Lessons from Carmel Mountain
LONDON/ISTANBUL -- When disaster strikes, whether it is a hurricane, a flood, or a tsunami, the people affected need assistance—and they need it fast. If there is a positive byproduct of these catastrophic events, it is the potential to bring people, nations, and countries closer together. So was the case last weekend when Israel faced the worst forest fire in its history. The fire at the northern forests of the Carmel Mountain, near Haifa, claimed the lives of more than 40 people, scorched nearly 12500 acres of scarce Israeli forest, and destroyed hundreds of houses in nearby populated areas. It took nearly four days and an international force of more than 20 countries to assist the Israeli Emergency Authorities to fight the fire. At the exact time that hopes for peace negotiations are at a standstill, the international operation at the Carmel Mountains created practical, regional cooperation beyond the Middle East conflict. This unique event ought to be maximized. Among the many countries that contributed to efforts to contain the fire were Jordan, Egypt, and Turkey. Indeed, Turkey initiated aid to Israel in spite of current strained relations between the two countries. The Palestinian Authority sent additional aid without any expectation of something in return. These human acts of solidarity emphasize that, in spite of fundamental political disputes and severe mutual mistrust among regional players, regional cooperation is not only a matter of vision, but also a matter of motivation. The Carmel fire and previous regional disasters reiterate that humanity trumps politics every time, and real cooperation at times of crises becomes a matter of political necessity. Though tragic, this occasion must now serve real diplomatic opportunities. The first opportunity is already taking place. Eyes are now set toward Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Israeli counterpart, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and whether they can repeat, even modestly, the Turkish-Israeli version of Papandreou–Cem’s earthquake diplomacy from 1999. Then-Greek Foreign Minister George Papandreou and late Turkish Foreign Minister Ismail Cem’s interaction led to a long-term Turkish-Greek rapprochement. They could not have turned a disaster into a diplomatic opportunity without three elements: vision, willingness, and leadership. The second opportunity is the multilateral one. In 1994, NATO established the Mediterranean Dialogue (MD) in order to enhance security around the Mediterranean Sea and to increase cooperation between the transatlantic alliance and several neighboring states — Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Mauritania, Morocco, and Tunisia. The MD offers both bilateral and multilateral consultation fora, training, joint exercises, and coordination to the partner states. Civil Emergency Planning is one of the MD’s priorities. But the MD is far from reaching its potential. The known secret is that political stalemates in the context of the Middle East conflict prevented from the MD from moving forward. A lack of transatlantic leadership was also missing. Using the MD framework as an enhanced and pragmatic cooperation platform could serve as an assistance tool to be used in future disasters. It could also serve as a confidence-building mechanism between NATO member states and regional players, and between the regional states themselves. If done right, the basket of “beyond the conflict” regional cooperation will become available as well. Energy security, environmental themes, trafficking, and counter-terrorism are only a partial list of the potential cooperation measures spelled out in the MD. Reviving the MD also correlates with Turkey’s “zero problems” foreign policy strategy for the region that emphasizes its role as a bridge between the West and the East. The recent tensions between Turkey and the West in the context of Iran could also find a backchannel for reconciliation by promoting the MD. Only a few weeks ago in Lisbon, NATO committed itself to deepening its cooperation with the Mediterranean Dialogue. The vision is already in place. The practicalities were already demonstrated on Carmel Mountain. It remains to be seen who would demonstrate the willingness and leadership to advance the Alliance’s role in the region through the Mediterranean Dialogue and be better prepared for the next disaster. Shirley Salzman is a Non-Resident Fellow with the German Marshall Fund of the United States, and Özgür Ünlühisarcikli is the director of GMF’s Ankara office.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.