Turkey and Israel are unlikely to mend their badly-damaged ties in deference to the call by the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon on Friday. But there was indeed a kernel of truth in what Ban prophesied, namely, that the tensions in the relationship between the two erstwhile strategic allies would have negative fallouts for the Middle East peace process. However, Ban was by far understating the implications of the Turkey-Israel rift, which are profound and far-reaching for the geopolitics of the Middle East. On balance, Israel has much to lose and the Arab world gets an unexpected windfall.
Turkey’s reaction to the UN report on the killing of 9 Turkish nationals by the Israeli security forces last year in the Gaza flotilla incident has been swift and sharp, but it was predictable since Ankara never hid the depth of its feelings. The ‘Plan B’ that Ankara had darkly hinted at in the event of Israel refusing to apologise over the incident seems all set to unfold. Turkey announced the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador in Ankara and the downgrading of the diplomatic ties to second-secretary level – and since demanded that the senior Israeli diplomats should leave Turkish soil by Wednesday.
Equally, Turkey has cancelled the highly lucrative military contracts worth in excess of 1 billion dollars that Israel had secured over the years. Turkish president Abdullah Gul criticised the Israeli stance as “a position devoid of strategy” and warned that more steps against Israel were on the anvil. “The steps we have announced today are the initial measures. Others may follow, depending on Israel's attitude and the course of events in the future.” In an indirect reference to the United States, Gul also called on the “allies of Israel” to warn the country that “in order to reach peace and stability in the region, there are steps Israel needs to take.”
Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu stressed that Turkey doesn’t recognise the Israeli blockade of Gaza. He stopped just short of mentioning the implications for the Israeli navy when he said, “Being the country with the longest coast on the East Mediterranean, Turkey will take every precaution it deems necessary for the freedom of navigation in the Mediterranean.” He revealed that Turkey intends to file criminal lawsuits in the International Court of Justice against the commandos from the Israeli navy’s Flotilla 13 and other senior officers who were involved in the Gaza flotilla incident.
The Israeli reaction has been one of bluster so far, obstinately prevaricating by trying to justify its killing of the Turkish nationals and refusing to apologise. The saner Israeli voices of moderation have been subsumed by the stridency of the ultra-nationalist right-wing opinion. The public opinion in both countries are hardening and a climb-down to the path of compromise seems very difficult to achieve. In sum, Turkish-Israeli relationship has taken a beating that will take much time to recover.
That is, assuming that there is political will in Ankara and Tel Aviv to repair the damage and the regional milieu will permit a rapprochement. On the contrary, the likelihood is that the ties may degrade further in the coming weeks. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan is planning to visit Gaza possibly next week. Tel Aviv will see it as a calculated Turkish snub that Erdogan will be accepting Hamas’s hospitality. Erdogan may reach Gaza via Rafah crossing following a visit to Egypt where he may seal a Turkish-Egyptian strategic pact. All of this would have serious implications for Israel’s security at a time when the Sinai is on the boil and there is a crescendo of opinion building up in Egypt against the 1979 peace treaty with Israel.
Surely, Israel’s dominance of the eastern Mediterranean is going to be challenged by Turkey at some point. The recent Turkish warning to Cyprus not to proceed with exploration for gas deposits in the waters bordering Israel now assumes ominous overtones. Ankara has flatly rejected the UN report’s contention that the Israeli blockade of Gaza is within international law. Some of sort of heightened patrolling of the eastern Mediterranean waters by the Turkish navy cannot be ruled out, which may bring it face to face with the Israeli navy and if that happens, a flashpoint may arise bringing into play a host of issues. Turkey, after all, is a major NATO power and the United States has been pressing for the alliance’s partnership with Israel.
Trade with Turkey is critical for Israel but not for Turkey, which is today the fastest growing economy in the world – 11% growth currently – and is manifold the size of the Israeli economy. Turkey also has the option to other sources to meet its military purchases whereas Israel depended heavily on the Turkish market for its exports of weapons and military technology.
The relationship is hugely important for Israel. Yet, it adopted an obdurate stance on the issue of the Gaza flotilla. How can this be understood? The prominent regional newspaper from Beirut Daily Star commented editorially:
“Israel is surrounded on all sides by hostile countries, three of which it occupies land within. Its relatively good relationship with Turkey was worth far more than the symbolism of having a regional superpower – and a predominantly Muslim one at that – as an ally… With so much seemingly at stake, Israel, one would have thought, ought to have swallowed its trademark chutzpah and said sorry for killing innocent and unarmed protesters as it sought to enforce an illegal military blockade. However, given Israel’s internal makeup and its history of acting with impunity over almost all international issues, the breakdown of its friendship with Turkey is perhaps better viewed as inevitable.”
