A new strategic divide in the region

Daily News Egypt
9 Min Read

In the past, I have argued in these virtual pages that problems between Turkey and Israel should not be considered as one-off events. There are structural reasons for tensions to flare up. Therefore I concluded that there would be ever more conflicts between the two allies/partners.

Even with that prognosis, I could not have imagined that the episode of the aid convoy to Gaza would end up with the calamitous, illegal, ill-thought-out, ill-fated and bloody attack against the ship Mavi Marmara by Israeli commandos. In my view, neither the personalities nor the ideological affiliations of some of the people who were on that ship, nor their resistance to the attack, can be offered as just causes for the bloody carnage that followed.

This debate will continue for a long time and perhaps inconclusively. What is certain at this point is that there is now civilian blood between two countries that were not at war and that are not even contiguous. It will be amazingly difficult if not impossible to place the relations back on track.

When I reflect on the events and how they proceeded, and think of errors of omission and commission that we know of, I come to the conclusion that we are faced with yet another example of politics of miscalculation. The two governments ended up finding themselves in an undesirable situation, unable to mend fences. In my judgment, both sides expected a confrontation — in fact, Israel announced long in advance that it would intervene forcefully — but no one imagined that the confrontation would turn out the way it did.

In the past, I identified two main reasons why relations were likely to suffer more crises in the future. Firstly, the conditions that led to the flourishing of an alignment between Israel and Turkey framed by their military cooperation are no longer present. Then, conflict and hostility defined Turkey’s relations with many of its neighbors. That began to change in 1999.

Upon the delivery of PKK chief Abdullah Ocalan to Turkey by the US in Kenya that year, Turkey’s relations with Syria improved considerably. As the Aegean Spring reduced tensions between Greece and Turkey, relations with Iran took a turn for the better. In short, Turkey already had friendly relations with most of its neighbors by the time the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power.

In the wake of the Iraq war, regional circumstances enabled Turkey to play an active and mostly constructive role in the region. As Turkey’s policy toward its neighbors gradually became less confrontational, the benefits of the Israeli alignment became relatively less significant. In the meantime, the architect of that alignment on the Turkish side, the military, was fast losing political ground as a result of intensive civilianization of the polity, indictments against its members for alleged coup plots and other illicit activities and further democratization.

Related to these facts is the second structural reason. The two countries have diverging visions for the Middle East and their policy preferences and approaches are increasingly irreconcilable. Turkey increasingly sees itself as a regional power and seeks to be America’s main partner in the region. Under the rubric of "model partnership" first brought up by President Obama, Ankara believes that it has a chance to forge such a relationship that will inevitably be at the expense of Israel’s most favored and protected status.

Turkey wishes to have a Middle East order that is based on economic integration, political stability and peace. Achieving peace is seen as the precondition of political stability and economic integration that would consolidate that stability. Ankara believes Israel’s current policies are blocking this path. Whereas Israel is against the lifting of the siege of Gaza, Turkey believes it must be ended and a way must be found to engage Hamas in the political process.

Similarly, Ankara wished to broker a Syrian-Israeli deal. The fury of PM Erdogan in the wake of the Gaza war in part stemmed from the fact that the war killed a deal that the Turkish side believed was almost at hand during PM Ehud Olmert’s visit to Ankara days before the Israeli attack.

Finally, not only does Turkey continue to engage Iran. Despite criticism that Tehran uses these efforts to gain time for further enrichment, Ankara also keeps on bringing up Israel’s nuclear arsenal on every platform. The recent decision of the NPT Review Conference that invited Israel to open its nuclear program to scrutiny suggests that Turkey’s persistence on this matter paid off.

At a time when Israel and the United States had serious difficulties in dealing with one another, this vision of Turkey became pretty attractive for Washington. Erdogan’s aggressive language when it came to Israel received gentle treatment from Washington partially because of resentment against the Israeli government and partially because Turkey’s rhetoric and proximity to Hamas had the auxiliary effect of undercutting Iranian influence in Gaza and elsewhere.

In short, Turkey’s regional hegemonic aspirations became more visible and its policies more assertive, challenging Israel’s hegemonic design and the positions, policies and priorities that stem from it.

In light of these observations, I believe that the Israeli raid was meant to teach the Turkish government a lesson. That Minister of Defense Ehud Barak, the champion of good relations with Turkey who saved the day after the scandal with Deputy FM Danny Ayalon a few months ago, was the architect of the assault in my view supports this hypothesis.

The Turkish government’s response, deemed inadequate by two-thirds of the population, was appropriate when it took the matter to the international arena. It is trying to keep it there, despite the initial disappointment at the UN Security Council. Domestically, though, the incident has been used by the government to boost its image and led to a fierce Islamist mobilization that might yet keep the ruling party hostage.

Had blood not been spilled, it would have been easier to put relations back on track. Alas, blood has been spilled and the publics have been mobilized with incendiary rhetoric. The first task therefore ought to be to cool down.

The current governments will be incapable of working with one another. So long as the peace process is a dead concept, I think it unlikely that relations can be ameliorated further. The Turkish side also appears to be quite determined to have an apology from Israel and get the international commission of inquiry that it demanded. At the end of the day, though, the real question is whether or not Turkey will think it necessary to continue with the principle of aligning itself with Israel when the strategic divide in the region is no longer necessarily that between the Arabs and non-Arabs.

Soli Ozel is professor of international relations at Istanbul Bilgi University and columnist for the daily Haberturk. This commentary is published by DAILY NEWS EGYPT in collaboration with bitterlemons-international.org.

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