Nothing will ever be the same between Turkey and Israel. Not after Israel’s raid on the aid flotilla bound for Gaza left nine activists dead — several of them Turkish citizens. However, as disastrous for Israeli-Turkish relations as the raid was, the once-constructive alliance between Israel and Turkey is too important to be allowed to lapse without a rescue effort, and it might still be partly salvaged with help from the U.S.
Over the last fifteen years, Turkey has become a valuable market for Israeli business, and until the last year and a half its military opened its airspace for training Israeli pilots and permitted overflight of its territory when Israel bombed a Syrian nuclear facility three years ago. Turkey’s rapprochement with most of its neighbors has made it a potential diplomatic mediator with Syria, a role that it was performing until Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s incursion in Gaza, derailed negotiations. Close relations between the two countries’ military establishments have made possible the exchange of technologies and sale of weapons. All of this is now in danger of vanishing or being severely reduced in the aftermath of the raid.
The flotilla raid has placed strains on Turkey’s relations with the U.S. as well. For relations to improve, the Obama administration must treat Turkey’s concerns far less dismissively than it has thus far, and stop enabling Israeli recklessness. So far the Obama administration’s response has been woefully inadequate. If American citizens were killed on a similarly provocative, but basically peaceful, mission, our government would expect U.S. allies to support American efforts to gain redress.
Turkey provides the U.S. with supply routes into northern Iraq, it contributes a sizable contingent of soldiers to the allied effort in Afghanistan, and it has influence it can use with Azerbaijan, a key staging ground for U.S. efforts in Afghanistan whose government is currently very dissatisfied with the U.S. As a major emerging market and regional power, Turkey can contribute to regional security and share some of the burdens the U.S. bears. But President Obama has done little to realize the “model partnership” with Turkey that he described last year in Ankara. Having first dismissed Turkey’s nuclear deal with Iran out of hand, the administration has now effectively taken Israel’s side in the dispute over the raid. The deal represented a first step to a negotiated solution to the nuclear issue and was in line with what the administration had told Turkey and Brazil it would consider, which made the abrupt dismissal of the deal that much more provocative. The U.S.’s blanket defense of Israel is even more wrong-headed, denigrating Turkey while doing no favors for Israel.
A practical first step in remedying these mistakes would be to make a gesture to Turkey by persuading Israel to accept and participate in an international investigation of the raid. Failing that, the administration should endorse such an independent investigation, which could begin to show Ankara that it values the Turkish alliance as much as it does the relationship with Israel. The current U.S. position of supporting Israel’s investigation of its own actions will simply not satisfy Turkey or most of our other allies. Eventually, the U.S. will have to pressure Israel to lift or at least significantly loosen the siege of Gaza. Meantime, Washington must placate Turkey in order to buy itself — and Israel — time.
At the very least, the Obama administration should put some distance between the U.S. and Israel in order to keep the Turkish government from downgrading ties with Israel even more than it has already. So far, the AKP government has resisted the angry demands of its people and the opposition to escalate the conflict, but they have had to press ahead in downgrading diplomatic relations and reviewing military and economic ties in the absence of any significant Israeli concessions. Preserving some part of the relationship between Israel and Turkey, which is far more strategically important for Israel than it is for Turkey, is the best thing that the administration can be doing for Israel right now. This cannot be accomplished without giving full consideration and respect to Turkish grievances.
At some point, America must stop backing Israel’s current self-destructive course, which has been marked by strategically foolish overreactions and provocations in Lebanon, Gaza, and Dubai. Obama’s unwillingness to hold Israel accountable even when it makes terrible blunders ensures that the Israeli government will assume that it can act as foolishly and recklessly as it wants, and the U.S. will always be there to support it. This allows Israel’s government to continue isolating itself, and it puts the U.S. in an increasingly difficult position with many of its other allies and other rising powers whose cooperation the U.S. needs in many other areas. If Israel appears to be a growing liability for the U.S., the U.S.-Israel relationship — on which Israel relies — is jeopardized.
The impulse to rally behind Israel in the face of virtually unanimous, international condemnation is understandable, and under different circumstances might even be the correct response. But both the U.S. and Israel risk permanent damage to their relations with Turkey if they adopt identical, unapologetic defenses of the Israeli raid. If there is “no space” between the U.S. and Israeli positions, as Vice President Biden recently stated, most Turks will simply blame the U.S. in addition to Israel, and the already fraying ties between our countries will become virtually impossible to mend.