Learning to say sorry in the Middle East

In the past week, not one but two leaders – Turkish and Palestinian – made rare acknowledgements of the suffering of the 'other.' Critics have called the gestures opportunistic.

(L.-r.) Nasser Shiyoukhi/AP, AP
Two Middle East leaders, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (l.) and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan pictured in this combination photo, have made rare acknowledgements for the suffering of their adversaries in the past week.

In a region better known for harboring old hatreds than saying, “I’m sorry,” this was a seminal week. 

On the eve of the 99th anniversary of the deportation and massacre of Armenians under Ottoman rule, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan conveyed the country’s “condolences” to the grandchildren of the 600,000 to 1.5 million killed in what many regard as a genocide. 

And just as Israel began marking Holocaust Remembrance Day, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas called the killing of 6 million Jews “the most heinous crime”  of the modern era and expressed “sympathy with the families of the victims and many other innocent people who were killed by the Nazis.”

Both Armenians and Israelis dismissed what they saw as opportunistic statements by leaders under pressure. But whatever their motives, Mr. Erdogan and Mr. Abbas’s willingness to express empathy for the suffering of their adversaries represents a significant break from the region's obdurate public diplomacy in the name of honor.

In other regions, apologizing became "a very fashionable tool" beginning in the 1990s, says Alon Liel, a veteran Israeli diplomat whose postings have included Turkey. "But not in the Middle East...I think because this element of honor in diplomacy is much more prominent [than in Western democracies],” he says. “Everything is a matter of scoring points.”

Uncertain motives stir criticism

To be sure, both Erdogan and Abbas’s statements came as they were facing international and domestic pressure. 

Abbas is caught in a blame game with Israel after US-mediated peace talks fell apart last week. And Erdogan is increasingly under fire for his repression of street protests, alleged government graft, and lack of progress on Turkey’s bid to join the European Union.

But that doesn’t undermine the value of such gestures, says Orhan Kemal Cengiz, a columnist and human rights lawyer. 

“It is the first time a Turkish prime minister talked about the grievances of Armenians,” says Mr. Cengiz, who has worked extensively with minority groups in Turkey. “He’s an authoritarian leader, he may have so many defects, but … he dares to take risks. He’s a doer.”

Cracking open doors

Turkey for decades has denied Armenian claims of a genocide that began during World War I, when Ottoman deportations and massacres led to the death of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians. The deportations came in response to a sporadic Armenian uprising in support of invading Russian troops. 

Even as Turkish academics began challenging that narrative of denial around 2000, using the word “genocide” remained highly controversial. But they steadily pushed the envelope in Turkish media and academia, and commentators began using the term on TV.

Now with Erdogan’s statement, “everybody has more space to discuss” the issue, says Hugh Pope of the International Crisis Group in Istanbul. 

The same is true in Palestinian society, where Abbas’s statement cracks open the door to discussing historical truths that are largely avoided for fear of justifying Jewish claims to the land and thus undermining Palestinian nationalism.

Israel dismissed the statement, however, and the Armenian diaspora likewise rejected Erdogan’s comments, saying Ankara was simply “repacking its genocide denials.” 

“Typically the response of a diaspora is, ‘This is not enough, we need you to get on your knees and beg for forgiveness and repent of your sins,’ ” says Mr. Pope. 

But both sides have a role to play in overcoming the rift, he suggests, comparing the process to water locks, in which the lock gates can’t be opened until the water level is equal on both sides. “Hiding behind your highly polished version of events, and refusing to acknowledge another version of events – it doesn’t work.”

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