Why Did Obama Really Have to Talk About Israel on Thursday?


I’ve been musing about President Barack Obama’s speech on the Middle East and North Africa for the past week: I like it, I like it not. And I still don’t have a clue what to make of it after listening to him on Sunday as he addressed the influential pro-Israel lobby group, American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

No doubt that the president gives fantastic speeches. The one on Thursday had two parts. In the first half, Obama has so many good points about the change sweeping the Arab world. In fact, I liked what I heard so much that I now feel sorry that he actually gave the speech. Why? Friends and colleagues are convinced that he could not have ignored the Israeli-Palestinian issue — but I wish he had. That’s the problem. In these two speeches, President Obama missed an opportunity to make two distinct points, and that bringing Israel up on Thursday muddled his message.

If the president hadn’t talked about Israel on Thursday, that first part of the speech would have been covered differently by the media, deservedly so. “The West was blamed as the source of all ills, a half-century after the end of colonialism,” Obama said. “Antagonism toward Israel became the only acceptable outlet for political expression.” Exactly. And the fact that the president of the United States finally spoke in the same language as his Middle Eastern counterparts — as crude as a Columbia and a Harvard Law School graduate can speak up — is remarkable.

If President Obama hadn’t introduced Israel into his Thursday remarks and had focused solely on the Arab uprisings, he still would be able to make his case very strongly, before Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses Congress. But that didn’t happen. Netanyahu overreacted to Obama’s reference to the 1967 borders with mutually agreed swaps. On Sunday, the president had to bring clarity to his remarks, and provided extra assurances to Israel to calm it down. “The commitment of the United States to the security of Israel is ironclad,” Obama said. And there is nothing original about that — as well.

There’s no point in arguing about something that’s already done. But the point that I’m trying to make is that the White House should have known that the moment president talks about Israel, it makes headlines. Israel claims more interest and energy than nearly any other country, and now, as the Middle East undergoes remarkable transformation, people still can not give up from tying Israel to everything that’s going on in the region. For a change, though, the current Arab unrest has nothing to do with Israel.

“Some nations are blessed with wealth in oil and gas, and that has led to pockets of prosperity. But in a global economy based on knowledge, based on innovation, no development strategy can be based solely upon what comes out of the ground. Nor can people reach their potential when you cannot start a business without paying a bribe,” the president said. “If you take out oil exports, this entire region of over 400 million people exports roughly the same amount as Switzerland.”

Those issues command far less interest than the latest salvo between Obama and Netanyahu. The question is how to help people move toward a better life. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict unquestionably needs to be settled peacefully — but it’s just one of the Middle East’s issues. Even if that conflict were miraculously solved tomorrow, the Arab world would continue to sink into a dark hole of malfunction, using their energy and resources to go backward. But the people are demanding a new way forward.

The dilemma is what did these two speeches accomplish? Did we really need this theatrical show, with President Obama first appearing to side with the Palestinians? Is this serving the people of the region who have put everything on the line to effect change? It’s difficult to have an answer. But what’s clear is that the ones who were actually supposed to get a hit by the first half of the Thursday’s speech are playing the three monkeys — deaf, dumb and blind.

But if Obama had waited until the weekend to talk about Israel, who would have been the first to react to his speech? Iran, Syria, Hamas, Hezbollah? Or would the Saudis have said something? Or would Turkey, the region’s rising power, have spoken up? The Erdogan government certainly has trafficked in rhetoric that’s spiteful toward Israel, which created a bloody ordeal last year off the coast of Gaza. This year, the organizers of that flotilla will repeat their attempt to break the Gaza naval blockade. Obama said nothing about the coming danger or shared any insider knowledge as to whether or how he is trying to avert this upcoming crisis.

The president did not provide a concrete map outlining the steps he would undertake against Syria, or how long it will take for NATO to depose Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi. Nor did he share any thoughts about an approach to Yemen or Bahrain. But while it would be great to have simple, clear answers about the path forward, there’s not always clarity about what to do next. Well, sometimes, the way is blurry and unclear. Also, Obama was addressing not only the American people, but the people of the region as well — people who are used to hearing a lot of empty talk. He may not have moved things around, but he did give a speech that could have inspired people. Yet, now, like always, everyone is talking about Israel, Israel, and Israel — again.

