Dead in the Water
As Turkey cuts Israel adrift, the relationship between these two former allies is sinking fast. And petty politics aside, that's bad news for a tense region.
The world owes a debt of thanks to that anonymous diplomat who leaked the long-delayed U.N. report on the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident — the ill-fated Israeli commando raid on the Gaza-bound flotilla that resulted in the deaths of nine Turks — to the New York Times, thus single-handedly ending months of endless speculation and finally putting the floundering Turkey-Israel relationship out of its misery.
The report was issued by a panel headed by Geoffrey Palmer, the former prime minister of New Zealand, who was aided by Álvaro Uribe, the former president of Colombia, along with one Turkish and one Israeli representative. While concluding that Israel’s military takeover of the Mavi Marmara was "excessive and unreasonable," the report also decided that Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza was legal and based on legitimate security concerns.
With the report’s leak and Israel’s continuing refusal to meet Turkey’s demand for an apology, Ankara deployed its long-threatened "Plan B" on Friday, Sept. 2 — expelling the Israeli ambassador and downgrading diplomatic relations, suspending military agreements, and promising to help the families of flotilla victims pursue Israel in international courts. In a Friday news conference, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu warned, somewhat ominously, that Turkey would "take whatever measures it deems necessary in order to ensure the freedom of navigation in the Eastern Mediterranean."
Turkey’s moves against Israel cap off what has been a steady deterioration between the two former allies — one that started not with the Mavi Marmara affair but with Israel’s attack on Gaza, which began in December 2008. The most recent steps taken by Ankara are therefore not a blip in Turkey-Israel relations, but represent what is likely to be a long-term freeze, one that could very well lead to further problems between the two countries in the near future.
At the heart of Friday’s breakdown of Turkey-Israel relations — and what makes any rapprochement between the two countries extremely unlikely at present — is an increasingly divergent view of the Middle East and each country’s role in the region. For Turkey, Israel’s continuing occupation of the Palestinian territories (particularly Gaza) stand as the primary roadblock toward creating the kind of more harmonious regional order that Ankara envisions. For Israel, Turkey’s outreach to Hamas in Gaza, President Bashar al-Assad in Syria (at least before his recent crackdown), and the Iranian regime are all proof that the moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) government is quickly on its way to joining the regional "axis of resistance" against it.
The U.N. report on the Gaza-bound flotilla incident is just the latest example of how Turkey and Israel now fail to see eye to eye on the region’s most important questions. While Israel holds that it is enforcing a legal naval blockade of the Gaza Strip, Turkey sees a country that treats the Mediterranean as "a lake of its own," as the Turkish ambassador to Washington tweeted on Friday. Where Turkey sees the Mavi Marmara as a ship rushing desperately needed aid to Gaza, Israel sees a craft filled with violent Hamas supporters.
The response to the report continued along these lines. "The report is a professional, serious, and extensive document," a senior source in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office told the Israeli media. Turkish President Abdullah Gul, on the other hand, declared, "That report is actually null and void for Turkey."
Still, Netanyahu’s office released an optimistic statement after Ankara announced its sanctions, expressing hope that "a way will be found to overcome the disagreement with Turkey." But while Davutoglu made sure to stress that Turkey’s aim was not to hurt its "friendship" with Israel, Ankara left the door open for moves that might be less conciliatory. "The steps announced today were just the first phase," Gul said. "In accordance with Israel’s stance, it is possible that more steps may come in the future."
In the end, neither country comes out of the affair looking good. Turkey, by rejecting the conclusions of a serious and well-regarded U.N. panel in which it participated, comes off as churlish and only interested in having things swing its way. The current Israeli government, from the clumsy and lethal way it managed the Mavi Marmara raid to the asinine bickering that prevented it from taking any serious steps toward reconciling with Turkey, again shows itself as utterly unable to manage the new realities of the Middle East.
Meanwhile, both countries have put themselves in a position where national pride trumps national interest. Getting out of that tight spot will require mature diplomacy, which appears to be in short supply these days, particularly in Jerusalem. More realistically, it seems unlikely that much positive change will take place on the Turkey-Israel front until there is a change of government in either country. At this point, the two countries’ governments can barely abide the other, let alone find a way to get out of this current impasse.
Perhaps the most tragic part of the breakdown in relations is that it comes at a time when closer cooperation and dialogue between Israel and Turkey is exactly what the two countries need most. From the emerging dispute over gas exploration off the coast of Cyprus to the ongoing violence in Syria and Iran’s nuclear program, the list of issues on which Turkey and Israel could work together for mutual benefit is long. Without avenues for cooperation, the number of items on this list will only grow dangerously longer.