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.