Özdem Sanberk, Turkey's representative on a United Nations inquiry panel looking into the May 31, 2010, Gaza flotilla incident, spoke to Monday Talk, saying that both Turkey and Israel are ready to “leave the unpleasant events behind” if Israel agrees to apologize and pay compensation for its bloody raid on a Turkish ship bound for Gaza last year, but also adding that this does not mean that Turkey and Israel agree on every issue surrounding the event.
He spoke to Today's Zaman following his return to İstanbul from a week of closed-door negotiations in New York that started at the beginning of July. The Turkish and Israeli sides maintained their objections to the report of the panel appointed by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and headed by former New Zealand Prime Minister Geoffrey Palmer. The report's publication has been further delayed until the end of July in an attempt to give Turkey and Israel a chance to resolve their differences. Sanberk, one of Turkey's most experienced diplomats, said divergences remain over the content of the report but that both sides have a strong will to mend the break in relations caused when an Israeli attack killed eight Turks and one Turkish-American aboard a civilian ship in international waters carrying humanitarian aid to Gaza, which is under Israeli blockade.
The UN panel's report accused Israel of using force prematurely and causing "unacceptable" deaths in its assault on the Mavi Marmara last May, an AFP report stated on July 6. "The report clearly indicates the responsibility of the Israeli soldiers, while also acknowledging that Israel has security concerns and the Gaza blockade is legal. However, we know that the Israeli blockade of Gaza amounts to collective punishment as it includes civilians, women and children who bear no responsibility for the perceived threat to Israel,” said Sanberk of the 90-plus page report.
He also said that even though these details are not clearly stated in the panel's report, another UN body, the UN Human Rights Council fact-finding mission in Geneva, had said last October that Israel's military violated international law during the raid. “The report said that the naval blockade was not legal. It is interesting to note that two bodies, both under the UN, have conflicting results in their reports,” Sanberk added. “I should stress that the report's reference to the legality of the Gaza blockade is unacceptable to us. Furthermore, the report also highlights the responsibility of the Israeli soldiers for the deaths and injuries. Therefore, if Israel is ready for an apology and compensation, we are ready to leave the unfortunate event behind.”
He said that there has never been bloodshed between Turkish and Jewish people before. “We were never at war. That is why we demand an apology. Our relationship is different than relations between Israelis and Arabs, and it is different than the relationship between Europeans and Israelis. Israel does not have historical claims on Turkey as it does on Europe and the United States. We have an equal standing when we talk to each other.” Sanberk elaborated on the issue, answering our questions.
First, what is the reason for the delay in the publication of the UN panel's report?
It's no surprise that the report has been delayed; it is probably the first time in Israel's history that it is voluntarily taking part in a UN investigation. This is new for Israel and for the UN. The Israeli national inquiry commission included a Canadian former prosecutor [former chief military prosecutor Brig. Gen. Watkin] and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate from Northern Ireland [David Trimble]. The Israeli commission did not release its report until the end of January although the United Nations had instructed Turkey and Israel to have their interim reports ready last September and asked that the final report should come out in February. However, a multilateral negotiation process always experiences delays.
What is the frame of mind on the Israeli side, since this is a first for them?
The Israeli side has an attitude of making a diplomatic gesture by accepting the UN investigation. They have repeatedly expressed their demand for understanding in the face of their serious security problems, and expect the same understanding from Turkey, which they see as a friend.
Have you sensed an approach by the Israeli side that they think Turkey is correct in its demand for apology and compensation?
From the very beginning, the Israeli side has told the world that the act of the Israeli marines was a legitimate act of self defense, but the world has not taken this rationale seriously as the attack occurred in open seas, 72 miles from Israel, and 64 miles from the so-called blockaded area. The attack, which included frigates, submarines, planes, helicopters, speed boats and heavy weapons, was promulgated against a vessel carrying humanitarian aid and unarmed activists who had to protect their lives with no firearms. It resulted in nine deaths and several injuries. The notion of self defense comes with restrictions established by international law, similar to those in criminal law, stemming from the idea of a sense of proportionate response. The military attack on the humanitarian convoy inflicted disproportionate casualties upon the civilians. Besides, it is prohibited to attack vessels carrying humanitarian cargo under any circumstances.
What is Israel trying to do?
Israel is trying to mitigate its responsibility. It is trying to say that it had no intention to kill people and that operational mistakes occurred. But even if I spill some coffee on you, I would apologize and offer to pay the cost of your dry cleaning; this is expected. Israel fears that the marines and their commanders would be exposed to prosecution abroad because an apology would be seen as an admission of culpability.
‘Report clearly indicates responsibility of Israeli soldiers'
What are the contents of the report, inasmuch as you can discuss it prior to its release?
There is nothing blaming Turkey or the Humanitarian Aid Foundation (İHH) for what happened. The report clearly indicates the responsibility of the Israeli soldiers but also says that Israel has security concerns and that the Gaza blockade is legal. However, we know that the Israeli blockade of Gaza amounts to collective punishment as it includes civilians, women and children who bear no responsibility for the perceived threat to Israel.
