UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon recently announced that, after two months of negotiations, Israel had agreed to an international inquiry on 31 May’s deadly flotilla assault. International pressure and Ban Ki-moon’s personal efforts played an important role in the Netanyahu government’s unprecedented decision. Israel’s concession meets one of the demands made by Turkey, which lost nine citizens in the assault and which has threatened to break off relations with what had once been a key military ally.
Although bringing Israel to the table seems like a breakthrough, the ability of this commission to restore justice and avert a break in Israeli-Turkish relations is very dubious. The commission, whose impartiality is impaired because of its two pro-Israeli members among its four members, does not have the authority to interview any of the Israeli officers or commandos or the survivors of the attack. Nor can the commission demand an apology and compensation from Israel, which are the minimum requirements for Turkey to restore ties with Israel.
Further deterioration in Turkish-Israeli relations or an official termination of diplomatic ties will have far-reaching and disastrous implications for the region and beyond.
Rather than marking the end of the crisis, a break in Israeli-Turkish relations will further polarize the region and diminish peace prospects. This new trend will also inevitably increase the gap between east and West, and have a further destabilizing effect on the middle east. Both Arabs and Israelis would be losing the single capable actor to mediate the conflicts between them. Turkey has a unique potential to understand the Islamic and cultural sensitivities of the Arab world as well as Israel’s sensitivities, as a geographically and sociologically close neighbor and friend. Potentially, the EU, more precisely France, may attempt to jump in to take over Turkey’s mediator role, but the unease in Syrian-French relations and the lack of French leverage on Hamas seriously limits the success potential of such an initiative.
Moreover, a Turkey that is more vocal and critical of Israeli actions may potentially align more Arab and non-Arab states with it against Israel and increase Israel’s isolation. Accordingly, with this changing tide, it will come as no surprise to see the autocratic Arab states of Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia becoming more critical of Israel down the line.
Despite Turkey’s initially enhanced leadership within the Muslim world, one of the biggest losses for Turkey, as a consequence of a break, will be the impartial reputation derived from its leverage on Israel, a key part of its soft power in the region. Also, a break in relations may create important rifts in Turkey’s relations with the West, especially with the United States, which may hurt Turkey’s rising profile and pose significant risks for the Turkish government’s ability to continue the domestic reforms. The West’s support for the government’s internal reforms is crucial in Turkey’s polarized domestic political climate.
Israel, mired in its “overwhelming force doctrine,” is a declining power in the region. The political defeats of its last two military campaigns (the 2006 Lebanon War, the 2008 Gaza invasion) and the 2010 deadly flotilla attack have increased its regional and global isolation, and minimized its strategic maneuvering space. At this point, even unconditional US support does not help much to ease Israel’s isolation in the eyes of the wider world. To make matters worse, Israel’s further isolation and the escalation of tension with its neighbors may make the country more of a burden for the United States, which is beginning to question its strategic partnership with this problematic ally, and further alienate liberal American Jews.
For all these reasons, Israel now needs a friend, neighbour, and a mediator like Turkey more than ever to reverse its isolation and make peace with its neighbors. Turkey can help Israel more than anyone else, including the United States.
Implications for the United States
Because it was helped along by leading American neoconservatives in the 1990s, the Israeli-Turkish relationship has been right at the center of the US-Turkish relations. In other words, the escalation of the tension between the two crucial US allies will inevitably create a major rift in US relations with both countries and hurt US interests.
Turkey, an active member of the G-20, Nato and UN Security Council, has a crucial role in most major US foreign policy issues, including Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran, and can play a vital role in Obama administration’s efforts to mend ties with the Muslim world. Therefore, a downturn in US-Turkish relations may diminish US power and hurt both Turkish and US interests in all these foreign policy issues. In addition, the fact that this political crisis with Israel is also widely perceived as a conflict with the United States in both Turkey and the Muslim world — because of America’s support for Israel — the continuation of tension will further harm the US image in the Muslim world. Consequently, the rise of anti-Americanism in the region and a more unstable and polarized middle east would hurt US standing in across the Muslim world, but more particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It is clearly in everybody’s advantage to resolve this Israeli-Turkish conflict before it's too late. Sadly, the Obama administration, the only actor who can reverse this trajectory, seems too pacified due to domestic political worries about the pro-Israeli vote in November elections. In the meantime, the clock is ticking on the Israeli-Turkish front, and November would be too late to resolve anything. Once the damage is done, it would require much more effort to reverse it. As one unnamed Turkish diplomat puts it, “Breaking the ties with Israel would be much easier than rebuilding them. It may take 10-15 years to reestablish them, once they are terminated.”