The Middle East’s code of honor: Does Israel understand it?

Netanyahu’s change of course on Turkey reopens the question of whether issuing a forced apology, for an act deemed ‘legitimate,’ is smart self-interest or fundamental, damaging miscalculation

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

Turkish flags and a photo of the prime minister outside of an east Jerusalem restaurant (Photo credit: Uri Lenz/ Flash 90)
Turkish flags and a photo of the prime minister outside of an east Jerusalem restaurant (Photo credit: Uri Lenz/ Flash 90)

Sitting in a trailer on the tarmac of Ben Gurion International airport, holding a phone still warm from President Obama’s ear, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, after nearly three years of refusal, apologized last month to his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, for the deaths of eight Turkish nationals and one Turkish-American aboard the Mavi Marmara on May 31, 2010, and agreed to pay compensation for their deaths.

The apology was either a shameful capitulation that will cause true harm to Israel’s strategic interests, or a bargain, a toll of insincere verbiage paid in order to smooth the peacock-like feathers of Turkey — an Oriental gesture that promotes Israel’s interests without forcing the state to pay in the true coin of territory and blood.

The significance of the Israeli apology to Turkey — a deal that has not yet led to full normalization of ties between the only two stable states in the region — and the geopolitical ramifications of the move, in an era in which Turkey has turned away from Europe and toward the Middle East, hinges on the importance one attaches to both personal and national honor.

Turkey’s position, as expressed by Erdogan, seems clear: national honor is of supreme national importance.

As of late 2008, Turkey, which has had diplomatic ties with Israel since 1949, appeared pleased with its role as a broker between Israel under prime minister Ehud Olmert and President Bashar Assad’s Syria. On December 23, 2008, Turkey mediated its fifth round of talks, a five-hour session, between the two foes. “Olmert’s last sentence [as he left a meeting with Erdogan in Ankara at the time] was, “As soon as I get back I will consult with my colleagues and get back to you,” Erdogan told the Washington Post in early 2009.  “As I waited for his response . . . on December 27, bombs started falling on Gaza.”

On December 28, the second day of Operation Cast Lead, Erdogan called the Israeli offensive a “show of disrespect toward Turkey.”

Erdogan and Olmert during happier times at the Elysee Palace in Paris, some five months before Operation Cast Lead (Photo credit: Avi Ohayon/ GPO/ Flash 90)
Erdogan and Olmert during happier times at the Elysee Palace in Paris, some five months before Operation Cast Lead (Photo credit: Avi Ohayon/ GPO/ Flash 90)

One month later, he stormed off the stage at a panel session of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. He seemed slighted by an inadequate amount of talking time, as doled out by Armenian-American journalist David Ignatius; President Shimon Peres’ finger-pointing and voluble tone; and the applause that the crowd heaped upon the Israeli statesman.

Surely, Erdogan feels a true kinship with Hamas. The erosion in the bilateral ties between Israel and Turkey is a byproduct of ideology, of an inherent clash between Israel’s nationalist Zionism and Turkey’s embrace of a cosmopolitan Islamism. But the feud, as played out on the public stage, has revolved, instead, around honor.

The day after Davos, after swearing never to return to the World Economic Forum, Erdogan told a crowd of several thousand flag-waving supporters in Istanbul, “I’m responsible for protecting the honor of the Turkish Republic, the Turkish nation from A to Z. I am not a leader of a tribe. I am the prime minister of the Republic of Turkey. I do whatever I need to, so I did it, and will continue to do so. This is my character. This is my identity.”

The New York Times further quoted him as saying: “It was a matter of my country’s respect and prestige. Therefore, my attitude should have been clear. I couldn’t have allowed anyone to hurt the prestige and especially the honor of my country.”

One year later, the ties were frayed again by an issue of honor. Israeli deputy foreign minister Danny Ayalon, serving under then-minister Avigdor Liberman — one of the few Israeli cabinet members to openly speak about national honor and a staunch critic of Netanyahu’s recent apology — summoned Turkish ambassador Ahmet Oguz Celikkol to a meeting. Conspiratorially, Ayalon told the Israeli TV crews to “pay attention that he is sitting in a lower chair… that there is only an Israeli flag on the table and that we are not smiling.”

