The Turkish-Israeli Cold War

Their cooperation was once heralded as groundbreaking. Now Israel and Turkey are steps away from starting the newest Mideast conflagration.

On Friday, the Turkish government declared a Cold War on Israel. It kicked out Israel’s ambassador, downgraded diplomatic relations with Israel to the second-secretary level and canceled the military relationship. The consequences of this crisis for the stability of the eastern Mediterranean and for the Obama administration are quite severe. The Erdogan government is now saying explicitly something it had implied for the last two years—that Washington has to choose between two allies, Ankara and Jerusalem. The Arab Spring, especially events in Syria, and the planned U.S. withdrawal from Iraq have catapulted Turkey to an unprecedented level of importance. In fact, it was not a coincidence that the day they announced their Israel policy, the Turks also gave the go ahead to the installation of radars for the missile defense system Washington has been clamoring for so long.

This diplomatic crisis between Israel and Turkey had been simmering for more than a year. Ever since Israeli forces attempting to prevent a Turkish-led flotilla from breaking through the Israeli blockade of Gaza killed nine Turkish participants, the two countries have been exchanging accusations. The current impasse, however, is the culmination of a long process of deterioration and makes foes of two countries whose relationship was once heralded as groundbreaking and strategic.

The Justice and Development Party government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had begun to sour on Israel following Israel’s incursion into Gaza in late 2008. Erdogan was miffed that the then Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert, who had visited him in Ankara only four days before the impending hostilities in Gaza, kept him in dark. As a consequence of the incursion, Israeli-Syrian negotiations that had made considerable progress under Turkish auspices fell apart, depriving Erdogan of what he thought was an important breakthrough.

After the Gaza incident at the yearly Davos meetings in Switzerland, Erdogan publicly berated Israeli president Shimon Peres, paradoxically one of Turkey’s greatest supporters. Received as a hero after Davos in Turkey, Erdogan dramatically increased the stridency of his rhetoric against Israel. The Turkish prime minister became the most popular leader in the proverbial Arab street.

Then came the Mavi Marmara flotilla incident: Israelis completely bungled the operation. They disregarded the publicly available information on the Turkish group organizing the flotilla and, more importantly, sent forces to intercede without any serious training or accurate intelligence. As a result, the Israelis landing on the ship encountered resistance and fired their weapons in panic. Cue the second terrible error in judgment: Instead of facing up to the fact that it had erred in sending unprepared soldiers into what amounted to be a trap, the Israeli government circled the wagons. Given the magnitude of the fiasco and its possible ramifications, those who were responsible should have been punished. None of that happened, of course, and no one lost his or her job as a result.

As Turkey insisted on an apology and compensation, it became clear that Israel had lost the public-opinion contest and may even be forced to relax the embargo on Gaza. Having found that it had done nothing wrong, the Netanyahu government refused. If domestic politics in both countries appeared to prevent a compromise from emerging, the fact is that there were many behind the scenes diplomatic efforts, including face-to-face discussions, to resolve the problem. The United Nations formed the Palmer Commission to come up with a face-saving way for the two countries to patch their differences. The commission’s report, leaked to the New York Times, found that the Israelis had indeed used excessive force but that the Gaza embargo was legal.

On the Israeli side, hard-line foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman at every turn tried to prevent a negotiated outcome from being finalized. Turks did not make it easier either by taking inflexible positions that made it hard for the Israelis to apologize. As I understand it, in December 2010, the two sides had come close to an agreement: Israel would apologize and provide compensation. However, Jerusalem wanted the agreement to also state that it had acted in self-defense. Turks would not agree to the latter condition, and the deal collapsed. There are many on both sides of this divide who worked desperately to prevent this turn of events, and they must feel terribly unhappy and bruised.

Significantly, it appears that Turkey’s tactics shifted considerably in the intervening year since the original crisis. Ankara thinks that it is in the driver’s seat not just with respect to Israel, but also the rest of the Middle East. This is a gambit for leadership in the region. The Turks have gone beyond the demand for an apology by conditioning a return to the status quo ante on the lifting of the Gaza embargo, something to which they know Israel cannot and will not acquiesce. That conditionality is something that no other regional government has ever contemplated, much less articulated. By doing so Erdogan has once again captured the imagination of the region.

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