Is that pointed out in the report?
Not clearly. However, another UN body, the UN Human Rights Council Fact Finding Mission in Geneva, had said in October of last year that Israel's military violated international law during the raid. The report also said that the naval blockade was not legal. It is interesting to note that two bodies, both under the UN, have conflicting results in their reports.
How long is the report?
It is more than 90 pages long. It discusses the legal and factual situations separately. I should stress that the reference to the legality of the Gaza blockade is unacceptable as other UN bodies challenge this view. As a maritime power with the longest coast in the Eastern Mediterranean, it is obviously unacceptable to us that a country be allowed to intercept ships according to its own interpretation of the law. The overarching rule of international law is freedom of navigation on the high seas. It's the pillar of international law. Furthermore, the report also highlights the responsibility of the Israeli soldiers for the deaths and injuries. Therefore, if Israel is ready for an apology and compensation, we are ready to leave that unfortunate event behind.
Why do Turkey and Israel need each other?
Turkey's “zero problems with neighbors” policy is still valid. It can be implemented only by big states that have self-confidence. The developments in the Middle East and North Africa known as the Arab Spring or Arab uprisings demonstrate the importance of Turkey's “zero problems” principle. The future of the nations involved in the Arab Spring is unpredictable. In the case of Eastern European countries, even with the prospect of European Union membership, their efforts to reach stability and democracy took about 10 years. It seems the Middle East region is going to see more upheavals and suffering.
Israel and Turkey are two democracies where democracy is thin on the ground. Israel still has stability and economic power, and it is a country with very close contact with the United States. Israel has a well-known impact on the American political establishment and this has an effect on our relations with the US, too. Turkey is the only transparent and accountable democracy in the region. If tensions between Turkey and Israel increase, this would not be for the benefit of stability in the region.
Moreover, there has never been bloodshed between Turkish and Jewish people before. We were never at war. That is why we demand an apology. Our relationship is different than the relationship between Israelis and Arabs, and it is different than the relationship between Europeans and Israelis. Israel does not have historic claims on Turkey as it does on Europe and the United States. We have an equal standing when we talk to each other.
‘We have a unique relationship with Israel, but we stand in solidarity with the Palestinians, too'
Do you think the Israeli government will be able to convince Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman to change his mind?
I cannot speak for the domestic policy of Israel. There is a coalition government there and coalitions have their inherent fragilities. We would like Israel to demonstrate its capacity to act in a rational way. Israel expects an understanding that it has a security problem, but the Palestinians also have a security problem and they are entitled to enjoy the blessings of peace and prosperity just as Israelis are. Yes, we respect our heritage with the Israelis. We have a unique relationship with Israel, but we stand in solidarity with the Palestinians, too.
So will it be possible to leave these unpleasant events behind?
If Israel agrees to apologize and pay compensation, yes. We don't have to agree with Israel on every issue, just as we don't with several other countries. That's normal. We will continue to defend the rights of the Palestinians. Furthermore, we will continue to contribute to efforts to create stability, peace and prosperity in the region.
Was it difficult to be involved in the negotiations?
It has been a historic task. We are working for peace and trying to convince the other side to do the same, but of course the other side has its concerns. That is understandable, but obviously we cannot be expected to accept nine deaths.
You know that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan gave a speech in Parliament while the negotiations with Israel were going on, and the general interpretation was that he gave no signs of a willingness to soften terms on the issue. Do such statements make your job more difficult?
Statesmen make politically motivated statements and we cannot expect that to change. That's the nature of politics. All politics are local. We still have to do what we need to do, and we must continue to pursue our strategy of negotiation. We are trying to optimize the panel's report, in consideration of Turkey's interests and the interests of the wider region. Our task is different from that of politicians.
But I can see that you're optimistic.
I wouldn't be involved in this process if I weren't. But there are of course political forces which are not under our control as negotiators. I can fairly say that the two countries have a strong political will to leave this tragedy behind them.
What would you say about the US factor, which seems to be positively contributing to the process?
The US, Turkish and Israeli interests definitely converge in the environment of instability and unpredictability in the region because all three of us are stakeholders in the stability and security of the Middle East. In addition, Egypt and Syria, which will hopefully somehow overcome their unrest in the best interests of their people, perhaps not in the so distant future, also have converging interests with Turkey. Let's not forget that Turkey's “zero problems with neighbors” policy is still valid, and the political turmoil in the region makes it all the more necessary now. If Turkey were to abandon that policy, the whole region would pay a high price. Turkey has a central role to play here and it is aware of its responsibility.
While we're discussing the zero problems with neighbors policy, what would you say about Turkey's unsolved problems regarding Cyprus and Armenia?
