It’s been a rough week in Israel. After PM Netanyahu refused to offer more than regrets for the flotilla incident after the release of an ambiguous official report, Turkey sent home Israel’s ambassador and announced plans for a range of sanctions. Meanwhile, reports have emerged that recently retired US defense secretary Robert Gates was a harsh critic of Israel behind the scenes, and that his criticisms were not met with objections by other senior officials. Either one of these events happening alone would be unsettling; the two happening in the same week surely has Israeli leaders sweating from more than just the late summer heat.
The Turkish affair comes amidst a steady deterioration of relations. The rise of the Islamist-lite AK Party in Israel’s ally was very worrisome to some Israelis (and many Turks) who see its moderate rhetoric as a mask for a darker agenda. Erdogan, Gul, and Davutoglu led the Republic away from an increasingly unfriendly Europe and towards greater influence in the Middle East, with little regard for the alignments of the factions from which they sought influence. Realists found this tactic quite familiar and thus downplayed reports of a fundamental Turkish shift even when Ankara’s stance after the flotilla incident was effectively pro-Hamas. This was a credible position—while the rhetoric flying between Turkey and Israel was heated, cooperation continued behind the scenes, including in crucial areas like security.
The zero change thesis is now becoming harder to maintain. Erdogan has promised the total suspension of all dimensions of Turkish-Israeli relations, including not just military aspects, but also trade (the latter being $3 billion per annum). Erdogan is prone to overstatement, and an anonymous official later said that the Prime Minister was only referring to a stoppage of military trade, rather than all commercial activity. However, this is still (to paraphrase another famous misspeaker in contemporary global leadership) a big deal. The falling out has now begun to damage the hard elements of the relationship—a changed Turkey is all but undeniable.
There’s a particularly interesting side plot to this. Erdogan is visiting Egypt next week, and he has stated that he may make a trip into the Gaza Strip while there. This would underscore Turkey’s new position, and it would be a very bold move. Erdogan’s appearance would reiterate Turkish aspirations of leadership in the Arab world, and it would do so in a way irresistible to many Arab publics—via the Palestinian issue. However, it could seriously backfire, as the Israelis may interpret it as a gesture of enmity, as a sign that the New Porte has reversed, rather than downgraded, its alliance; anti-Turkish rhetoric might then become an important factor in Israeli and American politics.
The Egyptians can, and probably should, refuse to allow Erdogan to make the trip. It’s hard to say that Egypt is presently ready to assert its own natural leadership of the Arab world, given its ongoing internal strife, but it would be foolish to allow the Turks to score rhetorical points on their watch. It could also be extraordinarily risky to send a foreign head of government on a trip through the Sinai. As I’ve written before, the two governorates east of Suez are home to a wide range of radical forces and criminal organizations; ensuring Erdogan’s safe travels would require large military support (potentially needing Israeli consent under the peace treaty) and disruptive security operations that might inflame tensions. Worse, once Erdogan got into Gaza, he’d be no safer—the instabilities of the last few weeks have shown that Hamas cannot fully control the Salafists and other rival factions, and those factions would like nothing more than to seriously embarrass Hamas while taking a shot at a man who they regard as a pretender to the Islamist throne. The Egyptians will probably try to find a way to partially meet Erdogan’s desire—a visit with a Hamas official in Cairo (there are plenty to choose from in any given week) might do the trick.
Turkey has played its cards carefully to provide cover for its new position. Israel is a sensitive subject for the U.S. and a number of the NATO powers, and they would be expected to react negatively. Ankara has attempted to balance their displeasure by agreeing to host NATO’s missile defense on their territory—though I’m not privy to the details of the agreement, this might allow boost-phase measures against Iranian missiles headed north, which would make Tehran less of a threat to Europe and North America.
Iran is of course incensed by this. Thinkers eager to see a threatening realignment in the Middle East have suggested that Turkey might lead some sort of “Islamo-fascist” axis against Israel and the West, with Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, and Hamas joining in. This is unrealistic. Despite their deep trade ties (to my recollection, about ten times the rate quoted for Israel), the two states are rival centers of Middle Eastern power with rival visions for the region. Iran wants a Middle East aligned against outside influence and using oil and arms to make itself a major global player; Turkey wants a Middle East of deep economic connection, with Istanbul the regional economic hub. Iran’s vision is security-oriented and illiberal; Turkey’s vision is prosperity-oriented and liberal (at least in the economic sense).
Iran has accordingly trotted out swift condemnations of Turkey’s work with NATO, suggesting menacingly that it will lead to “a bad event” in the region, and that it harms Turkey’s interests, while also hinting that Turkey is an unfit leader of the Muslim world as long as it maintains any westward gaze. It only vaguely recognized Turkey’s expulsion of the Israeli ambassador, praising it briefly and indirectly through an Egyptian scholar who claimed that Israel is on the brink of collapse thanks to a range of regional developments. (Perhaps this rhetoric prefigures Ahmadinejad’s coming speech to the UN General Assembly, a moment I’m sure we all are looking forward to.)
There is still a breath of air for the argument that Turkey is not throwing away its alliance with Israel. Turkey has announced its intention to report Israel to the International Court of Justice. It’s a highly symbolic move that’s sure to be popular around the Muslim world. However, it’s hard to imagine the Turks see this as a serious step against Tel Aviv. Israel has long regarded international organizations as biased against it, and resists their pressures; if the ICJ rules against Israel, the US can block any serious enforcement measures at the Security Council. The Turks might thus be engaging in a symbolic campaign that leaves the alliance a way out. However, the severance of defense ties suggests that this is not the case. Israel has a strong military industry with all sorts of technologies that the Turks can use as they fight Kurdish groups and monitor their borders. Turkey is trying to swap Israel for NATO and the Middle East.