As a result, his remarks raise more questions, such as why he didn’t mention Saudi Arabia — at all. Many people fixate on the workings of the Israeli lobby, but the Saudis influence Washington in a much more cunning way. They do their business silently and the U.S. lets them get away with a lot. They’re a different kind of a superpower: the world’s biggest oil producing country.

Alan Gerson, who represented 9/11 families in their lawsuit against the Saudi government, reminded me that after the bombing of U.S.S. Cole, it was the first time that the U.S. government really made the connection between terrorist financing and al-Qaeda. They knew that the money was the oxygen that allows it to work. The question was where was the oxygen coming from. And they discovered that it was principally coming from Saudi Arabia. Vice President Al Gore, who was also the head of National Security Planning Group, authorized to send a team to Riyadh almost a year before al Qaeda attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. They asked the Saudi authorities and the Saudi banks to shut it down. “The Saudi government did not stop the banks from doing it until after 9/11,” Gerson said. “It was too risky to allow it to continue afterwards.” This is just one example of Saudi behavior, totally separate from what they’re getting away with in Bahrain.

In brief, if Obama could not say a word to the Saudis because of their control over the world oil prices, he could have done without addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on Thursday. On Sunday, it would have been a whole different story. In the meantime, the world’s media would have really been talking about what the president said about the Arab uprisings. But who knows, may be the White House purposely wanted to live this whole new drama with Netanyahu.

Turkey’s Influence in a Changing Middle East Is Limited


For the last few years Turkey has been trying to sell itself as the re-shaper of the Middle East. But now that the region is reshaping itself in dramatic and unexpected ways, the late, lame and confusing responses of Prime Minister Recep Tayip Erdogan’s government show that Turkey’s renewed activism in its Muslim neighbourhood has not gone very far.

No one knows how the Arab Spring will end — but it’s clear that with this awakening, the Arab people have nullified all of the narratives that others have used to describe them. Their endless tolerance and surrender to victimhood at the hands of their authoritarian rulers finally ran out. Many feel so desperate that they no longer care whether they lose their lives by taking to the streets. Since February, thousands have indeed paid the ultimate price, but with a purpose: they want change.

Turkey was surprised by this Arab uprising. For years now, Erdogan has tried to play to the Arab street like an Ottoman sultan. He has accused Israel of being a terrorist state murdering Palestinians, scoring points off an easy and unpopular target, especially when he stormed off the stage at the World Economic Forum in Davos after a heated debate with the Israeli president over Gaza.

He has provoked controversy in other ways too, for instance he has said that a Muslim cannot commit genocide, and the situation in Darfur can’t be considered one. Erdogan has even received a human rights award from Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi.

But he has always defended the status quo in the Arab region and never questioned the Muslim leadership in any of these countries. And although Erdogan was quick to call for Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak to step down, he could not display such a muscular and forceful attitude toward the Libyan leader. Erdogan had a bad personal relationship with Mubarak, but Turkish firms have business deals in Libya worth more than 15 billion US dollars.

And Erdogan never once entered into a public discussion about the grave problems of misconduct, corruption, bribery, tribalism, unemployment and more in these countries — which actually killed more Arab dreams than the Israelis.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict clearly is a problem in search of a peaceful solution. But it’s worth asking the question: is it really the biggest problem in the Middle East? The Arab Spring shows that Arab misrule is an even bigger and far more pervasive problem. And it’s no secret that all these oppressive Arab leaders have abused the Palestinian issue to distract attention from their own misdeeds. They have exploited Palestinian victimhood and refused to take any responsibility for all failed attempts at peace with Israel.

When there is massive poverty, illiteracy and unemployment, no one really believes that Israel or foreign intervention is what’s triggering these uprisings. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s speech last week demonstrates the emptiness of that argument. His people did not buy his claim that foreign conspirators are provoking events in Syria.

Erdogan said he will call Assad this week to ask about the reforms promised to the people. The Turkish prime minister claims his Middle East policy is a success based on his relationship with Assad, yet the Syrian leader is so far the only beneficiary of this relationship. Erdogan almost single-handedly ushered Assad from isolation back into the international community. His hosting of Syria-Israel proximity talks is a prime example. If a United States ambassador is in Damascus right now, one big reason is because of Turkey’s support for Assad.

