France-Turkey spat over Libya arms exposes NATO’s limits

The French stealth frigate Courbet is docked at Naval Base Guam, near Hagatna, Guam. France is suspending its involvement in a NATO naval operation off Libya’s coast amid growing tensions within the military alliance over Libya. (AP)
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Updated 06 July 2020

France-Turkey spat over Libya arms exposes NATO’s limits

  • NATO headquarters refused to provide details saying the report is “classified,” and it’s unlikely that its findings will be made public
  • Trump has publicly berated European allies and Canada for not spending enough on defense budgets

BRUSSELS: The festering dispute between France and Turkey over a naval standoff in the Mediterranean Sea has shone a glaring searchlight on NATO’s struggle to keep order among its ranks and exposed weaknesses in a military alliance that can only take action by consensus.
The dispute has also revealed NATO’s limits when its allies are, or are perceived to be, on different sides of a conflict — in this case in Libya — especially when a major nuclear ally like France has lamented the “brain death” at the world’s biggest security organization due to a lack of American leadership.
According to French accounts of the June 10 incident in the Mediterranean, the French frigate Courbet was illuminated by the targeting radar of a Turkish warship that was escorting a Tanzanian-flagged cargo ship when the French vessel approached.
France said it was acting on intelligence from NATO that the civilian ship could be involved in trafficking arms to Libya. The Courbet was part of the alliance’s operation Sea Guardian, which helps provide maritime security in the Mediterranean.
In a PowerPoint presentation to French senators on Wednesday, which angered the French officials, Turkey’s ambassador to Paris, Ismail Hakki Musa, denied that the Courbet had been “lit up” by targeting radar and accused the French navy of harassing the Turkish convoy.
He also suggested that a NATO probe into the incident was “inconclusive” and that France had pulled out of Sea Guardian. The French Defense Ministry rushed to release its version of events and underline that it would not take part in the operation until the allies had recommitted to the arms embargo on Libya, among other demands.
NATO headquarters refused to provide details saying the report is “classified,” and it’s unlikely that its findings will be made public. A French diplomat said the investigators probably did the best they could, given that they were provided with two very different versions of what happened.
On Thursday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu accused France of lying.
“We have proven this with reports and documents and gave them to NATO. NATO saw the truth,” Cavusoglu said. “Our expectation from France at the moment is for it to apologize in a clear fashion, without ifs or buts, for not providing the correct information.”
On Monday, French President Emmanuel Macron had accused Turkey of flouting its commitments by ramping up its military presence in Libya and bringing in fighters from Syria.
“I think that it’s a historic and criminal responsibility for a country that claims to be a member of NATO,” Macron said. “We have the right to expect more from Turkey than from Russia, given that it is a member of NATO.”
It’s not the first time Turkey has been at the center of controversy at NATO. Ankara’s invasion of northern Syria last year angered its allies, while its purchase of Russian-made missiles, which NATO says would compromise allied defense systems, got Turkey kicked out of the F-35 stealth fighter program.
Despite concerns about its direction and close ties with Russia — NATO’s historic rival — Turkey can’t be ejected from the military organization. Legally, there is no mechanism, and decisions require the unanimous agreement of all 30 member nations. In any case, NATO insists that Turkey is too strategically important to lose.
In normal times, the US — by far the most powerful and influential of the allies — could be expected to bring its partners into line. But the last four years, with President Donald Trump at the helm in the US have been extraordinary times for NATO.
Trump has publicly berated European allies and Canada for not spending enough on defense budgets. He has pulled out of the Iran nuclear agreement, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and the Open Skies aerial surveillance pact, which the Europeans regard as important to their security.
Just after Turkey invaded Syria, Trump announced that he was pulling US troops out, surprising and angering his allies. In recent weeks, he’s threatened to take American troops out of Germany, again without consultation.
At the heart of the France-Turkey quarrel is the question of whether NATO allies should respect the UN arms embargo for Libya. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said last month that the alliance “of course supports the implementation of UN decisions, including UN arms embargoes.”
But in a interview on Tuesday, former UN Libya envoy Ghassan Salame said just after a Berlin conference in January where countries again backed the Libyan arms embargo, he saw pictures of weapons shipments showing that even Security Council members were sending “ships, planes and mercenaries” there.
With no firm US guiding hand, divisions among the allies over how Libya should be handled, and a decision-making process that requires everyone to agree — even on what they should talk about — it’s difficult to see when NATO might debate the embargo question in earnest.


Political novices drawn to rally against Netanyahu

Updated 35 min 53 sec ago

Political novices drawn to rally against Netanyahu

  • The boisterous rallies have brought out a new breed of first-time protesters — young, middle-class Israelis

JERUSALEM: In a summer of protests against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the accusations of corruption and calls for him to resign could be accompanied by another familiar refrain: “I’ve never done this before.”

