Thursday, February 19, 2009

Ha'aretz Strikes Again, Again

An interesting followup to my recent post concerning the Ha'aretz article that spilled the beans about an Israeli general's rant about Turkey, in which he apparantly told Turkish PM Erdogan to look in the mirror before he criticizes Israel, in light of Turkey's track record on the Armenian and Kurdish issues. I had some questions about what it was that the general, Avi Mizrahi, actually said and if he had in fact referred to the Armenian genocide and the Kurdish issue in his talk. Since the original report only paraphrased Mizrahi, it wasn't clear just what he really said.

Emre Kizilkaya, a Turkish journalist who writes a blog called The Istanbulian, sent an email to the article's author, Amir Oren, and got back this reply [Note: Oren never responded to an inquiry I sent him]:
Maj. Gen. Mizrahi did not refer to the Armenian and Kurd issues in so many words. The indication or hint was clear and obvious to all present, but the word "Genocide" was not used. Of course, the interpretation was not denied when the report came out.
Hold the presses! A major diplomatic row broke out between Israel and Turkey over something that someone never said, but rather was divined by a journalist who may or may not have not been present at the event where what was supposedly said was never said? I'm all for scoops and airing out the truth, but attributing to someone something they didn't say -- no matter how "clear" the "hint" they are giving -- is a risky proposition and, in this case, irresponsible journalism.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Turkey's Ministry of (re)Education

Following an outcry, the Turkish Ministry of Education has put a halt to the distribution of a documentary which purports to tell the “true story” of the Armenian issue – that being that it was Armenians who slaughtered Turks in the early part of the 20th century, and not the other way around. The documentary, “Sarı Gelin -- The True Face of the Armenian Question,” was sent around to primary schools all over Turkey, and shown to students with the intention that it be used as an “educational” tool. “Sarı Gelin,” or the “Blonde Bride” in Turkish, is the title of a famous Anatolian folk song of Armenian origin.

From Hurriyet:
The documentary was criticized by academics for reflecting the official ideology of the Turkish Republic about the incidents of 1915 and undermining the claims of an alleged Armenian "genocide". The documentary mentioned the 1915 incidents. It is mostly criticized as unscientific and weak in its claims because it exaggerated the deaths of Turks while undermining Armenian deaths in an attempt to dismiss Armenians claims of "genocide". 

"The students were forced to watch that documentary, which indeed had no scientific background. That would only increase hatred and discrimination against the Armenians," the History Foundation of Turkey said in a written statement on Tuesday. 

Also, 500 Armenians and intellectuals have sent an open letter to the prime minister protesting this incident, daily Radikal reported yesterday. The letter asked the prime minister to exempt at least Armenian schools and Armenian students who attended the same classes with Turkish students from watching the documentary in order to "prevent them feeling guilty, ashamed and excluded from the others."

According to a report in Taraf (in Turkish), the decision to distribute the film was actually made by Turkey’s National Security Council, which has a committee that works on countering “false genocide claims.” Following a 2007 decision by the committee to distribute the film, Turkey’s General Staff bought 56,388 copies of the film – which show images of Armenian gangs attacking Turkish villages and of piles of corpses that are supposed to belong to Turks murdered by Armenians – which were then given to the Ministry of Education and sent around to school districts across the country. (An English-language version of the film can be watched online here – unless, of course, you are in Turkey, since the government’s ban on YouTube means the video is not accessible.)

This is the second time in recent months that the Turkish Ministry of Education has been involved in a pedagogical controversy. In January, during Israel’s attack Gaza, the ministry issued a directive for all students to observe a minute of silence for the Palestinians killed in the offensive. "This show of respect damns not only the cruelty in the Palestine, but also shows solidarity with the Palestinian people," the directive said.

Critics called the directive manipulative and an injection of politics into the educational system. “How can we describe such an action other than condemning it as a gross violation of [the] rights of children and [the] exploitation of them for some political reasons?” wrote Yusuf Kanli, a columnist with Hurriyet’s English-language edition.

