Uncertainty, chaos and anger waiting in the wings over AK Party closure

Richard Falk, an American professor of international law, was appointed UN special rapporteur on the Palestinian territories in March.

He last year published a controversial article in which he used the Holocaust as a metaphor to call attention to problematic aspects of Israeli policy toward Gaza. His appointment sparked a great deal of criticism, with detractors citing his previous paper as proof that he could not be an objective observer. Nevertheless, he rebuffs such criticism by drawing a distinction between writing as an engaged citizen and reporting as an independent observer for the United Nations. For him, objectivity does not mean being impartial to the behavior of conflicting parties, rather it means being partial to the truth.

Falk is also a frequent visitor to Turkey and, though he is modest about his ability to judge domestic events in the country, in an interview with Today’s Zaman he shares his perceptions of the closure case pending against the Justice and Development Party (AK Party), the Ergenekon investigation, Turkey’s new role in regional affairs and the prospects for peace in the Middle East.
In recent months you have been the focus of some controversy following your appointment as the UN special rapporteur on human rights in the Palestinian territories. Citing the controversial paper you wrote last year, many circles have questioned your objectivity in this area. What do you believe constitutes objectivity in analyzing the situation in the occupied territories?
I think it is an important and misunderstood issue about what constitutes objectivity. In my view, objectivity means a willingness to tell the truth about what one perceives and understands regardless of the consequence of telling the truth. It does not mean that one is impartial as to the behavior of parties that are in conflict in some way. It does mean objectivity in the sense that the person who claims to be objective has an obligation to report information that is damaging to the reputation of either side if that is what the facts show. But in the context of being special rapporteur, it really means a willingness to report the reality and interpret it as well as possible by reference to international humanitarian law and human rights law.
I wrote the article before I was appointed special rapporteur -- as an engaged citizen, not as an official of the United Nations -- and in that capacity I felt very disturbed by my understanding of what was happening in Gaza as a result of deliberate Israeli policies that were imposing a collective punishment on the people of Gaza as a whole. That set of policies was creating a humanitarian crisis and was reminiscent to me of the kinds of policies that the Nazi regime in Germany had pursued. In the article that has become quite notorious in relation to this controversy over my appointment I did suggest that the implications of what Israel is doing by way of the siege have the potentiality of producing a “Palestinian holocaust” in the occupied territories, specifically in Gaza. I did not say that it was a holocaust, but merely that it had this potentiality of becoming one if the policies were persisted in. And this is something that some Israeli officials have also hinted at; the deputy minister of the Defense Ministry of Israel … actually warned the Gazan people that they faced a holocaust, he used that very word, if they continued to engage in any sort of violent resistance activities.
Is it possible to effectively present objective analysis when the discourse of politicians and the media has become so rigid and reactionary? How can such barriers to understanding be avoided?
I think it is very difficult because, as you say, there are strong biases in the mainstream media, in some of the international networks of print media and TV. So one can only do the best one can do and hope that the effort to present realities as well as possible will have some effect. I think a growing community of people around the world are in solidarity with the plight of the Palestinians and do see they struggle for self-determination.
Turkey has recently taken up a role as mediator in talks between Syria and Israel. What are the prospects for the success of these talks?
These talks have been conducted more or less in secrecy, so I can’t really assess how promising the prospects are. I think there are some difficult issues and people I have talked to who are closer to these negotiations are sometimes optimistic, sometimes pessimistic about whether they will produce real results. The Syrian ambassador in Geneva who I talked with was very pessimistic -- he said there was no chance. But maybe he was just expressing skepticism about dealing with Israel. Some people who are more optimistic say that Israeli Prime Minister [Ehud] Olmert needs some kind of success diplomatically because he is under so much domestic pressure and that this is the one thing that could sort of rescue him and create a positive political legacy if he was able to have a negotiation that is accepted by the Israeli Knesset and the Israeli public, which is not necessarily a sure thing. In other words, you might have something that is negotiated at the inter-governmental level and then is rejected. It is less likely in Syria because of the structure of the government, but in Israel it is quite possible.
I think it is a very positive initiative that Turkey has taken and is consistent with this creative diplomacy that the AK Party has pursued in the region, and it is one of the few encouraging things that have been happening in this region recently. It also suggests somewhat a displacement of American hegemony in the region. There is a space now for other actors to play an important role and that is an interesting and potentially very important development, of which this effort to promote Syria-Israel negotiations is an example.
What bearing, if any, do these negotiations have on the Palestinian question?
I have my doubts as to whether it will have much of a positive effect on the attitude toward the Palestinian conflict for the following reason: I don’t believe the Israeli policies toward Palestinian issues are primarily motivated by security. I think their concern is primarily to get as much land and water as they can and that they are not prepared to allow the Palestinian population to grow sufficiently to become a majority in the region. So I see it as unlikely that there will be much change unless there is an important development within Israeli public opinion itself, which I don’t see happening in the near future. Israel is at this point is very secure and prosperous and is feeling comfortable with the status quo, with the existing situation and, therefore, I think it unlikely that they will be willing to have the sort of conflict that would result -- especially in the West Bank -- if they tried to create a genuine peaceful solution there.
As you mentioned, Turkey seems to have been attempting to start a new peace process in the Middle East. Do you expect real progress to come from this? What are the preconditions of a just and, therefore, lasting peace in the region?
I think the beginning of a peace for the region is for regional diplomacy, rather than dealing with country by country. There needs to be a regional security framework that is established in which the governments of the region make a commitment not to be aggressive toward each other and not to use force toward each other. And, I think, the whole region has to renounce nuclear weapons -- weapons of mass destruction -- and that would have to include Israel. Israel could not be exempted from such a nuclear-free Middle East.
How likely is that?
Nothing good is likely to happen in the Middle East. You can only hope that it might happen if some unexpected developments change the calculation of the political actors. Some of the most important positive changes of the last 30 to 40 years looked impossible until they happened. The change in South Africa from an apartheid system to a constitutional democracy was something that no one could have realistically anticipated. The collapse of the Soviet Union was not something foreseeable. So we are not smart enough to be pessimistic in that sense. But to the extent we understand the issues on the basis of the facts that now exist, it does seem difficult to obtain the sort of progress that peace would depend upon. But that does not mean we should not keep trying and I think Turkey does have a very important creative and positive role to play by pushing for peace and, in some sense, exposing the obstacles more clearly -- even if it does not work, even if it is not successful.
The second or third element is a gradual, but complete, withdrawal of American military presence in the region. I think without that withdrawal there will always be violent resistance, complexity, economic exploitation and a lot of other issues. And, again, that does not seem very likely in the foreseeable future. And the final element is some kind of normalization of the relationship with Iran; a willingness of Iran to use less inflammatory language itself in dealing with its own diplomatic ambitions, but also a recognition that is entitled to nuclear technology, as has been the case for the other non-nuclear powers, like Germany, Japan and others, and a real willingness to provide the means by which to develop its nuclear industries.
Do you believe the result of the upcoming presidential elections in America will present any new opportunities in the Middle East peace process?