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia nearly cut ties with Assad six years ago, when former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated. Erdogan played a key role in mending the fences between the two leaders. Now King Abdullah refuses to support the Syrian Sunnis who want to bring down Assad, because he is afraid for his own regime. In any case, Turkey should remain removed from any attempt to intervene in Arab domestic affairs. Turks are not Arabs, and Erdogan’s fantasy love affair with the Arab world may not last for long.

While many in the region point to World War II as the start of all problems in the Middle East because of the Jewish state’s creation in 1948, the Arab Spring is actually all about the First World War. The Middle East is still trying to absorb the demise of the Ottoman Empire.

Turkey needs to turn away from the dead end fantasy that it the natural heir to the Ottoman imperial project. There is no hegemonic leadership role for Turkey to play in the region. As a leader, Erdogan should stay out of the individual dramas in the region. And he needs to understand that wherever uprisings take place, those are developments that the Arab people must work out for themselves.

In the modern era, Turkey will benefit tremendously from a democratic Arab world that focuses on improving education and economic development for its people. A democratized region will hopefully focus more on constructive thoughts than potential wars. But it’s going to take time to get there.

The Erdogan government’s priority now should be to determine its position toward a rapidly changing Middle East. Surely Israel-bashing will no longer work, unless Turkey chooses to play the role of provocateur to the region’s radicals.

Erdogan knows that NATO won’t expel its only Muslim nation, but Turkey’s allies are carefully watching how Erdogan is using the religion card and portraying NATO members as imperial powers who only want to exploit the Arab world’s energy resources.

Turkey is a strong and influential country in the region, but we should be cautious of an approach that sees Turkey taking a larger role as a model for the region and as a fixer for its various problems. Such a leadership role can only hurt Turkey’s own national interests and make it fall tired fighting for others, while it has to save that energy to perfect its democracy and advance its economic prosperity.

When the Arab Spring runs its course, Turkey will be the loser if it keeps pretending to the West that it is the leader and spokesman for the Muslim Middle East. The Ottoman Empire ended long ago. The Arabs can speak for themselves. And so can the Turks.

Iran Is the Wild Card in the Arab Awakening, but What About Turkey?

Both Turkey and Iran play vital roles in bringing peace to their immediate neighborhoods — and ideally, they’d also have a relationship with the West. Yet the crisis in Syria has put each of them in a difficult position.

The regime of Bashar al-Assad may survive this threat, and the Syrian regime may quash the protests and kill many this week. But unlike their counterparts in Libya, Syrian anti-government protestors are alone in their fight. It’s nearly impossible to conceive that the Arab League would call upon the international community to intervene in Syria, which, according to Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, is necessary to legitimize any military action.

The Arab League’s back-and-forth on Libya created real confusion about its position on the situation in the region — and leaders in both the United States and Europe may find it impossible to persuade their governments and their citizens to engage in yet another war in a Muslim country. Given the criticism that both President Obama and French President Sarkozy are facing over how they proceeded with the use of force, the Libyan intervention may only serve to hide the problems of economic hardship on both sides of the Atlantic.

If Assad calculates that the West is tied up and decides to turn on his own people, it will only boost hatred toward his regime and aggravate the threat of a full-scale civil war. But Iran is the wild card in this Arab Awakening — and Syria is the one country that can lessen Iran’s influence in the region. But the international community may have already played its card in Libya, limiting its options for ending the Assad regime. As long as Assad remains in power, Iran’s position in the region will only become stronger. If and when the Syrian leadership changes, it won’t be a zero-sum game in its relationship with Iran and other radicals of the region. But the level of intimacy between Damascus and Tehran will change, and that will have huge implications for organizations like Hezbollah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad.

Although the Arab League represents majority Sunni leadership and fears Iran’s growing influence, they have different interests. For example, Lebanese Sunni leader Saad Hariri might be the first to celebrate the end of the Assad era. He was recently forced out of his position as prime minister because he did not want to give up the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which investigated his father’s assassination six years ago. The tribunal is expected to hold Assad’s government and Hezbollah responsible of Rafik Hariri’s death. When the Syrian leader steps down, the Tribunal will have more freedom to make the announcement.

