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Turkey's response to UN flotilla report: not just about Israel

Turkey’s response to the UN’s Palmer Report investigating the 2010 flotilla debacle was like a roar in the jungle of Middle East and global politics that had been building for at least two years now.  Turkey had leveraged the report even prior to its publication as the deadline for an ultimatum to Israel: apologize or face punishment. The UN commission returned a relatively balanced verdict of blame; Israel predictably failed to apologize, and Turkey wasted no time: it dramatically downgraded Israel’s diplomatic relations, with promises of further measures, and brashly swept aside the report itself.

It’s hard to ignore the sense that Turkey’s response is part of a larger drama both within Turkey itself and stretching beyond Israel, both East and West.

Sure, much of this is between Israel and Turkey. The incident follows a series of milestones marking the deterioration of relations, starting with Turkey’s indignation at the Gaza war in 2009, in part because as a strategic ally, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was irritated not to have been informed.   A flare up between Erdogan and President Shimon Peres at a conference during the war made the tension public; later that year, Israel humiliated the Turkish ambassador as punishment for the airing of an anti-Israel-cum-anti-Semimtic television show. With relations dangerously on edge, the flotilla incident sent the two countries into collision course.

Israel’s behavior, alienating one of its most vital allies, is irrational and inexplicably self-defeating. From Turkey’s perspective, however, the changing relations are clearly calculated and strategic responses to various developments – some domestic, some foreign.

The domestic scene could involve Erdogan and the AKP’s long-standing mission to shift power from the country’s legendary military to the political realm. Perhaps the Israel policy is partly intended to further win favor from the domestic audience by steering a bold new foreign policy path, one that cashes in on likely growing anti-Israel sentiment among the Turkish public – after all, why not learn from the Middle East? The AKP has also been criticized for increasing concentration of its power : “Turkish political life…has now created something resembling a democratically elected single-party state,” and some even see authoritarian leanings.  If the AKP would rather further consolidate its authority than deal with democracy, pumping up the image of an external enemy will be useful. Yigal Schleifer gets at this point in Foreign Policy:

By removing what has been described as the greatest roadblock to Turkey’s further democratization [the power of the army – ds], the AKP must now prove that it can deliver the democratic goods it has been promising. If it can’t, it may find itself forced to find another punching bag.

On the international stage, Turkey has been vying for a stepped-up leadership role in the Middle East for some time.  There are various reasons: Steven Cook thinks it is a “natural” post-Cold War evolution . I think that in addition, Turkey may perceive greater urgency over the last year or two, for two reasons: its floundering EU bid, and fallout from the Arab spring.

Since the EU accession isn’t making much progress, Turkey is probably re-grouping its global strategy. One response is a sort of rejection – ‘if you don’t want us, we’ll antagonize your Western ally in the Middle East and your institutions in general.’ As Turkish journalist Ilhan Tanir observed on Twitter:

Turkey, by calling Palmer findings “null,void” starts dangerous precedent. Then Israel’s constant disregard of other UN reps also validated.

At the same time, there’s a ‘keep the door open,’ response – an ongoing attempt to show the West that Turkey is a vital diplomatic resource, a credible and sane player with clout in both Europe and the Middle East. Turkey’s revelation of massive support for the Libyan rebels is one example. To play that role, Turkey must continue gaining leverage among Middle Eastern countries.

And of course the Arab spring is toppling regional dictators, leaving a growing power gap – especially with Egypt’s future so uncertain. Turkey is well-poised to grow its influence.

It seems to hold true – no matter how tiresome – that the road to influence in Middle East countries runs through Israel-whipping. Or that Erdogan thinks it does – but there’s little evidence to prove him wrong.

There’s another possibility that does not necessarily contradict the above: Erdogan might really believe that the damage to relations will shock Israel into reconsidering its policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians. In a way, this is what the US could never do.

Note that Turkey’s responses – the diplomatic downgrading, suspension of military relations, and a pledge to challenge Israel in courts and in the Mediterranean – are harsh but mostly diplomatic in nature. As military agreements were already largely suspended, some – such as Israeli Channel 2’s Arad Nir – believe the measures were carefully designed not to create a genuine rupture. This supports the notion that they are meant to produce specific strategic results, without going too far, at least not yet.