Ha'aretz Strikes Again

If there were trading cards for Israeli generals, then the one for Avi Mizrahi – commander of the IDF’s land forces – would be a hot item in Turkey. For the last few days, Mizrahi’s name has been dominating the news in Turkey and been at the center of the latest crisis in Turkish-Israeli relations. According to a report in Ha’aretz, Mizrahi – who, like most generals in Israel, is far from a household name – recently said during a conference at a military base that Turkey should look in the mirror before criticizing Israel. Further more, Ha’aretz wrote:
He did not leave it at a clear allusion to the massacre of the Armenians and the suppression of the Kurds, but mentioned the Turkish occupation of northern Cyprus as well. In response to [Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdogan's call for Israel to be expelled from the United Nations, Mizrahi suggested that Turkey should be paired with Israel on such an occasion.
In response to this, the Turkish government summoned Israel’s ambassador in Ankara for a clarification. More significantly, the Turkish military, which had so far stayed on the sidelines of the ongoing Turkey-Israel spat, issued a strongly worded declaration. "The comments have been assessed to be at the extent that the national interests between the two countries could be damaged," it said. Mizrahi hit the trifecta, managing in one fell swoop to touch on Turkey's most sensitive issues.

But just what did Mizrahi say? A closer reading of Ha’aretz’s article brings up more questions than answers. For one, the piece contains no quotes; it only paraphrases the general, as if the information came second hand. Secondly, there is this confusing line:
He did not leave it at a clear allusion [emphasis added] to the massacre of the Armenians and the suppression of the Kurds, but mentioned the Turkish occupation of northern Cyprus as well.
Did Mizrahi actually refer to the Armenian and Kurdish issues, or was it the Ha'aretz writer who decided what the general was making a “clear allusion” to? (The original Hebrew version seems to indicate that Mizrahi “hinted” at those two controversial issues, but also doesn't make clear what he actually said.) Also, if the reporter was there, why no quotes? If the reporter wasn’t there, why not at least some kind of attribution, however vague, to explain how Ha’aretz came to find out what Mizrahi said? Was the meeting closed to the press? These are important questions that Ha’aretz’s piece leaves unanswered and really did deserve some attention from the paper, considering the article’s impact and the fact that the Turkish press and government are basing their reactions on Ha’aretz’s paraphrasing of Mizrahi’s talk.

Also interesting to note is how differently Turks and Israelis react to what a general has to say. Except for the chief of staff, most military leaders in Israel, Mizrahi among them, are fairly unknown and whatever they say has minimal impact, just another voice in a nation of talkers. In Turkey, when a general speaks, people listen. If the army comes out with a particularly strong statement, it can literally bring the house down. Deep down, the voice of the Turkish army is the voice of the Turkish state.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Gaza: the Hidden Cost for Israel

Stuart Cohen, a senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat (BESA) Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University, has just come out with a devastating analysis of Israel’s recent Gaza operation. Cohen looks at the operation from a number of angles, one of them being how much Israel lost on the diplomatic front, particularly with regards to Turkey. As Cohen writes:
There is not a single regime anywhere in the Muslim world that can today remain impervious to the sight of Arab fatalities, whose deaths have been caused by an army consisting for the most part of Jews. Even those governments who have no particular love for the Palestinians, and even less for Hamas (and they are many) cannot be expected to turn their backs very easily on centuries of ingrained prejudices. Only by substituting wishful thinking for strategic realism is it possible to imagine that Israel will endear herself to her possible Arab partners by killing and maiming hundreds of their co-religionists and wreaking havoc on their homes, schools and mosques.

Turkish reactions to Operation Cast Lead in many respects epitomize this situation. Virtually overnight, a country that many Israelis considered to be a vital strategic partner has publicly shown that she is prepared to play the role of a major critic of Israeli policy. This does not of course mean that Turkey aligns herself on the side of Israel’s foes – at least, not yet. But it does raise once again the sort of questions with respect to Turkey’s reliability that have always been in the air, and that became especially pronounced when she refused to allow US forces to make use of military bases on her territory during their 2003 attack on Iraq.
Given the delicacy of the Israeli-Turkish relationship, which is itself of course exacerbated by the complexion of the Turkish government, there are grounds for wondering whether the diplomatic costs to Israel of Operation Cast Lead might also not have outweighed its possible benefits.
The entire piece is worth reading. You can find Cohen’s short but to-the-point article here. As Israel's relationship with Turkey continues to suffer in the wake of the Gaza operation, Cohen's analysis seems particularly relevant.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

CHP to EU: Please Don't Let Us Be Misunderstood

Hot on the heels of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Deniz Baykal, leader of the Turkish opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), recently made his own trip to the European Union’s headquarters in Brussels. Like Erdogan, this was Baykal’s first visit to Brussels in many years.

Also like Erdogan, the CHP leader had some damage control work to do – but with a difference. While Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) have been accused by Brussels of slowing down Turkey’s EU reform process, the CHP has been viewed as actually opposing that process.

