The Odd Triplets: Turkey, Israel and the US

The harsh response to Israel could break ties between the two countries while simultaneously showing the differences between Ankara and Washington

After the stunning movie-like commando take over of the ‘Freedom Flotilla’ aid ships on Sunday by Israel – a blunder that resulted in somewhere between 10-20 deaths of activists and up to 60 injured – Turkey has been leading the charge in condemning Israel.  Obviously, the Turkish government has reason to be upset – the attacks against activists occurred on a Turkish ship and about 400 of the Flotilla passengers were Turkish.  There has, however, been no moderation in the stance of the Turkish government, leading to what could become a military confrontation between two of America’s strongest allies in the region.  While tensions remain tense, it is unlikely that there will be any declaration of war between the Turks and the Israelis anytime soon; however, the incident in the Mediterranean will certainly damage the already weak relations between the two countries and put the US and NATO in a very uncomfortable position.

[tweetmeme] After the attacks, Israeli PM Netanyahu cancelled his trip to Washington to return to Israel in order to deal with the diplomatic blowback from the events.  Turkish FM Davutoglu, on the other hand went immediately to New York to participate in the UNSC emergency meeting and to Washington to speak with the Obama Administration.  Turkey has called the events a ‘bloody massacre,’ compared Israel’s actions to the pirates off the coast of Somalia and as well as compared the psychological effects of the events to 9/11 World Trade Center attacks.  Additionally, the Turkish FM expressed frustration at the refusal of the US to condemn Israel and said that the Turkish government intends to bring up the issue in NATO – of which the US and Turkey are members, but Israel is not.

Turkey has also withdrawn its ambassador from Israel, and sent military planes to Israel to bring back all of the Turkish nationals that were being detained.  Coteret is reporting that Turkish PM Erdogan (through FM Davutoglu) is Israel refused to hand over all Turkish nationals, relations between the two countries would be irreparable.  In Turkey, the people are furious (making the government’s harsh rhetoric even more justified).  There have been protests across the country while the families of Israeli diplomats have returned to Israel.  The tension has led many in Turkey to fear a backlash against the Jewish minority, though the Turkish government has increased its security for its Jewish population.

To demonstrate how serious the Turkish government is about this issue, the PM has said that more aid ships will be sent to Gaza (two are already on their way), but noting that they are considering sending a Turkish naval escort with the ships.  Sending the Turkish navy obviously increases the stakes of a clash with the Israelis as any military confrontation between the two navies would be disastrous for both countries as well as the US and the peace process.

On the one hand, Israel is almost required to stop the second round on ships in order to justify its violent actions earlier this week.  Furthermore, if Israel allows the second round of ships through, it will look as though the Israel navy is backing down to its Turkish equivalents.  On the other hand, Turkey is a member of NATO and if Israel forces the ships to stop through violence, the Turks can easily argue for diplomatic and military support from all other NATO members, including the US (under Article 5 of the NATO treaty).  A military confrontation (and let’s hope not), “could see Israel confronting NATO,” which would put the US in an extremely awkward position.

With regard to Israel, the Flotilla attack could act as the straw that puts an end to relations between the Jewish state and Turkey – something that is certainly undesirable for Washington.  The damage between Israel and Turkey started with the Israeli invasion of Gaza in 2008 while tensions were raised further last year when Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Danny Ayalon humiliated the Turkish ambassador.

Relations between the US and Turkey are not quite as damaged as with Israel and the two countries are still on god terms.  Yet the tensions between the US and Turkey were on display when the US almost used the term ‘genocide’ to describe the historical events in Armenia.  The tension with the US is a result of the growing international relevance of the Turks and, in particular, their growing reputation in the Middle East.  Because of its geography and huge Muslim population, Ankara has historically been a major ally of the US.  During the Cold War, its was relegated to subservience in the ideological chess game, yet the end of the Cold War has allowed Ankara to grow up – producing a major ideological gap between Turkey and Washington:

Nowhere is Turkey asserting itself more than in the Middle East, where it has gone from a tepid observer to an influential player in eight short years. In the abstract, Washington and Ankara do share the same goals: peace between Israel and the Palestinians; a stable, unified Iraq; an Iran without nuclear weapons; stability in Afghanistan; and a Western-oriented Syria. When you get down to details, however, Washington and Ankara are on the opposite ends of virtually all these issues.

Despite these differences, Turkey’s geography and demographics make the country a major asset for the US.  Because of this the Obama Administration is acting quickly to appease the Turks while simultaneously reacting completely differently to the Flotilla crisis.  The Administration’s mild comment on Sunday’s events angered Turkey, leading the latter (already insulted by Washington thanks to Obama’s rejection of the Turkish brokered nuclear deal with Iran) to imply that it will not vote for the US-backed sanctions against Iran.

The violence in the Mediterranean on Sunday will certainly have profound effects, leaving Israel with a black eye and angry neighbors.  The most important and perhaps most negative result of all this might be the further drifting of Turkey away from the positions of Tel Aviv and Washington.  The Turks remain incredibly important for both Israel and the United States due to demographics and its strategic placement between east and west, the path seems to be set for a more complete fallout between all three.  If Turkey does send a naval escort with more blockade-busting aid ships, Israel and the US will need to make some serious choices about the state of the Turkish alliance.

Photo from the Guardian

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