies; the same focus on the immediate future, without long-term planning and preparations; ministries that operate as autonomous fiefdoms, rather than an integrative cabinet; coalition maintenance above all else; crisis management and improvisation. Decisions are taken but not implemented, such as 100 million shekels budgeted for firefighting half a year ago because "everyone knew" it was the weak link in emergency preparedness, but not allocated. Our leaders continually refuse to take responsibility.
In the absence of a concept, languages lack words. It is thus not entirely surprising that Hebrew lacks a recognized word for "accountability". Sticklers will note that a new word, "akhrayutiut", has begun making the rounds. Much like the concept itself, however, it has yet to take hold.
It is time for both Israel's leaders and the region's to be held accountable. We cannot afford too many more fires.
The only glimmer of hope is that the skeptics who view Israel as a "nation dwelling alone" in a hostile world were once again proven wrong. Eighteen countries, including Egypt, Jordan, Turkey and the Palestinians, sent emergency firefighting assistance. If and when we finally succeed in extinguishing the flames of the conflict, we will find that we have far more friends than we knew.- Published 16/12/2010 © bitterlemons-international.org
Chuck Freilich was a deputy national security advisor in Israel and is now a senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School and an adjunct professor at Harvard, NYU, Tel Aviv University and the Herzlia Interdisciplinary Center. His book on national security decision-making processes in Israel will be published in the coming months.
Bush's popularity was by then already declining, and in responding to the calamity, his characteristically breezy political style only reinforced perceptions that the US was in increasingly clumsy hands. Politically, then, Katrina was a natural disaster chiefly in the sense that nature became a stage on which prevailing political anxieties and debates could play themselves out, and underlying political stakes be brought into focus.
Something similar could be said for the forest fires that ravaged Israel's northern Carmel Mountain this December, and--in terms of their significance to the Israeli political scene--also the regional ramifications of this natural disaster. The crucial difference is that Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is not George W. Bush, and presides over a very different political landscape from the former US president.
The Carmel fires have been roundly pounced upon by the Israeli media as a sign of lacking governmental preparedness. Few commentators have failed to bemoan that a state that possesses the world's third largest air force owns not a single firefighting aircraft, but had to rely first on underequipped private contractors, then on assistance from an array of friendly and not-so-friendly governments, including Turkey and the Palestinian Authority, to combat the fires.
Predictably, such concerns have been explicitly paired with anxieties about Israel's "home front" vulnerabilities in a war with Iran and/or its Hizballah ally. This war looms as a near certainty in national political discourse, yet as such also raises the specter of renewed rocketing of Israel's heartlands, as endured during the 2006 Lebanon conflict. Many voices in the public arena have been quick to ask whether Israel is ready to commence round two of this battle. Tellingly, however, few have questioned whether this round can be avoided in the first instance. In this context, it is the political competency of the government, not its policies, that has come into focus.
The fact that the disrepair of Israel's firefighting capabilities is the legacy of several successive governments has absolved Netanyahu of much blame, according to at least half of all Israelis sampled in one post-conflagration poll. This has in turn extended questions of competency beyond that of any one particular party to Israel's political culture more broadly, literally transforming the disaster into an atmospheric issue. "The wind, it seems, is the only thing directing anything in this country," quipped Ma'ariv commentator Ben Caspit, in a comment on the progress of the Carmel fires.
Yet Netanyahu has also done his part to re-instill confidence in his own credibility. His political vulnerability ahead of the fires lay in attempting to be all things to all sides of his fractious political coalition, as well as to the Obama administration. In acceding to a settlement freeze, no matter how gutted of any import, he had alienated right-wing constituents. In not extending the freeze, or casting Israel into momentary international isolation over the Gaza blockade--as well as confrontation with former ally Turkey--he would have worried a more centrist crowd. Having finally forced Washington to abandon its demands that he extend the freeze, however, Netanyahu found himself in a new position: having faced down the US president, he could well afford to accept the help of firefighters from Bulgaria.
Indeed, as a disaster statesman, calling in assistance from over a score of different countries, Netanyahu has also done some to dispel domestic fears of isolation in the international arena. The Carmel fires offered Turkey a chance to dampen the flames of post Mavi Marmara acrimony, and Netanyahu the opening to offer compensation to the families of Turkish activists killed on the ship. Though neither of these gestures may ultimately prove transformative, they reveal that a deeper political dynamic is at work in this relationship. Turkey may not need Israel as much as Israel needs Turkey, but neither is it in Ankara's interest to sustain an open rift with Tel Aviv, and as such also incur the further displeasure of the US.
In the final, and perhaps most poignant analysis, the Carmel disaster also provided Netanyahu with a chance to rehearse and reinvigorate a distinctive national political style, adaptable from Dwight D. Eisenhower as "if a problem cannot be solved, militarize it." Amidst a national media coverage that portrayed Israeli fire-spraying aeronauts "as if they were combat pilots on duty", he announced the formation of an IAF squadron of specialized aircraft to subdue any future fires, reaffirming faith in the ability of military hardware to solve complex crises. By the middle of the month, opinion polls gave him 60-80 percent approval ratings, with a majority of Israelis being impressed by his leadership during the national crisis. Unlike Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in 2006, of course, Netanyahu also benefited from the inevitability of success in this "home front" battle, however costly the price paid. Unlike Hizballah, a forest fire will always, eventually, extinguish itself.-Published 16/12/2010 © bitterlemons-international.org
Peter Lagerquist is a writer and occasional political consultant. He has written about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for Le Monde Diplomatique, the Journal of Palestine Studies, the Guardian and the New York Times, among other publications.