"The misperception about the CHP's opposition to Turkey's aspirations to join the 27-nation bloc may stem from a number of things, but certainly not from us," Baykal said in his party’s defense during a press conference with the EU’s Commissioner for Enlargement, Olli Rehn. It was a nice try to pass the buck, but the truth is that over the last few years the CHP has frequently based its opposition politics on a kind of reactionary nationalism, particularly when it came to issues related to the EU. The CHP, for example, was vehemently opposed to legislation designed to liberalize Turkish law regarding the rights of minority foundations, with one party MP even suggesting that passing the law would lead to Greek claims on the Hagia Sophia, the Istanbul landmark that was a church during Byzantine times. More recently, the CHP opposed the launch of a state-run Kurdish-language television station, arguing it goes against the "basic understanding of the state."

Visits to Brussels are an important thing, but Baykal – like Erdogan – should remember that the road to EU membership begins at home. Still, Baykal’s coming to Brussels, where the CHP recently opened an office, was an important step, one that may help bring the party out of the cold on the critical issue of Turkey’s EU membership. With both the CHP and AKP now professing their commitment to the EU process, what the bloc would really like to see, says Brussels-based analyst Amanda Akcakoca in a column in Today’s Zaman is:
… both of these parties working together for the benefit of Turkey rather than against each other, which is a totally fruitless activity and bad for the nation. They need to try to find some harmony and common ground, and if the EU membership goal can once again serve as this common ground -- given they both claim to back it -- this would be good news. Turkey needs a healthy political environment, which is not the case at the moment, and the EU would clearly welcome a multi-stakeholder approach to Turkey's EU accession process -- a process that was backed by the ruling party, the opposition, civil society, trade unions, etc.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Vote Laundering

Election campaigns in Turkey are a rough sport, one where the ruling party – with its access to the state coffers – has a significant home field advantage. For example, with nationwide local elections coming up in March, the governing Justice and Development Party has for months been distributing tons of free coal all over Turkey. Some papers have even claimed that all that free coal being burned has led to a deterioration in the air quality in certain cities, running pictures of smog choked neighborhoods that apparently were the recipients of the AKP’s largesse.

The government now seems to be taking things to the next level. In the eastern Turkish town of Tunceli, the AKP-appointed governor has recently been giving out not just coal, but also washing machines, refrigerators, ovens and even couches and mattresses.

From a report in The National:
White goods with a combined value of 4.8 million lira [$3 million] are being distributed free of charge to 3,300 families in need, the office of Mustafa Yaman, governor of the province of Tunceli, said in a statement last week. Pictures in Turkish newspapers showed people carrying new washing machines and mattresses on their backs. Tunceli ranks among the poorest provinces in Turkey. The yearly per capita income is about US$4,000…. according to purchase power parity, compared with nearly $10,000 nationwide, official statistics say.

“In accordance with the welfare state principles of our government, a project for those of our fellow citizens who find it hard to meet their daily needs is aiming to meet the need for goods like refrigerators, washing machines, television sets, carpets and sofas,” the governor’s office said. The aid is being delivered by a foundation linked to the provincial administration. Computers, electrical ovens and vacuum cleaners were also among the goods that were handed out, the statement said. A total of 3,020 goods were listed.
AKP officials, including Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, say the handouts are not about buying votes, but rather about fulfilling the Turkish constitution’s demand that the state help its citizens. But, according to Hurriyet, the official body responsible for overseeing elections in Turkey has a different take:
The Supreme Board of Elections, or YSK, warned the government Saturday that the campaign was aimed at influencing voters’ decisions and that it was in contradiction with the principle of freedom and equality in elections.

"We have made the decision and the necessary steps are being taken. Afterward, prosecutors may start the necessary processes to deal with the issue," Muammer Aydın, president of the YSK said yesterday morning, signaling that the probe would be launched. A few hours after Aydın's statement, the Tunceli prosecutor opened an investigation concerning the campaign upon a criminal complaint by a political party.
(Photo -- Washing machines being prepared for distribution in Tunceli, Turkey. From Hurriyet.)

Monday, February 9, 2009

Turkey's Israel-Syria Mediation and the Post-Davos Fallout

One of the big questions following Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s recent Davos outburst and his previous harsh criticism of Israel’s recent attack on Gaza has been what happens now to Turkey’s efforts to bring Israel and Syria to the negotiation table.

Starting in 2007, Turkey brought together Syrian and Israeli officials for a series of indirect talks in Istanbul that Ankara hoped might lead to direct negotiations. Initially secret, the talks’ existence was made public by Israel and Syria in early 2008. [For some background, take a look at this article of mine in the Christian Science Monitor.]