Yet Hariri also played Turkey against Iran when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made a show with Hezbollah at the Israeli-Lebanon border. Soon after Ahmadinejad’s visit to Lebanon, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayip Erdogan was invited to Beirut — where he was welcomed by thousands like an “Ottoman Sultan.” Many in the Arab world see Erdogan as a balance to the rising Shia influence. They welcome his strong criticism of Israel, which breaks from the past Turkish leadership. To some, Erdogan is proof that Turkey is not a Western nation and has no place in European Union.

Building up Turkey’s “Sunni” identity is merely a ploy to draw Turkey and Iran into a fight. The Erdogan government’s “zero problem with neighbors policy” was unrealistic at best, but now Turkey must not intervene in Syria’s domestic affairs. Over the weekend, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates admitted that “regime change is a complicated thing.” Turkey could call on Syria to make good on its promises of economic and social reform in the face of growing unrest, but Erdogan’s priority has to be keeping any conflict from spilling over into Turkey. Despite the Turks’ growing unease with the West, Turkey has benefited a lot from its membership in NATO and its relationships with the United States and European Union countries.

Erdogan’s government, however, represents the first Turkish leadership in a post-Cold War, post-9/11 era. Past Turkish leaders, too, engaged in demagogy and criticized the West, but Turkey’s orientation with respect to the West was never in doubt as it is today. The reason: Erdogan’s skill with both politics and rhetoric are unmatched in the present context.

Erdogan opposed NATO intervention in Libya — before he was for it. “What has NATO got to do in Libya?” he asked. Now, however, Turkey is making the largest contribution to the NATO mission — with four frigates, a submarine and an auxillary warship to enforce the arms embargo off Libya. Erdogan was against using any bullets against Libyans, but that was before NATO agreed to protect the civilian anti-government protesters against Qaddafi’s forces. In fact, NATO member countries may question why Turks play the religion card each time it’s tested and don’t participate in NATO combat missions in Libya or in Afghanistan. Finally, Erdogan opposed any Western intervention in Libya because, “I wish that those who only see oil, gold mines, and underground treasures when they look in [Libya’s] direction, would see the region through glasses of conscience from now on,” he said. He also conveniently misspoke about Turkey’s financial interests in Libya.

This demonstrates a pattern in Erdogan’s thinking, and confuses the perception about where Erdogan really wants the country to end up. The prime minister’s dislike of French President Sarkozy could hurt Turkey’s interests. The French were careful to move military operations under the NATO control, and now the alliance will oversee the aerial operations at its Izmir base. Although the Iraq war was not a NATO mission, Turks made it clear that they would not allow foreign troops to invade their neighbors via Turkish land.

In the end, although it is unlikely that there will be a NATO operation against the Syrian regime, Turkey may be cornered into deciding to continue aerial operations control in Izmir for the Syrian operation. And Erdogan may flip once again, though Sarkozy may not give him an easy exit this time out. It also raises the possibility that Turkey’s NATO membership could be called into question.

It will be a real problem if Assad’s regime survives the threat to its power, and if Turkey continues to do business with them — as usual. It will paint Turkey as moving even closer to the Iran-Syria-Hamas-Hezbollah leadership, which only stands for anti-American, anti-Western and anti-Israeli. On the other hand, it’s also clear that Assad’s era is nearing an end.

The Syrians will determine what happens to Assad — and while that is figured out, it’s crucial that Turkey not get involved in the fight. The West can’t give Turkey anything to sell out Assad, or to make things work against him. Turks have tried in the past to negotiate between the Syrians and Israelis, and while they thought it would drive a wedge between Syria from Iran, they just moved closer. Turkey should learn from that experience. Erdogan’s priority has to be keeping any conflict from spilling over into Turkey.

How Does an “Arab Expat Peace Corps” Sound?