Turkish ambassador to Israel Ahmet Oguz Celikkol, right, on the low chair (Photo credit: Abir Sultan/ Flash 90)
Turkish ambassador to Israel Ahmet Oguz Celikkol, right, on the low chair (Photo credit: Abir Sultan/ Flash 90)

The point was to humiliate the Turkish envoy. The reason: payback for a Turkish television show – a fictional drama – that portrayed Israeli soldiers as baby killers.

Turkish President Abdullah Gul issued a formal ultimatum: apologize to Turkey or we will withdraw our ambassador.

After some sputtering and a weakly-worded attempt, Ayalon delivered a sincere apology.

In May 2010, the Mavi Maramara set sail. Naval commandos boarded the ship. They were attacked. Eventually, they fired their personal weapons, killing eight Turkish nationals and one American of Turkish origin.

Erdogan called Israel a terror state. But he did not take extreme action. Instead he waited for the international UN commission to investigate the incident. When it became clear that the committee was going to find Israel’s actions “excessive” yet fundamentally “legitimate” — that is, that Israel would not be publicly shamed — he yanked back the Turkish ambassador to Israel and announced, in September 2011, that regret and compensation from Israel were insufficient; he sought an open apology, he said, and the removal of the naval blockade around Gaza.

Occasionally, during the following years, his rhetoric veered toward war — with vows to send the Turkish Navy to accompany future flotillas.

In November 2012, Turkey put four Israeli officers on trial in absentia. In late February, Erdogan linked Zionism to fascism and called both “a crime against humanity.”

Then, on March 22, came the apology. Netanyahu gave Erdogan little ground on Gaza — a commitment “to continue to work on improving the humanitarian situation in the Palestinian territories” — but did at last deliver the goods Erdogan demanded:  “In light of the Israeli investigation into the incident, which pointed out several operational errors,” a statement read, “Prime Minister Netanyahu apologized to the Turkish people for any errors that could have led to loss of life and agreed to complete the agreement on compensation.”

The pill of apology was sweetened for Netanyahu by Obama’s visit and his laudatory statements over the grave of Theodor Herzl earlier that day.  But the significance of the apology, and of the role of national honor, remains a point of debate.

Netanyahu and Peres enthusiastically thanking a Turkish firefighter for his help during the Carmel forest fire (Photo credit: Abir Sultan/ Flash 90)
Netanyahu and Peres enthusiastically thanking a Turkish firefighter for his help during the Carmel forest fire in December 2010. Israel hoped Turkey’s assistance would yield a wider warming of ties. It didn’t. (Photo credit: Abir Sultan/ Flash 90)

Honor, like most things under the sun, comes up for discussion in the Talmud. The two main messages are: It should be bestowed when appropriate but never pursued, and not all are free to choose to forgo it. A father and a rabbi may forgo it, if they see fit. But a king, the honorable representative of the people, may not.

In modern Hebrew, forged amid the Muslim societies of the Middle East, the phrase has been twisted around. Hamohel al kvodo, kvodo mahul no longer means that one may forgo one’s honor but rather the opposite: one who forgoes the honor he is due is not worthy of any honor at all.

Majali Wahabi, a Druze citizen of Israel and a Likud MK who for years served as Ariel Sharon’s envoy in the Middle East, said that any politician who does not understand the dual nature of honor in the Middle East — that it must be bestowed and demanded in equal measure — “is inflicting real damage on the State of Israel.”

It was on account of this understanding, he said, that he was able to fly home from Amman on October 7, 1997 with two Mossad men who, 12 days earlier, had been jailed after trying to assassinate Hamas political chief Khaled Mashal in Jordan. “The king refused to speak with anyone else but Sharon and me,” he said.

In fact the king reportedly refused to accept so much as a telephone call from then first-term Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Sharon’s son, Gilad, wrote in his biography of his father that Israeli leaders habitually underestimate the importance of honor.  Of prime minister Ehud Barak, who went to Taba to negotiate with the Palestinian Authority in January 2001, even as the intifada raged, elections approached and the Israeli flag was hidden from view, he said: “He did not understand the behavioral code of our region, where if you lack honor, you lack everything. National honor is an integral element of national security here, but he failed to grasp this.”

The chief architect of the Oslo Accords, Yossi Beilin, scoffed at this notion. Instead of adopting the regional code, he argued, it is best to harness it and use it in the service of Israel’s true interests. “I don’t want to sound patronizing,” he said. “I understand the importance of national pride. I don’t want anyone trampling my flag. But if someone demands honor, use it, trade with it.”