Where Israel loses most is that it is losing friendship with a major Muslim country. The only remaining friend of Israel in the Middle East today is the embattled king of Jordan and even he is going to hide his bonhomie with Tel Aviv. Put plainly, Israel’s regional isolation has become very acute…
Shift in geopolitics
On the other hand, the ‘non-state actors’ in Gaza and Lebanon who have been Israel’s bête noir – Hamas and Hezbollah – will feel encouraged by Turkey’s tough stance against Israel. The entire Arab world is watching with glee that Erdogan humbled Israel and there was nothing Tel Aviv or its mentor Washington could do about it. Turkey’s standing in the Arab opinion is getting a huge boost, underscoring the alchemy of the huge groundswell of opinion in the region weighed against the Israeli policies and the US’ unqualified support of those policies.
Israel and the US have been working hard to stall the Palestinian move to approach the United Nations General Assembly session commencing in New York in September seeking recognition for Palestinian statehood. The Israeli defence minister Ehud Barak had a quiet meeting with the Palestinian Authority chief Mahmoud Abbas in Amman last week. The flare-up in the Turkish-Israeli relations, Turkey’s open support of the Palestinian move for statehood and Erdogan’s visit to Gaza weaken Abbas’s capacity to deliver on the US-Israeli demarche to shelve the UN move.
The Turkish-Israeli tensions seriously debilitate the US’s regional strategy. For one thing, it exposes the waning influence of the US in the Middle East. The US cannot apparently influence even its allies in the region anymore. Clearly, the US strategy to put together an alliance of ‘pro-West’ Arab regimes, Turkey and Israel is in tatters. The fall-outs on the Syrian chessboard and on the Iran nuclear issue are at once obvious.
Any concerted western move to undermine the regime in Syria would be heavily dependent on Turkey’s active cooperation and partnership. But Turkey is moving cautiously, given the recrudescence of Kurdish insurgency in its eastern provinces lately and Israel’s longstanding links with the Iraqi Peshmerga leadership. Israeli commentators have recently written about the prospect of a Kurdistan emerging against the backdrop of the Arab Spring. Conceivably, Israel would retaliate at some point against Turkey’s growing proximity with Hamas in Gaza.
The US is hard-pressed to come down on Turkey. The Israeli lobby in the US would like the Barack Obama administration to pressure Turkey to come to a compromise with Israel. But that is easier said than done. With Iraq in disarray, Iran remaining defiant, Egypt spinning out of control and Palestinian aspirations on the ascendancy, Washington is moving carefully not to tread on Turkey’s sensitivities. The upheaval in the Middle East makes Turkey a crucial partner for the US in very many contexts.
The Turkish decision to allow the deployment of the components of the missile defence system is a telling example of how valuable an ally Ankara still remains for Washington. Paradoxically, Washington will be pinning hopes that Turkey’s rising status in the Muslim Middle East can also have its plus sides for the US’ regional strategies insofar as Iran’s leadership role may get eroded… The ‘pro-West’ regimes in the Persian Gulf region are delighted that Turkey is appearing on the centre stage of the plank of ‘justice’ and ‘resistance’, which has hitherto been monopolised by Iran.
At any rate, it is difficult for the US to pressure the Turkish leadership as the present government in Ankara enjoys a massive popular mandate of 50 per cent – unthinkable for any democratically-elected government – and Erdogan is a gifted politician who knows only too well that his moves challenging Israel’s ‘belligerence’ and regional dominance in the Muslim Middle East enjoy mass support at home. To be sure, he would calibrate all such potentially useful avenues to his advantage as he proceeds in the months ahead to advance his pet agenda of constitutional reform to transform Turkey into a presidential form of government under his leadership.
All said, the Middle Eastern geopolitical landscape will never be the same again. The secularist and ‘Kemalist’ Turkey’s awkward alliance with Israel had cramped its gait and influence in the Arab world. Erdogan vastly enhances his capacity to reclaim the Ottoman legacy in the Muslim Middle East. Enhanced coordination with its Arab neighbours now becomes possible for Turkey, which, ideologically and politically as well as in a practical sense tilts the balance of forces in the region heavily against Israel. Arguably, the rupture in the Turkish-Israeli strategic partnership may turn out to be a defining moment in the Arab Spring.