The Middle East is transforming so quickly that no one knows what the outcome will look like. One thing, however is clear: we are in a race against time — rather a limited one — to prevent the region’s radicals from taking advantage of the changing environment and making things worse. While each country that has experienced upheaval is different, they all face one fundamental problem. They created a myth about holding higher moral values, but with respect to justice and rule of law they lacked real substance and wherewithal. Now, with the citizens of these Arab nations wanting to claim their freedom and experience economic prosperity, the opportunity arises for Arab expatriates to have a real impact on the future of the region. They can bring back to the Middle East the knowledge and talent that was lost when they either chose or were forced to leave for the West, and help build a new future for the region. They can create an Arab Expat Peace Corps, which would work closely with NGOs, think tanks, academy and governments all over the world.

Such an organization would accomplish two key missions. First, the volunteers would be able to help build something much bigger than themselves, fueled by a genuine desire to create a free, prosperous region and greater understanding about and within the Arab world. Second, it would help to bridge the gap between the Middle East and the Western world, and would create a support system to rebuild the region. With positive alliances working toward a common goal — a modernized Arab world — the task would be far less overwhelming.

Clearly there will be obstacles — distrust is likely to arise between the Islamists and those who embrace more secular values. Some may also have difficulty in embracing the good will of the expatriates and see them as agents of foreign governments. That tension could derail meaningful work. And some of the Arab leaders, both established and opposition, might not be so willing to put their egos aside enough to look forward to create something new rather than be motivated by generations of oppression and strife.

A million details and what-ifs could derail this nascent idea. Is such a proposition realistic? Who would be in charge? How would it work? But that doesn’t mean that anyone with a stake in the future of the Middle East — which is everyone — should turn away from any possible solution or means of defeating radicalism. There are many educated, intellectual, secular and liberal minds in the Arab world — but they haven’t yet proven their will to defeat the extreme elements within their own societies. They haven’t made a strong enough stand for freedom, development and economic well-being, all of which can help a sense of security flourish.

It’s easy to talk about democracy and freedom, and blame those who cast doubt on how the transformation will take place. But haven’t Arab leaders been the ones showing the world that they don’t care about their people? Didn’t they teach everyone else that their people are not valuable?

The findings of the 2002 United Nations Arab Human Development Report, for example, tell quite a story. No one could have predicted that a Tunisian man named Mohammed Bouazizi would set himself on fire and trigger protests and riots that would lead to the fall of Tunisian leader Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and become a catalyst for popular rebellions throughout the Arabian peninsula. But we did know that something was stirring, and no one did a thing about it.

The 2002 UN report confirmed the huge problems of illiteracy, poverty and unemployment in the Arabic-speaking world. It found that approximately 40 percent of adult Arabs — 65 million people — are illiterate, and unfortunately, that two-thirds of those adults are women. It found that 50 million young people would enter the labor market by 2010, and another 100 million by 2020, and made clear that six million new jobs are needed each year to keep up. The report also warned that if current jobless rates persist, unemployment in the region would reach 25 million by 2010.

The Arab Spring is a testament to the fact that no one addressed these problems. The people are demonstrating not for democracy, but rather for jobs and economic security. They remained passive for many years, but knowing that the current leaders’ sons were destined to succeed them painted a picture of an ongoing status quo that would never benefit regular citizens. Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak was preparing for his son Gamal to replace him after three decades in office. Yemeni leader Ali Abdullah Saleh planned to turn the country over to his son Ahmed when he stepped down after more than 30 years. Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi is the longest serving head of state in this group — in power for 42 years, he, too, was preparing to turn his authority over to his son Saif al-Islam. And the people resented this — possibly — the mostest.

Turkey was lauded as a “model” for Arab countries when then-President George W. Bush introduced the Broader Middle East Initiative in 2003 at a G8 summit, using the 2002 UN report as a key document. Turkey became a co-chair of the initiative and since then has increased its trade with many Arab countries, though many conveniently deny that no one would walk away from the opportunity to make money in the midst of an economic crisis. Yet Turkey became popular on the Arab street because its prime minister, Recep Tayip Erdogan, used Israel as a whipping boy. And today’s reality in Tunis; in Cairo; in Bengazi and elsewhere shows that the heart of the issue is not about Israel — for a change. And Turkey’s leadership role to the Arabic-speaking world is limited. There will be an Arab model for fixing the Arab problems.

