On Friday, Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said that his country would review its current defence and economic ties with Israel, potentially cutting them back to a minimum, in the aftermath of Israel’s assault on the flotilla of ships taking aid to Gaza on the 31 May. The raid, which has attracted international condemnation, cost the lives of nine Turkish activists.
The announcement comes as conflicting accounts of the raid continue to circulate, with activists claiming that the raid, made against the ships while they were still in international waters, was unprovoked and disproportionate. Israel maintains that it had the right to board and search the ships in defence of its security and that its troops were attacked first. Although the United States has so far muted its reaction, US Vice President Joe Biden came out strongly in favour of the Israeli position on Thursday, saying ‘Israel has a right to know - they're at war with Hamas... whether or not arms are being smuggled in.’
The openSecurity verdict: Ties between Israel and Turkey have a long history. Turkey was a key member of Israel’s ‘Alliance of the Periphery’, conceived by the Jewish state’s first prime minister, David Ben Gurion. The alliance, which also included Pahlavi Iran, Ethiopia and India at different times in Israel’s history, was designed to bypass the hostile Arab states that encircled it.
In recent years, military co-operation between the two countries has provided a bed rock for expanded economic and cultural ties. Since the late nineties, Turkey has awarded hundreds of millions of dollars of defence contracts to Israeli companies. These have included deals to modernise Turkish F-4 and F-5 aircraft and M60 tanks. In addition, Turkey has allowed Israel access to its radar and other surveillance facilities to monitor Iranian and Iraqi airspace. There have also been regular military exercises.
The prospect that this partnership may be curtailed should emphasise to Israeli policy makers how actions such as the storming of the peace flotilla are counter-productive in the extreme to its own security. Turkish-Israeli relations have been deteriorating since the IDF’s assault on Gaza in the winter of 2008-2009; Turkey’s relationships with Iran and Syria have improved concomitantly. One prominent result has been the Turkish agreement with Iran and Brazil over Iran’s uranium.
From the United States’ perspective, the Obama administration is caught between the vice of foreign policy expediency and domestic political calculation. Heavy criticism of Israel will not be sustainable in the face of opposition from AIPAC and the Republican right. Equally, Turkey is a key ally. As well as being a NATO member, the US relies heavily on Ankara to use its influence in Iraq constructively. A central concern is limiting Turkey’s willingness to launch incursions into northern Iraq in pursuit of Kurdish rebels. Biden’s intervention thus seems ill-advised. If America’s goals in the middle east are to be achieved, Washington needs to listen to Ankara.
Peace jirga endorses negotiations with the Taliban
On Friday, it was reported that a traditional gathering of tribal elders and religious leaders had endorsed Afghanistan President Harmid Karzai’s proposal to open peace negotiations with the Taliban. This has been in spite of insurgent attacks on the jirga on Wednesday, where they struck with rockets and gunfire during a speech by the President. Opposition figures boycotted the talks, criticising the fact that delegates were hand picked by the Karzai administration.
The peace proposal would offer amnesty and cash incentives for the Taliban rank and file, while arranging for asylum for leadership figures abroad. It is viewed as a key second track by the United States, to complement a military surge, ordered by President Obama in December at the urging of the senior military commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal. The jirga’s decision comes during military preparations for an assault on the Taliban spiritual heartland of Kandahar. It is hoped that the combination of military pressure and diplomatic outreach will persuade the insurgency to end its nine year war against the Afghan regime and join the peace process.
Japanese prime minister resigns over US bases
On Wednesday, Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama announced his resignation. On Friday, his designated successor, Naoto Kan, was elected by Japanese law-makers to replace him. The surprise move came after Hatoyama’s failure to renegotiate US basing arrangements on the island of Okinawa. When his Democratic Party of Japan swept to power eight months ago, displacing the dominant Liberal Demoratic Party for only the second time since the end of the US occupation in 1952, a key promise in its manifesto was to secure the transfer of the Futenma marine airbase away from Okinawa, potentially out of Japan entirely.
In an op-ed published in The New York Times days before his election victory, Hatoyama had called for a reassessment of the US-Japan relationship and its realignment on a more equitable basis. The Status of Forces Agreement between the two countries still obliges Japan to fund the basing of the 47,000 US troops and 5,500 defence department civilians on its territory. Over half of these forces, mainly comprising the Third Marine Expeditionary Force, are located in Okinawa, in the face of substantial local popular opposition. This opposition has been inflamed in recent years by incidents involving US troops, most prominently the abduction and rape of a twelve-year-old school girl in 1995.