Breaking up is hard to do

The results of the UN Palmer Report (which summarizes the events surrounding the infamous “Flotilla Incident” on May 31, 2010) have driven another nail into the coffin that is Turkish-Israeli relations. As a student of the history and development of modern Turkey, I was dismayed by the behavior of the Turkish government: its support of the flotilla and its repeated, cheap attempts to pressure Israel into an apology.

However, as an Israeli and a Zionist, while I’m proud of my country and believe in our right of self-defense, I have no doubt that this foreign policy nightmare will cost Israel financially and strategically both in the short and long term, and will likely signal the end of a bittersweet romance.

In the 1990’s Turkish-Israeli relations saw an unprecedented period of strategic and economic growth, at one point being referred to as a “Love Affair.” As is the case with many relationships, however, this one was doomed from the beginning, for a variety of reasons. The Turkish government and military of the 90s never really represented its public, which had become increasingly conservative and religious over the decades. The Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) election in 2002 marked perhaps the first time since the beginning of the republic that a majority party actually reflected the values and moral compass of the people. Israelis may have vacationed at resorts in Antalya and Bodrum, but the close relations between governments rarely reflected the feelings between their citizens. Alon Liel, former Israeli ambassador to Turkey, has frequently stated that periods of strain often reflected Turkish popular sentiment against Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians.

In the metaphor of the doomed romance, neither lover succeeded in winning over their respective family members, always an indicator of future heartbreak.

Both sides have conflicting narratives regarding the root causes of the split. Israeli experts point the finger at Turkish Prime Minister and chairman of the AKP Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the AKP’s Muslim roots, as the source of recent strife. Turks counter that it has been Israel’s growing belligerence towards the Palestinians that is to blame. The differences between the two countries came to a head during Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009. Israel’s decision to launch a military attack upon Hamas without informing the Turks in advance was the moment where the “Love Affair” dissolved into a bitter spat, publicly played out at the Davos World Economic Forum. For Turkey, a supposed ally and friend, it was not simply the deaths of Palestinians, but the seeming disregard Israel displayed toward them that enraged Erdogan and his constituents. Poor communication is the number one cause of strain in a relationship, and the Israeli (Olmert) government had violated an unwritten rule. The Turks followed suit shortly afterward at Davos.

Turkey and Israel knew their relationship was at a crossroads, but both sides were too stubborn to kiss and make up. Rather than end things then and there, they continued to bitterly throw occasional jabs as reminders that their original disagreement had not been reconciled. Turkey aired “Ayrilik” (an anti-Semitic television show); Israel berated Turkey’s ambassador to Israel, Ahmet Çelikkol. Turkey permitted the sailing of the Gaza Flotilla; Israel boarded the ships with its elite commandos. Who hasn’t been a part of this kind of painful breakup? Obstinate as they were about fixing the relationship, Israel and Turkey also displayed unwillingness to end the affair entirely, further impairing the ability of both parties to reach a middle ground.

The Palmer Report was more an opportunity to mends ties than to determine the actual status of the Gaza blockade. Unfortunately, the result with regard to the blockade’s status was something of a Pyrrhic victory: a meaningless decision from an impotent world body. Those who laud the UN’s decision forget the many times Israel has rejected similar committees that have accused Israel of crimes against humanity. Turkey dismissed the report and is now taking the legitimacy of the blockade to The Hague.

Like frustrated lovers in divorce court, Israel and Turkey are more interested in scoring points and “being right” than in fixing what’s wrong.

S0 what really went wrong with the relationship? After decades of playing a quieter role in the Middle East, Turkey decided to reengage with the region, particularly with its Arab neighbors. Subtly different from previous Kemalist regimes, which pursued Western relationships, the AKP’s foreign policy reaches out in all directions, unbiased by religion and political philosophy. What now mattered most to Turkey was economic stability and the development of superpower status, which it aimed to accomplish by making peace with its traditional rivals. However, Turkey’s “zero problems” approach has experienced significant setbacks adjusting to the Arab Spring, and its relationship with Israel has suffered as a result.

While Turkey’s pursuit of these goals went ahead for several years without a hitch, the Turks seemed to forget that the international stage is constantly shifting.

More importantly, playing the middleman is a delicate job, requiring a willingness to put state interests to the side for the betterment of regional or global stability. Turkey’s conflicting responses to Libya, Israel and Syria show how challenging it is to implement a political philosophy to perfection. The AKP is only now learning the complex meaning of friendship, whereas Israel, since its establishment a solo artist, has strictly adhered to its moral principles, even at the cost of losing a friendship.

There is no doubt that both Israel and Turkey will suffer. In the changing Middle East, the devil you know is much better than the devil you don’t. Losing an ally in a period of regional instability and global economic fluctuation goes against the common sense of diplomacy and realpolitik.

Turkey, whose foreign policy is built upon “zero problems with neighbors,” may have reached out to many different nations in the past decade and expanded its network, but none will replace Israel’s combination of economic, technological and military dynamics. For Israel however, there is little to be gained from following the advice of Shlomo Avineri, who argues that Israelis need “to grit our teeth and do the right thing” for the sake of future strategic concerns. The loss of Turkey is something that the Olmert government should have prevented from happening in 2008 when it decided to implement Operation Cast Lead. Lastly, there will be a residual effect in the Middle East, specifically how the United States deals with two countries it perceives as critical players in the region. Brinksmanship between Israel and Turkey will de facto include the United States, as outlined in last year’s Foreign Policy article by Steven Cook, which may also perceive Turkey as a regional competitor.

Many will cry out that Turkey would never have accepted any apology for what happened on the Mavi Marmara – that Erdogan had been waiting for such a moment, and that the AKP’s intentions were always to sabotage the relationship between Israel and Turkey. Those claims, however, are the exaggerated tantrums of a spoiled lover who has yet to learn that the first rule in any relationship: apologize first, negotiate later. While Israel may be comforted by the knowledge that it put sticking to its guns and defending its position before friendship, it needs to be concerned with fallout from the divorce.

Posted on by Gabriel in Israel, Turkey