Arabs, however, have been programed to hate Israel, partly because they were unable to criticize their own governments. Their respective governments fed victimhood at the hands of the West into their national identity. The Arab leadership said one thing to their Western counterparts, and totally another thing to their people. Therefore, it is only natural that outsiders are skeptical about the possible outcome of the Arab Spring. In Egypt, for example, the Muslim Brotherhood may be treading carefully, though not because it has adopted the tenets of democracy. The group does know, however, that even a magician could not meet the people’s expectations and elevate their economic status in just one term in office. The Middle East has lost not only 10 years since the UN report’s warnings and calls to action to create jobs. With the region’s decades of chronic corruption, it also lost the people’s faith. Arabs will eventually start feeling frustrated again, creating an opportunity for the Muslim Brotherhood to come in and take over — and today’s “velvet revolution” will then be crashed by Muslim Brotherhood’s “iron fist.” Maybe, maybe, though, Arab Expat Peace Corps will be the solution to avert such an outcome. What do you think?

Turkey’s Unity Threatened: Polarization Over Kurdish Policy


While the Arab world is swept by a series of revolutions ending the long lasting status quo in the region, Kurdish separatists announced the end of a six-month cease-fire this week in their nearly 30-year fight against the Turkish state. The timing is undeniably meaningful. March kicks of election season in Turkey, and people will vote on the next government in three months. Kurds also celebrate Newruz this month. The March 21 festivities mark the arrival of spring, and the massive number of people likely to attend increases the odds of a clash between Kurds and Turkish security forces. Such an incident may give a picture that the fever in the region jumped to Turkey, too. And it’s needless to say that any type of fight is bound to play a role in the national election.

Before going further though, it’s important to give a brief context to the dilemma, which threatens Turkey’s unity, peace and security. Without a doubt, Turkey has approached a very crucial turning point in its dealings with its Kurdish citizens. To start with, the issue of secularism and the role of Kurds in Turkey — either as part of the republic or separate from it — has been a key weakness since the country’s founding 88 years ago. Even after so many years of their own form of democratic government, Turks are still insecure about the strength of the secular regime and Kurds do not feel like equal citizens. The Kurdish political parties have long sought autonomy, leaving open the question of whether they would try to create an independent Kurdistan with Turkish land.

When the United States military toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003, Turks also feared that its other mission in the region was creating an independent Kurdistan — a deep-rooted fear based on how the Ottoman Empire was lost by the end of World War I. As a result, the Turkish State seems to have decided between the two “evils” — surely not used in literal sense but as a metaphor — and cast its lot with the Justice and Development Party (AKP) on the grounds that the Kurds were less trustworthy than the Islamists. Rightly or wrongly, the military favored an AKP takeover of Turkey’s eastern and southeastern regions, which are populated mainly by Kurds, rather than allow the Kurdish parties to rule there. The result is a rather complicated mess.

When Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayip Erdogan rose to power in 2003, he complained that the previous government had failed to address the Kurdish issue and had done nothing to further the state’s interests since jailing PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan in 1999. Now, after nine years of AKP rule, not much has changed; in fact, the problem has grown even bigger and more chronic.

Turkey’s fight against the PKK has not been easy. In the name of counterterrorism, the Turkish military and security forces have acted illegally, shattering innocent lives and spreading fear over the Kurdish population. The United States did not necessarily care what Turkey did in mid-to-late 1980s. The U.S. policy line was that the “PKK is a terrorist organization and we support Turkey’s right to defend itself against terrorism.” But the Gulf War led to a dramatic shift in the U.S. policies toward the Kurds. That affected the relationship between the U.S. and Turkey throughout the 1990s. The Congress brought spotlight on Turkey’s human rights record in its dealings with the Kurdish issue — rather in a disproportionate way. In the meantime, the Turks in the western part of the country did not want to know what was happening in the Kurdish regions. And that was even more problematic than anything else…

Under the AKP’s leadership, however, the state prosecutor in Istanbul prosecuted Ergenekon, a shadowy Turkish ultra-nationalist gang, in a high-profile trial. Many in the general population thought that Turkey had reached a point where it could deal with its darker elements and end the workings of the “deep state.” But nearly three years after the trial began, Turks have not begun to come to terms with the crimes of the past or move forward with a national healing process. Instead, this historic trial is now all about a 2003 coup plot — and even though no clear evidence exists that steps were taken to carry it out, it is the reason that 1 out of every 10 high-ranking Turkish military officers is in jail.

