United States too uncritical of Israel, says American author

Interview with Steven Hill, By Mustafa Edib Yilmaz, Today’s Zaman, Istanbul, Turkey, Oct. 31, 2010
A leading American author and political analyst has said the US has been unable and unwilling to push Israel to make the necessary concessions to achieve peace in the Middle East because of historical and electoral reasons.

Following an extensive tour in other parts of the Europe, Steven Hill — founding director of the Political Reform Program at the New America Foundation — came to visit Turkey, where Sunday’s Zaman interviewed him about Turkey’s role in the Middle East, its unique position between East and West and its bid to join the European Union. Commending Turkey’s approach to Israeli policies in the region, in particular, he said the US and Europe should pay more attention to what Turkey has to say about regional issues. “This is one of the areas where Turkey could bring another voice that is desperately needed to be heard at the transatlantic alliance.

The US, for both historical and electoral reasons, is too uncritical of its relationship with Israel and it has not been willing to push it to make the concessions needed to achieve peace in that part of the Middle East,” he noted, noting that the same inertia when it comes to reacting against Israeli moves in the region is present in Germany and other European countries, too. “You sometimes have to have the good cop-bad cop situation in order to move a situation forward to break the inertia. I think Turkey could help play the bad cop because the US has played the good cop routine too much,” added Hill, who has been a regular contributor to leading American and European newspapers and magazines on American democracy and US-EU comparisons.

Turkey has grown increasingly more critical of Israeli policies in the Middle East since Israel’s 22-day Gaza operation in late 2008-early 2009, which resulted in the deaths of over 1,400 Palestinians. Some 960 of the dead were civilians, and more than 400 of them were women and children. The two’s bilateral relations soured to historically low levels after Israeli naval commandos killed nine peace activists – eight Turkish and one Turkish-American — in high seas onboard a Gaza-bound aid ship in May. The fatal attack, which a UN human rights commission said was “brutal and disproportionate,” sparked worldwide outrage from people, but the US disappointed Turkey by falling far behind the average level of international condemnation. For Hill, US administrations have no choice but to remain silent in the face of such tensions if they are considering re-election because the Jewish vote in the king-maker state of Florida, which has 27 electoral votes, is so crucial. “There is no presidential candidate who can ignore this dynamic if he or she wants to win the election,” he explained.

‘Bush-Cheney failed Iran’

Dismissing claims that Turkey is drifting away from the West based on its vote on the latest round of UN sanctions against Iran, Hill said those kinds of comments are a result of “too much reaction to daily headlines” and in fact the matter should have been assessed in a broader perspective because, he said, Turkey made smart moves to defend its national interests and also to convince Iran to come to the negotiating table. Turkey and Brazil persuaded Iran to sign a nuclear swap deal in May but the West, led by the US, said it was not sufficient either as regards certainty about the Islamic republic’s nuclear program or as a confidence-building measure at the time and pushed forward with the sanctions. Turkey and Brazil were the only two members in the UN Security Council who voted against the sanctions in June.

On this issue, Hill lauded Turkey’s efforts, which focused on diplomacy rather than imposing the sanctions before all diplomatic channels are exhausted, and said the previous US administration led by George W. Bush and Dick Cheney in fact rejected Iran’s earlier negotiation proposals. “One of my former colleagues at the New America Foundation used to work at the National Security Council with Condoleezza Rice during the Bush and Cheney administration. He told me that the former Iranian government, which was more moderate than the current one, proposed that the US put all the major issues on the table and also offered to help with the war in Afghanistan, but they told them they were not interested in talking to them and opted to continue the post-1979 politics of having no contact with it. To me, this was a big mistake. Having a longer-term strategy could make use of Turkey’s role in the region, too,” he said, underscoring that the US approach is “too narrow” with respect to Iran’s nuclear program.

‘I talked about Turkey wherever I went in Europe’

Hill — who travelled to 20 cities in 12 countries in Europe lecturing people and meeting with representatives of government bodies as well as civilian organizations — said he talked about Turkey “pretty much everywhere” he went as part of that tour. “I think of it as a golden apple that Europe needs to figure out,” is his remark on the EU candidate country. He is clearly very positive about Turkey’s accession to the 27-nation bloc, too. “I think Turkey is going to be a great addition to the EU because Turkey can act as a bridge between Europe and the East. The country has already played that role to a certain degree as a NATO member, mediating between the transatlantic alliance and the East, and I think the EU accession is just a continuation of that.

When asked about the political obstacles put before the country on the road to EU membership and also about the Europe-wide rise of extreme right politicians, which also seems to be problematic for it, Hill argued that the obstructions because of the leadership in certain EU member states are likely to disappear because “they are not going to be there forever,” and the right-wing populist movements will also fade away when the present economic difficulties ease. Calling on Turkish authorities to hold fast to the vision of membership considering the economic and political benefits of the accession, Hill lastly said that Turkey will be a much more influential country in its region as an EU member rather than as an individual state on its own.

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