Cynics portrayed the Turkish-brokered discussions as something of a ploy that benefited all sides even if they led nowhere. Turkey got to burnish its credentials as an emerging Middle East mediator and show the European Union how much of a strategic asset it could be. The dead man walking Israeli government of Ehud Olmert could turn the focus away from its disastrous war in Lebanon in 2006. Bashar al-Assad, meanwhile, could demonstrate that he is not completely under the spell of Iran and that he knows how to make peace overtures. Still, although the indirect talks were on hold at the time of Israel’s recent attack on Gaza, Erdogan has said in interviews that one of the reasons he was so angry with Israel’s actions was that he believed the Syria-Israel dialogue was heading for a breakthrough and that the Gaza attack scuttled that chance.

How close were the two sides to a real breakthrough? In the course of reporting for a recent Monitor story about Turkey’s post-Davos mediation prospects, several analysts I spoke with said they believe the Ankara-brokered indirect talks had already reached a plateau before the war in Gaza. From the Monitor:
“The fundamental issues were not bridgeable by Turkey. For that, you need the United States,” says Henri Barkey, a Turkey expert at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania.
“The ball was going to come into the United States court anyway, so the current tensions were not a deathblow to the Israeli-Syria negotiations….”

….According to Alon Liel, a former Israeli diplomat in Turkey and chairman of the Israel-Syria Peace Society, a group working towards the resumption of talks between the two countries, the departure of the Olmert government after the Feb. 10 elections in Israel means that, from Jerusalem’s perspective, “The existing mechanism [for the Turkish-sponsored talks] has collapsed.”

“From the Turkish side, the mechanism has not only collapsed but we have entered a situation in which I have a lot of doubt that an incoming Israeli government will look at Turkey as a reliable mediator,” he says.

“We took a big hit on the Israeli and Turkish side of the triangle, but we now have an American aspect to this that we didn’t have before. Everyone is waiting for a signal from Obama,” adds Liel.
With everyone waiting for that signal from the United States, the issue now is what role does Turkey play if Washington starts talking to Damascus and tries to push the Syrians and Israelis to start talking again?

Joshua Landis, co director of the Center for Middle East Studies at Oklahoma University and author of the "Syria Comment" blog, warns that cutting Turkey out of the process would be a mistake. Ankara's improved relations with Damascus have helped attenuate the link between Syria and Iran, and if Syria and the US were to start talking, Turkey could act as a "handmaiden," Landis says.

“Turkey is going to help rehabilitate Syria. That is Erdogan's entire strategy: 'It's not that we are siding with Syria and Iran against Israel. It's that we are going to help Obama,” he says.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Ha'aretz's Dangerous Mistake

The Ha’aretz newspaper is often referred to as “Israel’s New York Times.” It’s certainly the country’s most highbrow paper, but a recent article raises some serious questions about the paper’s quality control.

On Monday, Feb. 1, the paper [full disclosure – I wrote an op-ed for Ha’aretz last year] ran a piece claiming that a synagogue in the Turkish city of Bursa had been set ablaze by vandals. The piece attributed the information to “sources within the Turkish Jewish community.” It was disturbing news, especially in light of the growing sense of threat the Turkish Jewish community has been feeling because of the extremely angry public response in Turkey to Israel’s Gaza attack.

There was only one problem with the story – it wasn’t true. The Jewish community’s official body quickly denied the report. I also spoke with a member of Bursa’s 55-member Jewish community, who said no such thing happened, although it was possible that some stones had been thrown at one of the city’s synagogues a few days before. It appears the article’s author, Yoav Stern, ran with the story after being contacted by some mysterious Jewish community “source” and failed to check with anyone else to see if something had really happened.

After being notified that the story was flat out wrong, Ha’aretz didn’t yank the story off its website or issue a correction. Instead it put the Jewish community’s denial at the top of the story, so what the reader was left with was an extremely bizarre article that starts with a factual refutation of everything that follows it.

With tensions between Israel and Turkey at perhaps an all-time high, an irresponsible piece of journalism like Stern’s is very dangerous. The day after the Ha’aretz article appeared, the liberal Islamic and pro-government English-language Today’s Zaman (which also has not distinguished itself in recent weeks, but that’s a different story), ran a piece headlined: “Israeli media launches all-out war on Turkey in wake of Davos showdown.” The Ha’aretz synagogue story was exhibit A.

From Today’s Zaman:
Increasingly negative reporting about Turkey by the Israeli media is adding fuel to the fire and exacerbating already tense relations between Ankara and Tel Aviv in what appears to be an open season declared by Israeli commentators and media pundits against Turkey and Turkish interests….