Still, I’m convinced that the Turkish state backs AKP on its Kurdish policy. Or I can rephrase it differently and argue that the AKP acts accordingly with the Turkish state when it comes to the Kurdish issue. Either way, Kurds made significant gains in the 2009 local elections, but since then many have worried that the AKP and the larger Turkish state are trying to destroy them politically. That seemed the logical conclusion, one Kurdish representative told me, after thousands of Kurdish activists were prosecuted after the local elections in the Kurdish Communities Union (KCK) trial. Unquestionably, the Turkish government should have dealt with the Kurdish parties differently. Yet many speculate that religion and ideology are Erdogan’s reasons for fully supporting Hamas and Hezbollah while refusing to accept the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) as legitimate. Simply put, Kurds represent a secular movement; the others are Islamist.

To move on, Turks went to the polls last September to decide on a referendum to change parts of the Turkish constitution, and Erdogan stoked the fires by bringing up the Turkish military’s operation in 1937 in Dersim to end a Kurdish uprising. Turks should be able to talk about the dark parts of their history — honesty can only strengthen their country’s unity. But Erdogan wasn’t trying to be constructive. He was trying to hurt his main opponent, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, whose hometown is Tunceli — formerly Dersim. Erdogan wanted to embarrass Kilicdaroglu, who represents the Republican People’s Party (CHP), and create the impression that he was acting against the people of his own hometown by leading a party that actually had given the order to use air bombardment to end the uprising in Dersim in 1937. He hoped that it would bring him the votes. He was right. But it did not change the fact, Kilicdaroglu insisted that his politics would not be determined by ethnicity or religion and that an overwhelming majority in Tunceli voted against the referendum. What Erdogan should have done, if his real aim was to examine the mistakes of Turkish history, was not to use such a traumatic incident as a political football. Rather, he should have apologized for those past mistakes and tried to move the country forward. As the prime minister, he owns Turkey’s past and the present…

The military constitution drafted in 1982 mandated that parties must achieve a 10-percent threshold in the popular vote to be represented in the Turkish Parliament, and a minimum vote of 7 percent in the national election to be eligible for funds from the state treasury. That stipulation was a blatant move to keep Kurds out of Turkey’s politics. But while Erdogan continually talks about Turkey’s strengthening democracy, he argues vehemently against lowering those barriers so that people can really be represented in Parliament. He wants to win a third term in June, and by playing the hardball he is trying to hold the vote for the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) under the 10-percent threshold. If he succeeds, he could end up with 367 AKP deputies in Parliament — which would be the magical number allowing him to change the constitution without opposition.

Last but not the least, AKP’s Kurdish opening or democratic opening lacked a true content. No one seemed to be clear as to what it really constituted. Yet it became clear that AKP had cut a deal with the PKK — through back channels — persuading the return of a group of 34 people from northern Iraq through Habur border gate in October. Some of those were PKK members and others were refugees at the Makhmur refugee camp. In the end, both sides misused this opportunity.

The AKP leadership failed to prepare the country, but authoritatively pushed the people to accept whatever they decide. It backfired. Those returnees are now being arrested and standing trial mainly for supporting a terrorist organization. Alas Erdogan — as the Turkish prime minister — should have known better that there is no way for Turkey to really take a step forward on the Kurdish issue without the consent and approval of its two opposition parties — the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). They were, however, completely excluded from this process. As a result, when Turks saw Turkish judges at the border in the tents issuing them an easy pass to normal life with no ramification, and watched on their television screen the victory festivities in the Kurdish cities, they could not comprehend what it really meant to them.

Turkey’s unity is more at stake than ever. People are becoming more and more polarized, and there is hardly any sincere debate questioning the AKP’s policies. Instead the focus is on the military’s mysterious plot to overthrow the government rather than genuinely concentrating on the country’s well-being. Erdogan’s tactics of distraction, manipulation, clouding the issues and causing confusion may keep him in power by dividing people, but they don’t change the fact that his policies are hurting rather than helping the country.