The Cyprus factor. There’s the small matter a recent gas-exploration deal between Cyprus and Israel. Turkey has asked the countries to hold off on this until a resolution over the Cyprus conflict is reached. Looks to me like Turkey was banking on the fact that there might never be such a resolution. The advances between Cyprus and Israel just this week must have further raised Erdogan’s blood pressure and his determination to stop Israel’s “bullying” on this front too.

Whatever goals Erdogan actually has in mind, the unraveling of relations between Israel and Turkey is a dangerous animal. Israel was foolish to contribute to it and should think hard about how to defuse it. Zvi Barel of Haaretz thinks an apology is due. But progress on the Palestinian front would also be a very strong start.

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    COMMENTS

    1. Y.

      Sigh. As usual, +972 would whitewash any anti-Israeli action.
      .
      First, it was far from a ‘flare-up’ in Davous. It was Erdogan nearly assaulting the Israeli President. Second, media in Turkey is tightly controlled (number of journalists imprisoned is first in the world), so one can note the airing of said series is hardly disconnected from the government. Third, no mention of Erdogan’s demand to annul the Gaza blockade. And of course, nothing about AKP’s Islamist politics**. Lastly, one must note Erdogan’s er.. emotional nature. He’s hardly demanding apologies from Israel alone. There’s a demand for apology from Armenia (over some comments its President made in an interview), recent rather radical statements on Cyprus (all but rejecting the Annan plan the turks had already agreed to), etc. etc..
      .
      In truth, far from a ‘no problems’ policy, Turkey is trying to bully their neighbourhood. They forget their situation is in some ways similar to Israel – surrounded by enemies and competitors. The recent weakness of their environment has emboldened them – but that is something that can be ameliorated. (oh, and an apology for their made-up crisis is far from called for – we need to get them back to reality, not encourage their fantasies).
      .
      ** e.g. arguing there was no genocide in Darfur because Sudanese are Muslim.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Bernard Gadoua, Montréal

      And for Israel, exchange Turkey for Cyprus its a dummy politic. Turkey is now the locomotive of economic growth in all the region and the most powerfull nation… with the best will…

      Reply to Comment
    3. James

      Unfortunately, Israel need Turkey more than Turkey need Israel so this turn of events isn’t very surprising.

      I don’t want to head down the path talking about the Armenian, Greek and Assyrian genocide, but Turks have a hard time accepting responsibilty. Being rejected by the EU is a big slap in the face, and it’s becoming clear that they’re drifting away from the west.

      Reply to Comment
    4. aristeides

      You omit that Turkey is also taking the issue of the Gaza blockade to the Hague, which is wonderfully audacious. If Israel fears “delegitimization” this ought to send Netanyahu peeing his pants.

      Maybe it’s not too late to indict the murdering IDF commandos

      Reply to Comment
    5. Ben Israel

      Quote:
      ———————————————-
      It seems to hold true – no matter how tiresome – that the road to influence in Middle East countries runs through Israel-whipping. Or that Erdogan thinks it does – but there’s little evidence to prove him wrong.
      ———————————————-
      Nasser tried the same gambit in the mid-1950’s…he told everyone he was going to lead an anti-Israel crusade (pardon the metaphor). This made him immensely popular in the Arab World and it advanced his Pan-Arabist aspirations. However, this quickly burned out. His reputation was collapsing long before his final, massive defeat in the Six-Day War. His “United Arab Republic” already fell apart in 1962 with the withdrawal of the Syrians.
      If, as seems likely, Erdogan is attempting the same thing through Israel-bashing, it won’t help him any more than it did Nasser.

      James-Israel buys mostly food and low-tech products like washing machines from Turkey. It is true that trade is expanding rapdily, even with the current problems, but I don’t think Turkey has anything that Israel can’t get somewhere else for comparable prices. I would think Turkey buys high-tech stuff from Israel but I don’t know to what extent or whether they can replace it somewhere else.
      To tell the truth, the supposedly “good relations” tha existed a few years ago seemed abnormal and I would say the current situation is the normal one. How can a “Muslim state” have good relations with an abhorrent dhimmi state stuck in the Middle of the Dar el-Islam?