The boisterous rallies have brought out a new breed of first-time protesters — young, middle-class Israelis who have little history of political activity but feel that Netanyahu’s scandal-plagued rule and his handling of the coronavirus crisis have robbed them of their futures. It is a phenomenon that could have deep implications for the country’s leaders.

“It’s not only about the COVID-19 and the government’s handling of the situation,” said Shachar Oren, a 25-year-old protester. “It’s also about the people that cannot afford to eat and cannot afford to live. I am one of those people.”

Oren is among the thousands of people who gather outside Netanyahu’s official residence in Jerusalem several times a week, calling on the longtime leader to resign. The young demonstrators have delivered a boost of momentum to a movement of older, more established protesters who have been saying Netanyahu should step down when he is on trial for corruption charges.

The loose-knit movements have joined forces to portray Netanyahu as an out-of-touch leader, with the country’s most bloated government in history and seeking hundreds of thousands of dollars of tax benefits for himself at a time when the coronavirus outbreak is raging and unemployment has soared to over 20 percent.

Many of the young protesters have lost their jobs or seen their career prospects jeopardized. They have given the protests a carnival-like atmosphere, pounding on drums and dancing in the streets in colorful costumes while chanting vitriolic slogans against the prime minister.

Netanyahu has tried to dismiss the protesters as “leftists” or “anarchists.” Erel Segal, a commentator close to the prime minister, has called the gatherings “a Woodstock of hatred.”

Despite such claims, there are no signs that any opposition parties are organizing the gatherings. Politicians have been noticeably absent from most of the protests.

Israel has a long tradition of political protest, be it peace activists, West Bank settlers or ultra-Orthodox Jews. The new wave of protesters seems to be characterized by a broader, mainstream appeal.

“The partisan issue is totally missing, and the party organizations are not present,” said Tamar Hermann, a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute, a Jerusalem think tank and expert on protest movements.

Hermann said the protesters resemble many other protest movements around the world. “They are mostly middle class,” she said. “And they were kicked out of work.”

Oren, for instance, said he used to survive on a modest salary as a software analyst thanks to training he received in an Israeli military high-tech unit. Then he moved into tutoring — offering lessons in English, computers and chess to schoolchildren.

He said things were not easy, but he was “too busy surviving” to think about political activity. That changed when the coronavirus crisis began in March.

Oren’s business crashed.

With unemployment soaring, Netanyahu and his rival, Benny Gantz, formed a coalition with 34 Cabinet ministers, the largest government in Israel’s history. Beyond the generous salaries, these ministers, many with vague titles, enjoy perks like drivers, security guards and office space, and can hand out jobs to cronies.

A Netanyahu ally dismissed reports that people were having trouble feeding their families as “BS.”

Oren said he became “furious,” and about two months ago, he went to his first protest against the nation’s leaders. “They are there because we gave them the power and want them to help us. And they’re not doing anything,” he explained.

Oren now treks to Jerusalem from his home in the city of Kfar Saba in central Israel, about an hour away, three times a week. He is easily recognizable with his poster that says “House of Corruption,” depicting Netanyahu in a pose similar to Kevin Spacey’s nefarious “House of Cards” character, Frank Underwood.

Oren says he does not belong to any political party or any of the movements organizing the rallies, but that the diverse group of activists all want similar things. “No to the corruption, the poverty, the detachment. We’re just saying enough,” he said.

University student Stav Piltz went through a similar evolution. Living in downtown Jerusalem near Netanyahu’s residence, she quickly noticed the demonstrations in her neighborhood when they began several months ago. She talked to protesters as well as local residents at the cafe where she waitressed before she was laid off.

She said she noticed a common theme. “They feel that something is very critical now in the political climate and no one is listening to the citizens and the pain we are experiencing,” she said.

But Piltz said the spark that drew her to protest was a national strike last month by the country’s social workers.

Piltz, herself a social work student, said she has a history of social activism but has never been involved with party politics. The collection of women, coming from different religious, political, ethnic and racial backgrounds, was a powerful sight. “This is where I saw how much power we have when we are together,” she said.

The demonstrations, which have gained strength in recent weeks, are the largest sustained wave of public protests since hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in 2011 to draw attention to the country’s high cost of living. While those protests ultimately fizzled, two of their leaders entered parliament, and one, Itzik Shmuli, is now the country’s welfare minister.

Both Piltz and Oren said they are determined to keep up their activities in the long term.

“People have nothing to lose. So it’s very easy to go demonstrate these days, especially if you’re young and you see no future here,” Piltz said.

Hermann, the political analyst, said too many Israeli youths have been “politically ignorant” and that it is a “very good sign” for the country’s democracy that people are becoming involved.

The leaders, however, may not be so pleased to face a politically aware young generation.

“They are much more difficult to be controlled while they gain political views and confidence,” she said.