Meretz head Yossi Beilin during his final session in Knesset (Photo credit: Yossi Zamir/ Flash 90)
Meretz head Yossi Beilin during his final session in Knesset in 2008 (Photo credit: Yossi Zamir/ Flash 90)

The former justice minister continued: “If someone has the need to be called father, call him father and ask him for a loan or babysitting or whatever it is you need.”

Beilin said that in his experience the lower one’s self-confidence, the greater one’s need for honor. “It’s always the nations that feel perpetually deprived,” he said.

Asked, nonetheless, whether Erdogan’s demand for Israel to publicly bow its head might have implications that go beyond a mere gesture, Beilin said, “No. The least costly thing from our perspective is to apologize. I’ve apologized thousands of times when other people have stepped on my feet on the bus. Does it matter? Does the apology to Turkey mean it will now replace the US as the world’s hegemon?”

To some scholars, though, history, as seen through the prism of honor, is instructive. The Six Day War, as the name implies, was a rout. The subsequent Yom Kippur War, many believe, was not, as in 1948, an attempt to drive the Jews toward the sea, but an attempt to restore lost pride.

“[Egyptian President Anwar] Sadat made clear that it was about restoring Egypt’s national honor,” said Col. (res) Shaul Shay, a senior fellow at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya and a former chief intelligence officer for the Southern Command.

An expert on Hamas ideology, Shay said honor is “a very basic ingredient” in the governance of the Middle East, from the personal and the familial, to the tribal and the national.

And yet it is frequently overlooked.

Uri Sagie, a reserves general who headed the IDF’s military intelligence directorate in the 1990s and later served as Barak’s chief negotiator with Syria in 1999 and 2000, convened a staff of Middle East cultural experts before the start of those negotiations. “We know how to fight but not how to negotiate,” he wrote in “The Frozen Hand,” his memoir of the failed peace talks with president Hafez Assad.

In a phone interview, Sagie said that Mario Puzo, in his depiction of Sicilian norms, had it exactly right about the Middle East, too. “Just like the Godfather said. It’s all personal,” Sagie relayed.

Sagie’s primary adviser, himself a participant in the talks, was Tel Aviv University philosophy Professor Ilai Alon, a scholar of Arabic literature and an expert on negotiations with Muslim states. He covered with Sagie and the other members of the team the significance of justice within Islamic thought; the Koranic characterization of the Jew as arrogant and untrustworthy; and, among other things, the social, personal, national and religious importance of honor.

“The other side sees honor as an imperative,” Alon said. “And if I don’t demand it, then I am either abnormal or unworthy.”

Sagie termed the tutorials “a riveting lesson” on how to “bridge the cultural chasm” between Israel and its neighbors.

Before departing for Washington DC, Sagie  decided that his goals were: to be exceedingly patient; to “come to the negotiating table with honor and self-confidence but also with honor and sensitivity toward the other”; to avoid arrogance and “to learn to dance this careful dance without stepping on the Syrian partner’s toes.”

To some, the careful dance is precisely what Netanyahu has done in his dealings with Turkey. Professor Yitzhak Reiter, an Arab affairs scholar and the chair of the Land of Israel Studies Department at the Ashkelon Academic College, like Beilin, described Israel’s apology to Turkey as “the simplest course. We don’t have to pay in territory and they are able to save face.”

He likened Israel’s apology to Turkey to the Islamic ceremony of Sulha – a sort of arbitration where peace is made between two warring clans. “One side is told to pay the other side one million dollars,” he said. The fee is impressive. The aggrieved party is assuaged. “Then half is deducted in honor of the Prophet,” he explained. “Another quarter in honor of the Khalif.” And so forth until an acceptable sum is reached.

To a great extent, Reiter implied, this is what Israel has done: made a great show of a public apology while sitting beside the president of the United States and, in essence, offered very little else.

Alon dismissed this. Honor, he said, “is never just the outer wrapper,” and stripping yourself of it “never serves your own interests.”

Israel’s five-year-long negotiations over the release of Gilad Shalit, which ended with an agreement that was very close to the original offer, followed by nearly three years of negotiations with Turkey, which in the end produced an Israeli apology, could have tangible geopolitical ramifications, he said.

The Saudi peace initiative of 2002, actively avoided by Likud and Kadima-led governments for over a decade, could be brought back into play, Alon said. “They see that Israel simply needs to be pulled along.”

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