      Reply to Comment
    6. RichardNYC

      Where are the “international law” squawkers now? Dana? Gurwitz? Feeling foolish yet? Anyone going to retract their BS? Let’s see the adults at 972 stand up and tell Turkey to settle down.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Deïr Yassin

      “At a conference during the war”
      The clash Erdogan-Peres at Davos was on the 29th of January, more than 10 days after the end of Cast Lead, if I’m not wrong.

      Reply to Comment
    8. aristeides

      RichardNYC – some of us are cheering Turkey on. Someone, finally, has to stand up for justice and freedom.

      Why is Israel afraid of international law if it isn’t guilty?

      Reply to Comment
    9. ISHMAEL - NIGERIA

      Ergogan is no less an arab than being a Turk or a fractional European.
      So, in the midst of current outrage and aggression against Isreal, it’s a wise counsel for him to remember that the world has a wide time span.
      Erdogan should properly verify if truly his morning has truly come or long past before rising from slumper into the dark midnight.
      Otherwise, his actions could provoke being comsumed by the lurking dangers of the dark night, with nothing left of him for the dawning light or sunshine.

      Reply to Comment
    10. Palestinian

      “an anti-Israel-cum-anti-Semitic television show. ”

      anti Semitic ? I thought only ignorant people use it here and there .Dahlia , you are losing your credibility and professionalism.I dunno whats wrong with you people , you accuse people of antisemitism while you arent even Semite!

      Reply to Comment
    11. There are times when geopolitical analysis should be abandoned for simpler things. At least two reports say that several of the dead were shot–repeatedly–at close range. One can ignore the legal stand of Israel and address solely the question of irresponisble and demeaning force. Let Israel board ships, but let its actions on board be limited in international law. If we can get there.

      Reply to Comment
    12. mick

      Secular Turkey was an ally, Islamist Turkey is not, for really, really obvious reasons.

      Reply to Comment
    13. Borg

      Turkey and Israels relationship even before th erupture was stragen in that it required Israel not to mention the Armenian genocide, and to collaborate with Turkey going after the Kurds. Now, Israel doesnt have to participate in this dubious behavior.Thurky just got rebuffed in Libya, will have to challenge Iran for supremacy of the Muslim world, and has been shown to be a paper tiger in Syria, at the same time as being revealed as a less than reliable US ally. Turkey may want to pick on Israel, but will have its hands full with more substantive issues very soon. If the economy goes south, Erdogan will have some real problems

      Reply to Comment
    14. Borg

      Turkey and Israels relationship even before the rupture was stragen in that it required Israel not to mention the Armenian genocide, and to collaborate with Turkey going after the Kurds. Now, Israel doesnt have to participate in this dubious behavior.Thurky just got rebuffed in Libya, will have to challenge Iran for supremacy of the Muslim world, and has been shown to be a paper tiger in Syria, at the same time as being revealed as a less than reliable US ally. Turkey may want to pick on Israel, but will have its hands full with more substantive issues very soon. If the economy goes south, Erdogan will have some real problems

      Reply to Comment
    15. Adam

      Ben Israel – I think it’s a bit tedious to compare Nasser and Erdogan. Nasser was a populist with an eye towards pan-Arab nationalism. Erdogan is just trying to strategically re-position itself as more of a moral compass for the Middle East, which they’re more or less well positioned to do (their not actually being a part of the Middle East not withstanding) given their history of elections (Let’s set aside the military coups for now… =D ) and liberalism (relative to the Middle East). Erdogan’s not trying to unite the whole region under a single flag nor is he agitating for war. And at any rate, loud and harsh responses to Israel are not the single route to influence, just expected as part of the job.

      And as far as what Turkey buys from Israel, you’re right to assume that it’s high-tech. I know at least that Turkey has a healthy compliment of Israeli UAVs.

      The importance of pan-Islamism is a relatively recent development historically – say, the last 15 years or so – and if you remove that context being allays with a nation of Muslims doesn’t seem entirely wacky. Remember that Turkey is neither an Islamist or an Arab state, and given that both nations are fighting minorities seeking independence, until recently their similarities outstripped their differences.

      Reply to Comment
    16. Kernod

      Israel is like a schoolyard bully — all haughty, full of pride, arrogance, and feelings of invincibility, until he comes up against someone who decides to stand up to him and his invincibility is shown as an empty shell.