....Stressing that the Israeli media has always adopted a state ideology in foreign relations, [Seyfettin Erol, a professor of international relations at Gazi University in Ankara] said media organizations are being used as a proxy by the government of Israel in extending tension.
The Turkish press has been far from saintly in this fight, to be sure, some of them -- like Today's Zaman -- doing their bit to “extend” the tension. But is it too much to expect the New York Times of Israel to take the most basic steps before publishing something this potentially inflammatory?

Monday, February 2, 2009

The Online Conversion of David Ignatius

Washington Post columnist David Ignatius has been taking a beating in Turkey (and elsewhere) for the way he moderated the now famous Davos session that ended with a fuming Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan storming off the stage. To Turks, Ignatius’s efforts to cut Erdogan off and his patting him on the shoulder to signal an end to his comments were the height of disrespect.

But could there be more to the episode than simply bad moderating? It seems like some Wikipedia users wanted to create that impression. Last Friday, I took a look at Ignatius’s Wikipedia entry out of curiosity. I didn’t know much about him, beyond the basic facts of what he’s done and written, so I was interested to find him described as “A Jewish-American journalist of Armenian descent.” Wow – a Turk-hater and Israel-lover rolled into one! No wonder.

The wording of the entry seemed strange, though, as if Ignatius was an Armenian foundling taken in by the kind Jewish Ignatius family. Reading that his father was once secretary of the Navy also seemed strange. A Jewish secretary of the Navy, and there are no other references to this fact anywhere else online? The only thing I could find online about the columnist’s background was a Washington Post piece he wrote that mentions his Armenian heritage. It seemed unlikely that he’s also Jewish. I figured the Wikipedia entry would be corrected soon enough.

The next day, though, I was surprised to take a look at the English-language Hurriyet Daily News & Economic Report and find, in an article entitled “Debate moderator takes flak for actions,” Ignatius described as – per Wikipedia – “A Jewish-American journalist of Armenian descent.” It looked like the reporter simply took Wikipedia’s wording and inserted it directly into the article. After reading the Hurriyet piece, I went back to Ignatius’s Wikipedia entry to find the references to him being Jewish gone. He was still of Armenian descent, only now there were citations for that.

[UPDATE -- Today's edition of the English-language Hurriyet follows up on the Ignatius story and how the paper came to describe him using the false Wikipedia entry. It turns out that Radikal, part of the same publishing group as Hurriyet, used the caption "Jewish journalist" to describe Ignatius after the Davos debacle. Radikal's foreign news editor blames an intern and Wikipedia:
Ceyda Karan, the foreign news editor of daily Radikal blamed that newspaper’s error on an intern downloading of information from Wikipedia. After the newspaper was published, she said, they noticed the mistake and corrected it in Radikal’s Internet version.

According to Karan, Wikipedia had lost credibility as a result. "They claim to offer accurate information. They should have been more careful," she said.]
Looking at the entry’s revision history, though, told a fascinating story of an online battle to convert Ignatius into a Jew. Early on January 30th, he became, thanks to a revision by an anonymous Wikipedia user: “a Jewish-American journalist and novelist.” A few hours later, another user, named Mck134 removed “Jewish” from the entry. The word was reinserted 20 minutes after that, only to be taken out again a half hour later by Mck134, who this time added “of Armenian descent” to Ignatius’s entry. After that is when Ignatius became a Jewish/Armenian hybrid, with the next revision to his entry adding this multiculti clunker: “David R. Ignatius (born to a Jewish family May 26, 1950), an American journalist and novelist of Armenian descent.”

And so it went on throughout the day, with references to Ignatius’s “Jewishness” being reinserted into the entry as soon as they were taken out. Meanwhile, a user who added some citations for Ignatius being Armenian, added a note with his revision that said (in Turkish), “The chump is an Armenian, here is the evidence. Isn’t it a shame that such a person sits next to the prime minister as a moderator?” Ignatius definitively stopped being Jewish towards the end of the day and his entry was put under “semi protection,” which means that only registered Wikipedia users could make changes to it. Still, the old version of the entry has already circulated online though various user groups and other articles.

The point of this story? Of course, on a basic level, it serves as warning about the growing use by reporters of Wikipedia as a primary source of information. But it also adds to the debate over how new media and the online world are becoming another arena for conflict and are encouraging the growth of what’s being called “citizen propaganda,” something I wrote about in a recent article in the Christian Science Monitor. Fanning the flames of conflict – and sadly, in this case, turning Ignatius into a Jew is doing just that – is now as easy as making a quick Wikipedia revision.