I would take a middle position. I think that if Senator [Barack] Obama wins it is better for prospects of peace and security in this region -- considerably better. But one should not become unrealistically hopeful. The most tangible improvement is likely to be in the Iraq policy, carrying out a fairly strong and explicit commitment by Obama to withdraw all American forces over a 16-month period. That, I think, would have the effect of reducing tensions, perhaps reducing the oil price and generally creating a more favorable, stable regional environment. It would not address these conflictual issues that we have been discussing, but it would remove at least part of the crisis edge that these problems now possess.
Domestically, of course, Turkey is facing many of its own interior conflicts, with the ruling AK Party facing closure on charges of anti-secular activity. What effect do you think this period will have on the future of Turkish democracy?

I am basically an outsider and reluctant to comment too much on these domestic Turkish issues. Having said that, I personally feel that it would be a sad moment for Turkey if the Constitutional Court accepts the prosecutor’s complaint and orders the closure of the AK Party and the disqualification of its political leadership for a five-year period. That’s bound to produce a period of uncertainty, if not more serious forms of chaos and anger, even more unstable polarization.
What are your impressions of foreign press coverage of the case?
My sense is that foreign coverage is still at a pretty superficial level. It does not understand the dynamics of closure or the tactical use of law in this way to challenge the outcome of a political election. So it is confusing. I think public opinion is somewhat confused about it. There is the sense, particularly in Europe -- which is somewhat more sophisticated than in the US, for instance, about these issues -- that it would be a big setback for democracy if the Constitutional Court’s decision orders closure and disqualification.
Another important development in Turkey is the investigation into Ergenekon, a suspected criminal network that is believed to have attempted to engineer a military overthrow of the AK Party government. Do you believe this case has been handled well by the Turkish authorities?

It is difficult for me to evaluate the handling of the case without seeing whether the evidence is available in a sufficiently convincing form to make this a responsible indictment. I have to assume that it is a responsible indictment and that the prosecution has moved in a seemingly prudent way to build its case, which is a serious case, unlike the case against the AK Party. It rests on the very fundamental threats to the stability and integrity of the Turkish political system. And there is some tendency to put the two cases down as a part of just a political battle between two adversaries, but I think that is very misleading, because what the AK Party had done seems [to have been] basically to pursue responsible political objectives that had been endorsed by Turkish citizens. They maybe proceeded too abruptly or without sufficient effort to educate the society or, some people have said, maybe the AK Party should have not brought up the headscarf issue immediately, but should have tried to satisfy some other liberal goals or help do things with welfare, poor people and those kinds of things. But those are, at best, imprudent behavior by the AK Party. Many political parties are not always prudent in the way in which they carry out their policies. It is not a fundamental departure from constitutional behavior, but, to the extent the Ergenekon charges hold up, they are the most serious allegations one can make against an opposition, because they involve an abandonment of political process and a decision to impose a military solution on the society. If it is true, as it seems to be, it could be understood in one way as an expression of the despair by the CHP [Republican People’s Party] and the right wing in the country that they can never regain political power democratically and that their only option is this desperate politics. But, of course, that is a very cruel and damaging approach to take because it involves implicating innocent people, causing death and destruction, bringing deep insecurity and conflict to the society and making the approach to Europe an almost impossible adventure.
What is your view of Turkey in the new global situation? What are the prospects for the new Turkish political, economic and cultural elite in the evolving regional and global systems? I think things look very good for Turkey if it can overcome this domestic crisis and very bad for Turkey if it can’t. So it is a crossroads and, if you ask me the same questions next summer, I might be able to give you a better answer than now because we are in a period of real uncertainty. But I think it would be very tragic if this uncertainty is resolved in the wrong way, because Turkey is fortunate to have a creative and constructive leadership at this time and it has the talent and resources and energy to make a great difference to itself and to the region. So one can only hope that this domestic crisis will somehow be overcome, though, as with these other issues, if you think only rationally, the outlook is not too favorable. You have to hope for what I call the politics of impossibility -- that that which doesn’t seem likely somehow will happen

Today's Zaman