Soli OzelThe deadly forest fire on Mount Carmel presented a timely opportunity for the Turkish and Israeli governments to climb down from their crisis mode and look for an opening to start the normalization of their relations. Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan swiftly decided to send two firefighting aircraft to Israel as his "humanitarian and Islamic duty". Rising to the occasion, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu called his Turkish counterpart to show his appreciation, and at the site of the blaze personally thanked Turkish firefighters.
With the theatrics of the situation well taken care of, the two sides in short order sent their representatives to Geneva to look for ways to break the impasse they have found themselves in since the end of May. Relations hit a breaking point when the Israeli military attacked an aid flotilla in international waters and killed nine Turks (one of them an American citizen) after it encountered resistance by activists on the flagship Mavi Marmara.
The Israeli side argued that this was an act of self-defense and that the primary instigator of the flotilla was an Islamist organization whose members had at the very least dubious affiliations. The Turkish side, on the other hand, insists on the illegality of the attack since it took place in international waters, accuses Israel of violating international conventions and laws in the way it treated the detainees, and demands both an official apology and indemnity for the victims of the raid.
So far, a judicious report by the UN Human Rights Council has provided strong support for the Turkish case. A commission brought together by the secretary general of the UN is also working on a report that is already overdue mainly because of Israeli lethargy and foot dragging.
Although the gestures by the two parties came rapidly and the Geneva talks immediately convened (they were later suspended), a problem remains. How do you come up with a magic formula for a conflict-resolving statement that gives two diametrically opposed messages so that both parties can save face? Turkey will not be satisfied unless it receives an apology for the death of its citizens. Israel is officially hesitant even to express regret.
This is the impasse in the troubled, edgy and acerbic Turkish-Israeli relationship.
If the formula can be found, then the parties may turn to their publics, boast of their victory and go back to reasonably civil relations, even if the intimacy that obtained during the heyday of their relations is likely never to be recovered. Indeed, the degree of commonality of interests that existed in the context of the mid-1990s between the two countries is no more.
On the most critical issues of the Middle Eastern regional order, the two capitals do not see eye to eye. Turkey's preference is almost exclusively for non-belligerence in solving the problems of the region. It is committed to a two-state solution and strongly opposes Israeli settlement activities, not to mention Israel's policy toward Gaza. On Iran, it steadfastly opposes the military option. Therefore Turkey is at odds with Israel, even though it may not like a nuclear Iran or an Iran that makes its strategic peace with the United States any better than Israel.
What developments since the Carmel fire demonstrate, however, is the existence of a political will on the part of both prime ministers to forge ahead, break the impasse and move on. Turkey is interested in not having Israel as a thorn in its side, especially when this concerns its relations with the US. Israel values the Turkish connection, is interested in normalizing relations and wishes to have an agreement so that Turkey can help indemnify its military against lawsuits that might result from the findings of the report of the secretary general's commission.
Many observers wanted to invest the forest fire with the kind of psychological breakthrough that the earthquakes in Turkey and Greece in 1999 proved to be. Although there is no denying the importance of the psychological dimension, that was not the only reason for Turkish-Greek relations to take a turn for the better. There were already political developments and a fairly well advanced rapprochement at both the political and societal levels that provided the basis for that breakthrough.
In the Israeli-Turkish case as well, I would argue that political expediency plays an important role in Erdogan's apparent readiness to jump on the opportunity provided by the fire. While Erdogan was taking this critical step, his party members were accusing Israel of being the mastermind behind the Wikileaks scandal that they saw as a plot to embarrass and weaken the AKP government.
For Turkey, the falling out with Israel and the populist rhetoric used in the wake of the flotilla incident have proved to be pretty costly in terms of its relations with Washington. Combined with the shock and fury engendered by the Turkish vote against the new Iran sanctions package at the UN Security Council, Turkish-American relations have soured significantly.
Erdogan's meeting with US President Barack Obama in Toronto during the G-20 summit was reportedly testy. In the US Congress, anti-Turkish sentiment rose to new heights. The Israeli lobby that long acted as Turkey's reliable ally in Congress and in American public opinion turned decisively anti- Turkish and engaged in a defamation campaign against the AKP government. All this resurrected the tired talk about Turkey's changing axis because of the Islamization of its foreign policy. It became quite clear to the Turkish authorities that so long as the row with Israel continued, relations with the United States could not be put on the right track.
Israel and Turkey look at the Middle Eastern regional order from very different perspectives. The Turkish military no longer calls the shots in determining the course of these relations. Public opinion, which will remain anti-Israel as long as the Palestinian issue is not resolved, influences policy-makers. At the same time, there are now strong constituencies that prefer a more cautious and moderate course in the conduct of policy toward Israel.
So if the magic formula is found, one can expect correct if not cordial relations between Israel and Turkey. This will get Israel off the hook on the flotilla affair and relieve Turkey of the pressures of an antagonistic and influential lobby in Washington. Based on the overwhelmingly positive reaction of the Israeli public and the media to Turkish assistance during the fire, such a development may also lead to a return to the trends of pre-flotilla days in societal relations.- Published 16/12/2010 © bitterlemons-international.org
Soli Ozel is a lecturer at Kadir Has University and a columnist for Haberturk newspaper.