Prime Minister Boiko Borissov shakes hands with Israel's
foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, right, before their meeting in Jerusalem, January 11. Photo: Reuters
Palestinians ride boats
in a preparation for the arrival of Lebanon-Gaza flotilla at Gaza Seaport, June
21. Photo: Reuters
Students of realpolitik may want to examine the statements and actions that have emanated from Sofia as Bulgaria found itself caught up – in some ways very directly – in the saga aroundIsrael and the Gaza blockade.
The saga has been illustrative of a number of themes, notably the more assertive role that Turkey is carving for itself in the politics of the Middle East. As with everything to do with the dynamics of the region, there are factors of push and pull, pulleys and levers, and for some, the pressure that this means goes beyond comfort levels.
The case of Turkey is one defined by push and pull. Weighing Ankara Turkey seized on the Israeli raid on a flotilla of ships heading for Gaza at the end of May as an opportunity to make its voice heard in a policy that includes seeking to seize the role as the champion of the Palestinians.
One theory about the reasons behind Turkey’s approach, including its apparent eagerness to take a harsher line against Israel, was voiced by United States defence secretary Robert Gates, who on June 9 told journalists that because some in Europe were refusing to give Turkey "the organic link to the West" that it has sought, it was shifting eastward.
As reported by the Voice of America, Gates expressed concern about the deteriorating relations between Turkey and Israel, and said that the US and European countries needed to think about what they could do to make Turkey’s leaders value stronger links to the West.
In an article on the CBS website, John Feffer, co-director of Foreign Policy in Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies, said that Turkey was making itself "mediation central" and as a quintessential rising power, no longer hesitated to put itself in the middle of major controversies.
However, Feffer said, the greatest challenge to Turkey’s zero-problems paradigm was its ever more troubled relationship with Israel.
"The U.S.-Turkey-Israel troika was once a solid verity of Middle Eastern politics. A considerable amount of bilateral trade, including military deals, has linked Turkey and Israel, and that trade increased dramatically during the AKP era," he said.
"But Israel’s 2008 invasion of Gaza - and Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s subsequent excoriation of then-Israeli president Shimon Peres at the World Economic Forum in Davos - began a process that is tearing these former allies apart, while boosting support for Turkey in the Arab world."
In a news analysis for VOA, Gary Thomas said that analysts held that the Gaza flotilla incident had enabled Turkey to steal some of Iran’s mantle as the champion of Palestinians.
Thomas quoted Reva Bhalla of private intelligence firm Stratfor as saying that the attempt to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza had greatly complicated things for both Israel and the United States.
"Israel's major priority right now is to ensure the blockade of Gaza. If it relents it redefines the power balance in the region at a time when Turkey's influence is surging through the Arab street," Bhalla said. "And on the other hand, the harder line it takes on the issue the more it risks alienating the U.S. And this comes at a time when Turkey's relationship with Israel is at a historical low point."
Bulgaria navigates For Bulgaria, caught up in the Israel – Gaza saga, there is no country with which bilateral relations are unimportant.
Turkey is Bulgaria’s neighbour, is a fellow-member of Nato, an important trading partner, and Sofia’s official policy is to support Ankara’s aspirations for Turkey to join the European Union.Turkey has been in talks about EU membership since 2005, although scant progress has been made.
After the Israeli raid on the Gaza flotilla, however, the most immediate priority for Sofia was the fact that some of its nationals were among those detained. In latter-day bilateral relations, it was a rare awkward moment.
Acting on the orders of Bulgarian Prime Minister Boiko Borissov, Foreign Minister Nikolai Mladenov phoned his counterpart Avigdor Lieberman to request the immediate release of the two Bulgarian journalists who were held during the incident.
A Foreign Ministry statement after the raid said that nothing could justify the violence that had led to the deaths of 10 people, and Bulgaria wanted to see the incident investigated.
Separately, according to a report in the Jerusalem Post, Borissov had telephoned his counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu to ask about the return of the personal belongings of the Bulgarian nationals who were held during the raid on the flotilla.
On June 4, the chairperson of Parliament’s committee on foreign policy, Zhivko Todorov was quoted by Bulgarian media as saying that Bulgaria supported what he termed the "international community’s" stance that there should be an "independent and unbiased" investigation into the Israel intervention in the flotilla.
Bulgaria’s Government won praise from an unusual quarter, unusual at least in terms of domestic politics, when President Georgi Purvanov’s office issued a statement praising the Foreign Ministry’s "firm, precise and assertive" response to the Israeli action – with Purvanov adding that he believed the UN Security Council to be justified in asking Israel to lift the Gaza blockade. Business as usual? While Bulgaria uttered a strong line about the Gaza convoy incident, there did not seem to be any significant turbulence in bilateral relations, which have been on a more dynamic footing since Borissov was elected to power in July 2009.
Borissov went on an official visit to Israel in January 2010, marking what appeared to be the start of livelier and more senior engagements between the two countries.
After the May 31 raid, Bulgarian Labour and Social Policy Minister Totyu Mladenov went ahead with a scheduled visit to Israel, meeting his counterpart Isaac Herzog and agreeing on bilateral co-operation on welfare issues, according to reports in the Israeli media.
Totyu Mladenov said that he would like to see an increase in tourism between the two countries, and Herzog said that he would speak to Israel’s tourism minister Stas Misezhnikov about the matter.
Bulgaria’s Agriculture Minister, Miroslav Naidenov, held talks with his Israeli counterpart Shalom Simhon, after which it emerged that Israeli companies were seriously interested in the acquisition of agricultural land in Bulgaria. Further, Israel was interested in assisting Bulgaria in irrigation and agricultural techniques and modernisation of animal husbandry.
Speaking to Bulgarian news agency Focus, Naidenov said that another area of co-operation could be safety and quality of foods.
"We will establish soon a special agency for food safety and quality. We can use the knowledge of our Israeli colleagues, who have really good experience in this area, and take advantage of their assistance, especially in risk evaluation, control and analysis," Naidenov said.
On agricultural land, Naidenov said, "we discussed joint projects, as we would provide the land, and Israel would provide the investments".
Separately, media reports said that given the tensions with Turkey, some Israeli tourists might change their plans and instead holiday in Bulgaria.
On June 16, Israel’s public security minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch came to Bulgaria on a two-day visit, meeting Interior Minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov. During the Aharonovitch visit, an updated version of a 2007 bilateral agreement on police co-operation was signed, and it emerged that a good example of the police co-operation between the two countries had been a recent operation against a group of kidnappers who had been working in Israel and Turkey, with one of the group having been arrested in Bulgaria.
Outside the most powerful forces in Bulgarian politics, there were also some minority voices that openly called for Bulgaria to vociferously back Israel; Yane Yanev’s Order Law and Justice Party drafted a parliamentary resolution calling for Bulgaria to firmly support Israel, in the light of what Yanev’s party termed the "traditionally good" relations between the countries.
Finally, a note on Bulgaria’s policy, as outlined by Foreign Minister Mladenov in a March 2010 interview with mass-circulation daily 24 Chassa. Bulgaria, Mladenov underlined, sought strong relations with both Israel and with the Arab world, and saw no dilemma in this goal.
Killing spree in Norway in July 2011 and the arrests of individuals in a number of EU member states for the preparation of terrorist attacks, are proof of the continuing need for vigilance, Europol says.
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