NATO & Israel

NATO & Israel

The flotilla raid could cause our relations with Ankara to implode—and severely harm the transatlantic alliance.

Israel’s attack on a Gaza aid flotilla, killing nine, has earned near-universal condemnation, with even sympathetic observers terming it the act of a bully , tone deaf , staggeringly stupid , tactically incompetent , a major tactical blunder , a moral victory for Hamas , and an unqualified disaster for Israel’s reputation . But Israel is rather accustomed to international scorn and has every right to chart its own course. However, this latest incidence has potentially grave consequences for United States and its transatlantic allies.

Turkey, a founding member of the NATO alliance and heretofore Israel’s only friend in the region, is apoplectic.

Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu proclaimed Tuesday morning, ““Psychologically, this attack is like 9/11 for Turkey.” As idiotic as that may seem — there were 9 deaths, not 3000, and the incident involved provocateurs flouting a naval blockage, not innocents in the Turkish homeland — the actions of his government indicate that the sentiment is genuine.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused Israel of “state terrorism” and he told his parliament the Israeli assault violated “international law, the conscience of humanity and world peace.” Erdogan proclaimed the incident “a turning point in history. Nothing will be the same again.” Serkan Demirtas ,writing in Hurriyet Daily News & Economic Review , sees “a long-term diplomatic war between Turkey and Israel” as “unavoidable.” Similar statements have been made by Turkish pundits and analysts, including those considered moderates.

Erdogan, noting what seems to be the end of the Turkish-Israeli alliance for the foreseeable future, proclaimed, “Turkey’s hostility is as strong as its friendship is valuable.” And veteran columnist Sami Kohen proclaims, “Turkey now is one of the sides in the Middle East conflict. It is quite clearly opposed to Israel.”


Erdogan also raised the specter of Article 5: “Citizens of member states were attacked by a country that was not a member of NATO,” he said. “We think that should be discussed in NATO.” Again, this is overblown. Whatever one thinks of the Israeli action, it was decidedly not an attack on Turkey “in Europe or North America.” And, while Article 6 makes provisions for extending the umbrella of protection to “forces, vessels, or aircraft of any of the Party” operating in the Mediterranean Sea, it rather clearly is intended to apply to the defense of colonial territories.

But security analysts Steve Hynd and Robert Mackey think this irrelevant and that if Turkey invokes the Charter, the U.S. will face a dire choice, indeed. As Mackey puts it:

Because if Turkey invokes the NATO charter and the US doesn’t react, then NATO is GONE. GONE and DEAD. Why? Because when the US was attacked on 9/11, the NATO charter was invoked--and that is why NATO troops are in Afghanistan today. 9/11 was proof that NATO was not just an ‘anti-Russian’ pact--that it applied anywhere. If the US doesn’t go along with a Turkish will reveal NATO as being a “US pact”--that the entire alliance exists only to help the US. Oh, there will still be mutual defense treaties with the UK and maybe Germany. But that is just about it. And the US will have to go on its own in Afghanistan.

Legally, this strikes me as over-reach. But politically? At very least, Turkey’s continued membership in the alliance would be in question. They’ve already moved to distance themselves from the West in recent years. And, goodness knows, the European allies would be happy for any excuse at all to get out of Afghanistan.

All the major European powers have criticized Israel ’s actions, with Angela Merkel, Nicolas Sarkozy, and David Cameron all issuing stern statements. More interestingly, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has weighed in with uncharacteristically stern words:

I offer sincere condolences to the families of all victims and condemn the acts which have led to this tragedy. I add my voice to the calls by the United Nations and the European Union for a prompt, impartial, credible and transparent investigation into the incident.
As a matter of urgency, I also request the immediate release of the detained civilians and ships held by Israel.

While tame by op-ed standards, diplomats don’t use words like “victims” and “condemn” lightly.

National Interest senior editor Jacob Heilbrunn asks the right question: “Where does this leave Israel and America?”

Thus far, the Obama administration is keeping its powder dry, issuing a cautious statement expressing “deep regret at the loss of life in [the] incident, and concern for the wounded” while also stressing “the importance of learning all the facts and circumstances around this morning’s tragic events as soon as possible.” That’s exactly the right position for the world’s superpower—and perhaps Israel’s only remaining friend—to take at the outset. But the facts are quickly coming in and it will be time to make tough calls.