      Israel’s doctrine of disproportionate retaliatory force, which is a cornerstone of its expansionism-instead-of-peace strategy, is beginning to show its limitations. As long as the Palestinians and Lebanese bore the brunt of this doctrine, it was arguably effective. However, once it was implemented against Turks, its limitations — so obvious in hindsight – are clear. Coupled with what I would characterize as the best Israeli foreign minister the Palestinians have ever had (jeez – you couldn’t make Lieberman up in a million years), with his bull-in-a-China-shop ideology, the writing has been on the wall for some time now.

      Israel relies on military power as its primary tactic in any confrontation, even when other options clearly exist. The fundamental lesson history teaches us is that power is, by its very nature, temporary, and that using force as your primary modus operandi, instead of as an extension of politics and diplomacy, is a loosing strategy.

      Israel has conducted itself with total disregard for the opinion of anyone else, including its allies, for a very long time. It has allowed itself to be blinded by its self-perceived omnipotence (not unlike Mubarak). It has allowed its global position to erode, ignoring pleas for moderation from all of its friends and allies, while ignoring the warnings of its enemies. Together with the change in the world’s geopolitical balance of forces, in which Israel’s backers — the US and Western Europe – are loosing clout at the same time they are loosing patience with Israel’s antics, Israel is becoming much more of a liability than an asset.

      While there is not doubt in my mind that the Turkish regime is no lover of humanity, as its policies vis-a-vis the Kurds show, it is using its support of the Palestinians for both internal and external gain. In addition, it is a member of in NATO, is a friend to Iran and Syria, and is a rising power in Europe.

      If Turkey follows up its warnings with action on the legal and military fronts to curtail Israel’s politicidal intents vs the Palestinians, whatever its motivation, Israel would be ill advised to react with its standard policy of using disproportionate force.

      Israel has had its warning. This could be serious.

      Reply to Comment
    17. ARTH

      It doesn’t matter what the motives of Turkey are, it is only Israel which actually loses in the larger picture.. and much of this is because of Israel’s own policies. Israel can not “get tough” with Turkey. It is Turkey which has the real options.

      Reply to Comment
    18. RichardL

      it’s worth bearing in mind that the UN Panel’s decision on the legality of the blockade is only an opinion, and from a bunch of amateurs at that. There was no expertise on that panel in international criminal or humanitarian law. The decision is also non-binding (as it should be).
      Of course the UNHRC FFM decision was also merely an opinion, but the Mission did have two very experienced lawyers in international law on board and its secretariat also contained experts on maritime and humanitarian law. Altogether a much more professional outfit, as close reading of the two reports will show.
      But the real answer is to take the matter to the ICJ and get the matter settled once and for all. So all credit to Turkey for proposing it. If Palestine had been a state it could have been done long ago.
      Netanyahu has a real problem here that is not going to go away.

      Reply to Comment
    19. aristeides

      Netanyahu’s problem is entirely of his own creation. If he hadn’t declared right away that he’d never apologize, he wouldn’t look like he was backing down by doing so.

      If he’d apologized first thing, as any decent country would have, the crisis would have been averted.

      Reply to Comment
    20. Piotr Berman

      Iran has decent relationship with Turkey and very close relationship with Armenia, and in particular, Iran recognizes Armenian Holocaust, at least in the words of Ahmedinejad to Armenian parliament.

      Israel likewise could recognized Armenian Holocaust and be treated to a whining diplomatic note from Turkey and that would be it. The only reason that Israel did not do it that I can see is a degree of antipathy toward Armenians in some sectors of Israel.

      It is also interesting to note that alleged “alternative allies”, Greece and Cyprus, promised to support Palestinian bid for UN membership. Israeli government reminds me the following German joke: a driver on an autobahn listens to his car radio, and hears a warning: “there is car on autobahn so-and-so that drives in the wrong direction” and thinks “it is not just one car, all cars that I see go in the wrong direction!”

      Reply to Comment
    21. Watcher465

      Dahlia better get her doctorate in comparative politics before writing this Israel leaning crap. And all the Hasbarats such as Ben Israel are on board before the stench of Zionist garbage has wafted over and polluted the internet.Keep on stirring that foul food Ben, you might eat it but I won’t.

      Reply to Comment
    22. Bosko

      @Watcher465
      Stop kidding yourself. You are smelling your own stench.

      Reply to Comment
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