Stephen M. Walt

The price of occupation

If you ever questioned whether Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza was bad for the United States and for Israel too, you ought to ponder Turkey’s decision to suspend a multinational air-force exercise last weekend. Why? Because it’s a prime example of how pursuing the goal of “greater Israel” — which means retaining ...

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If you ever questioned whether Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza was bad for the United States and for Israel too, you ought to ponder Turkey’s decision to suspend a multinational air-force exercise last weekend. Why? Because it’s a prime example of how pursuing the goal of “greater Israel” — which means retaining control of the West Bank and Gaza and preventing a true two-state solution — is undermining U.S. and Israeli interests.

Here’s the background: For the past decade or more, Turkey has been Israel’s closest ally in the Muslim world. It has bought a lot of weapons from Israeli defense manufacturers, permitted the Israeli Air Force to conduct military exercises over Turkish airspace (which is especially valuable given Israel’s small size), and been an effective mediator between Israel and some of its adversaries. It was by all accounts a very valuable relationship.

Unfortunately, Israel’s assault on Gaza back in December and January appalled many Turks and embarrassed the Turkish government, which had been helping facilitate back-channel negotiations between Israel, Syria, and Hamas. Turkish anger at Israel’s behavior led to the infamous spat between Prime Minister Recip Erdogan and Israeli President Shimon Peres at Davos in January, and opposition to the proposed air exercise — which would have involved U.S., Israeli, Turkish, and other NATO forces — had been growing in recent months. In particular, critics argued that Turkey’s armed forces should not be collaborating with the same air force that had pummeled the defenseless Gazans last winter.

Last weekend, Turkey announced that it would not permit Israel to participate in the planned exercise, with the Foreign Ministry explicitly invoking the situation in Gaza as justification. (There’s a story in Ha’aretz today suggesting it was really a dispute over arms shipments, but that’s frankly pretty hard to believe). The announcement led Israel’s ever-compliant U.S. patron to declare that it would not participate either, which in turn led other NATO states to withdraw too. So the exercise was “postponed,” and it remains to be seen whether the dispute will be resolved and the maneuvers rescheduled. Meanwhile, Turkey and Syria held a successful diplomatic meeting earlier this week and announced a wide-ranging series of agreements, publicly pledging to “build a common future.” Ha’aretz reports that the two countries will conduct military exercises in the near future as well.

Now step back and consider how we got here. A good relationship with Turkey has been a major asset for Israel and strong Israeli-Turkish relations are good for the United States (which is an ally of both countries). The United States, Turkey, Israel, and other NATO countries benefit from joint military exercises. But because Israel continues to occupy the West Bank and Gaza and refuses to allow the Palestinians to have a state of their own, it faces continued resistance from groups like Hamas, including the firing of rockets at Israeli towns. And because Israel’s leaders believe that disproportionate force is the only way to deal with that resistance, the result is Operation Cast Lead, where the IDF lays waste to Gaza and kills a lot of innocent civilians. And this inflames public opinion in Turkey (and elsewhere), thereby placing a valuable strategic relationship at risk.

Israel’s defenders often claim that it is a major strategic asset for the United States, but Israel’s pariah status within the region reduces its strategic value significantly. It explains why Israel could not participate in the 1991 or 2003 wars with Iraq, and why it is difficult for Arab governments who share Israel’s concerns about Iran to openly collaborate with Israel or United States to address that issue. And make no mistake: The occupation is now the main barrier to Israel’s full acceptance within the region, as the 2007 Arab League peace plan makes clear. If the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were resolved and Israel had normal relations with the Arab world, then the United States would not pay a diplomatic price for backing Israel so strongly and Israel could join forces with us (and with other regional powers) when common challenges arose. Ending the occupation would also safeguard Israel’s relations with countries like Turkey, instead of undermining them. In addition to its obvious human costs, in short, the occupation is a strategic liability for Israel and the United States.

Barack Obama spoke the truth when he said that a “two-state solution is in Israel’s interest, the Palestinians’ interest, America’s interest, and the world’s interest.” Unfortunately, the U.S. president’s actions to date have not brought that goal any closer. In the meantime, those who continue to oppose any effort to use U.S. leverage to bring about a two-state solution are unwittingly harming the two countries they care about most.

ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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