Friday, January 15, 2010

Israel's Turkey Policy: Why It's Apologizing to the Aggressor

By Barry Rubin

Several readers have asked me why Israel apologized to Turkey’s government about a recent incident. The Turkish ambassador to Israel (who is a very good guy) was summoned to hear Israel’s complaints about some of the Turkish government’s latest slanders against Israel. He was seated lower than Israel’s deputy foreign minister and there was no Turkish flag on the table. I’m sure there was no intent to insult him or Turkey but it became a big diplomatic issue.

So how does Israel view Turkey right now? Let me begin by saying that there is absolutely no illusion about the nature of the Turkish government and its hostility to Israel. The problem does not stem from specific Israeli actions but from the ideological and political direction of the semi-Islamist regime in Turkey.

That doesn’t mean that the Gaza or other issues are of no importance. There were frictions between the two countries in the past. But the key factor is that the current Turkish government is systematically anti-Israel. By the way, previous Turkish governments were sympathetic to the Palestinians generally but the current regime is sympathetic to Hamas as an ally. It has also moved very close to Hizballah, Iran, and Syria. At the same time, in contrast to its predecessors, the current Turkish government does not view Israel as an ally. (I’d question whether, at least in its private thinking, it views America as an ally either.)

So if everyone in Israel's government understands how hostile the Turkish regime is, why is it working so hard to patch up relations to the greatest extent possible?

1. There is no sense in making the quarrel worse than it is. Israel does not want to give the Turkish regime excuses for more hostility.

2. Especially important is the conviction that the conflict should remain as much as possible between governments and not between nations. As one Turk put it: remember Israel’s problem with Turkey is with the captain and crew, not the passengers. Israel is aware that Turks are very patriotic so any hint of blaming or insulting "Turkey" must be avoided. One day, it is hoped, there will be another government which can return to a friendly policy toward Israel. There is also a special interest in retaining the best possible relationship with the Turkish armed forces (as well as the many Turkish civilians) which, though their power is greatly reduced, oppose a semi-Islamist Turkey and believe that Iran and Syria still do pose a threat to their country.

3. The current Turkish regime must be made to feel that it has a vested interest in not pushing Israel too far because it has interests in avoiding a hotter quarrel. Turkey derives considerable revenue with Israel from trade and tourism. On a political level, it prizes the ability to claim the role of mediator between Israel and others, especially Syria. By the same token, Israel doesn't want to push Turkey even further into the Syria-Iran camp. This is one case where intimidation, sanctions, strategic leverage, or other such measures will not work, since the Turkish regime wants excuses to bash Israel. Nevertheless, it can be responsive to the bestowal or removal of “carrots.”

4. If Turkey can contribute through a mediation process to give Syria an incentive not to escalate terrorism against Israel through its Lebanese and Palestinian clients that is to the good. There are no illusions among Israeli leaders that a comprehensive Syria-Israel peace is possible or that Syria can be pulled away from Iran. Nevertheless, Israel may attack Iran’s nuclear facilities and while Syria will remain a faithful ally to Tehran, how far it will go in promoting indirect retaliation is going to be important.

Some of my Arab friends from that neighborhood don’t like this argument, saying that the only thing that will discourage Syria’s sponsorship and encouragement of terrorism would be direct pressure on Damascus. Certainly, there is no question of direct attacks from Syria on Israel since the regime in Damascus views that as being too risky.

The effect of Turkish mediation might be small and Hizballah has its own reason for not wanting to fight Israel right now. (It is too busy trying to take over Lebanon). But Turkish diplomatic efforts could contribute to preventing a repeat of the 2006 war after Hizballah launched repeated raids into Israel. In order to look good during a period of diplomatic contacts, Syria could reduce its provocations, even if Damascus’s real purpose in doing so is to get goodies from the United States and also Western support for Syrian control of Lebanon.

At the same time, though, it should be recognized as a fiction that Turkey’s hostility is really over Israel’s policy toward the Gaza Strip and the peace process. Here's how a top spokesperson for the ruling party put it in an off-record speech: "We think we no longer need to be allies with Israel in the new Middle East order, and we no longer need the support of the American Jews because we now get along with the Armenians."

The briefer might have addred regarding the former phrase that Turkey has new friends like Iran, Syria, Hamas, and Hizballah so doesn't need Israel's cooperation to defend itself from these radical forces.

The briefer might also have added regarding the latter phrase that since the Obama Administration views the current Turkish government as a great exemplar of a moderate Muslim democracy, Turkey no longer needs the help of Israel's supporters in the United States to ensure its good relations with Washington. In addition, the Obama Administration won't say a word--unlike its various predecessors--to encourage Turkey not to bash Israel.

Turkey’s political leadership and its direction have changed in a way that can only be compared to a revolution. Moreover, the regime there does not have to worry at all about any negative reaction from the U.S. government in response to its hostility against Israel. The conditions that brought about close cooperation between the two countries have changed very much in the estimation of Turkey’s current rulers, who view Iran, Syria, and Islamist revolutionary groups as friends, not threats.

Israel has no great alternative to this policy. It should be stressed that while pressure and tough policies are often the best option, there is nothing to be gained by such an approach in this specific case.

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