It's a matter of time, but we have reasons to be hopeful. The basic principle of Turkish foreign policy, which is “peace at home, peace in the world,” or zero problems in the region, is still valid, as I said before. This is about the self-confidence of Turkey today. Turkey is pushing hard for peace for peace and stability, and at the same time it is taking risks on issues that no one wants to deal with. Since Turkey is willing to deal with those problems, it has been subject to criticism. One thing is sure: A solution is only possible when the two sides, not only one side, stand to lose if no solution is reached. You cannot achieve a solution by putting pressure on one side and rewarding the other. In the case of Cyprus, this is exactly what the EU did and, naturally, it failed. In the case of Armenia, Turkey is ready to open the borders if Armenia gives some serious signals that it will withdraw from the Azerbaijani territories it occupies by force in violation of international law.
‘Kurds are not a monolithic group; self-criticism is needed'
You prepared a report with BİLGESAM (the Wise Men Center for Strategic Studies) in 2009 titled “Democratization, Political and Social Solidarity Initiative for a Solution to the Kurdish Problem.” You are very familiar with that issue. Where is Turkey going with it? Are we in a good period for finding a solution to the problem or does more conflict lie ahead?
It would be pretentious for me to say that I know where Turkey is headed with this problem. The only thing I can say is that ethnic conflicts cannot be eliminated totally, although they can be managed. The government intends to solve the problem and has taken bold steps which were unfortunately underestimated by some Kurds. By the way, who do we mean by Kurds? Turkish citizens who happen to be of Kurdish ethnicity or terrorists fighting against a democratic system? Those individuals engaged in a bloodthirsty uprising against Turkey's parliamentary democracy are not representative of the majority of Kurds. That is the PKK [the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party]. The PKK is not the Kurds, it is a terrorist group among the Kurds. There are people at all levels of Turkish society who identify as Kurdish: They are part of the government, part of Parliament, part of the armed forces, part of the judiciary. No office, no position is closed to Kurds. They are deputies, judges, commanders, prime ministers and presidents of the republic. But like any government the Turkish government has a duty to fight bombers and killers unremittingly and also to root out those who support and encourage them.
Let's not forget that Turkey's democracy has made huge strides over the last 10 years. No one denies that we need to make more progress, just as you can never say, in any country, that you have arrived at a stage where no further progress in the field of rights and freedom is necessary. We definitely need to take further steps in many areas, especially in the area of freedom of expression and press as well as in the judiciary. But the answer is a new constitution, not new killings. It will be a long and painful process. Still, the biggest stumbling block to progress in that process is the PKK, as it has no intention of renouncing violence.
What about the BDP?
The BDP [the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party] has a crucial role to play. Every political party and every institution in Turkey has questioned itself for the last few years. The BDP does not engage in any self-criticism. But I'm hopeful that such new politicians as Sırrı Süreyya Önder and Ertuğrul Kürkçü, and long-time Kurdish politicians like Şerafettin Elçi, Ahmet Türk and Sırrı Sakık are capable of self-criticism. The important thing is for them to put as great a distance as possible between their party and violence. I think the BDP needs to question itself and assume responsibility for becoming a positive, constructive factor in Parliament, in order to begin contributing to the democratic efforts to solve this problem.
There are suggestions afoot to place the PKK's jailed leader, Abdullah Öcalan, under house arrest? Do you think that is possible?
Öcalan is not a political leader. He is the leader of a terrorist group. He holds no office. No one elected him. Terrorism is not defined by the cause but by the act. Violence can never be a legitimate action in pursuit of a political cause. Öcalan has ordered the killings of many Kurds. Peace and reconciliation in Turkey will not be achieved by upsetting both Kurds and Turks.
There is an idea that the PKK is a Kurdish liberation movement? Is this accurate?
Turkey has a democratically elected and fully representative government. Every citizen in Turkey has a share in national self-determination. The PKK does not fully represent the Kurds of Turkey. The outcome of the universal suffrage achieved in the last 2o years proves this. The percentage of the vote that pro-PKK parties have garnered in successive general elections in Turkey is significant. However, many Kurds are voting for other parties, including the AK Party. That means that Turkey's Kurds are not a monolithic group, and there are Kurds who do not support the views of the parties that propose alternative identities. Even if we suppose that they are a minority among the Kurds, which is obviously not the case, aren't they entitled to differ? Democracy means respect for minority rights. But does the BDP, for instance, respect the rights of those Kurds who don't follow them? Is dissidence allowed in the pro-PKK world?
A graduate of İstanbul University's department of law, Özdem Sanberk is a career diplomat who has served in Madrid, Amman, Bonn and Paris. An advisor to Prime Minister Turgut Özal in 1985-1987, he was the Turkish ambassador and permanent representative to the European Union in Brussels from 1987 until 1991. He was the permanent secretary-general of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Ankara from 1991 until 1995. Sanberk served as Turkish ambassador to the UK from 1995 to 2000. Following his retirement in 2000, he was the director of the İstanbul-based Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV) until September 2003. He is currently the head of the Ankara-based International Strategic Research Organization (ISRO/ USAK).