Turkey today expelled Israel’s ambassador and announced it would downgrade relations between the two countries to the lowest level possible, while still maintaining them. This development, which was expected, is part of a round of measures Turkish officials have promised in response to Israel’s refusal to apologize for murdering nine Turkish citizens on the Mavi Marmara. Now that the Palmer Report has been formally released, Turkey will begin taking a number of other measures expected to affect military, commercial and diplomatic ties between the countries.
Though Turkish opposition newspapers have reported Turkey plans to cut off all trade relations as well, this has not been reported in Zaman, Turkey’s major paper. If Turkey did so, it would cut off a $3.5 billion annual trade flow between the two countries and significantly hurt one of Israel’s major exporters, the petrochemical industry. Many of Israel’s air routes also cross Turkish air space and if such rights were rescinded it would significantly harm Israeli tourism and trade as it would lengthen flight times and increase their cost.
Turkey will reportedly also support international lawsuits by families of murdered victims against Israel and initiate its own governmental suits. This in turn could seriously complicate the lives of the former IDF chief of staff and navy chief and that of Ehud Barak and Bibi Netanyahu, who approved the disastrous sea attack. They each may find international arrest warrants waiting for them on arrival in certain foreign countries.
The opposition newspaper Hurriyet reported a Turkish official went even further and affirmed the country’s mission to protect civilian shipping in the region. Before reading this it should be noted that this media outlet has been known to publish exaggerated reports on this subject which are then picked up by Israeli media seeking to discredit the Turkish leadership. But whatever the credibility, this story is interesting because it lays out possible scenarios which Israel and the U.S. should consider as they contemplate a Middle East considerably complicated by a Turkey-Israel faceoff:
The eastern Mediterranean will no longer be a place where Israeli naval forces can freely exercise their “bullying” practices against civilian vessels, a Turkish official said Friday.
The official said this would be the outcome of Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s statement earlier in the day that “Turkey would take every precaution it deems necessary for the safety of maritime navigation in the eastern Mediterranean.”
While the Gaza flotilla massacre is the nominal catalyst for these measures, Turkish relations with Israel began deteriorating after Operation Cast Lead, which Turkey took a leading role in criticizing. In fact, Prime Minister Erdogan has pointedly said he expects to visit Gaza in the coming weeks to dramatize Turkey’s commitment to the enclave and its ongoing opposition to Israel’s siege there.
But I think what even more rankled Erdogan was what he perceived as a betrayal by Ehud Olmert, for whom he was attempting to mediate peace talks with Syria. Turkey had just managed to set up face to face talks between the two parties, which would’ve proven to be a definitive step leading to formal peace talks and a possible resolution of outstanding differences and treaty. Faced with this prospect, Olmert turned on his heels and started a war with Hamas in Gaza. I think Erdogan has never forgiven Israel for this.
Some of the wilder rumors being spread by pro-Israel alarmists claim that Erdogan plans to board the next Turkish Gaza flotilla and lead it, something like Adm. John Paul Jones (“I have not yet begun to fight!”) leading U.S. warships into battle. I have this image of the Turkish leader standing at the prow of the Mavi Marmara with the Gaza wind whipping through his hair as it anchors off the Gaza coastline after breaking the blockade. He will either receive a hero’s welcome or–if Israel intercepts him–he may be on a fool’s errand…at least that’s what Israel would have you believe.
In fact, the Palmer Report makes it less, rather than more likely that Turkey will participate in future flotillas. Despite Turkey’s defiant disagreement with the slipshod methods of the Palmer Report, I doubt very much it’s about to allow itself to become entangled in future flotillas given the sharp (wrongheaded) criticism included in the findings. He is smart enough to pick his battles, and staking his flag on the issue of the flotilla is probably not in the cards.
But Erdogan is nothing if not a shrewd, wily adversary and just because one avenue of protest may be foreclosed to him does not mean he will become quiescent. On the contrary, I predict he will become even more activist in his criticism of Israel and attempt to play an ever more strategic role in undermining Israel’s interests, as far as they involve maintaining the Occupation and extending hegemony over the region (for example, the Iran issue).
Erdogan will frustrate Israel at every opportunity, as long as it is a position advocating a peaceful, just resolution of Israel’s regional conflicts (eg Syria, Iran, Palestine, Lebanon, etc.). But he will not do this out of spite. I think Erdogan genuinely wants and believes in regional peace and believes Israel has a legitimate role to play in the Middle East. But he also believes there should be rules nations follow in pursuing their interests. When they cross red lines, there must be consequences. Otherwise, the region becomes even more of a powder keg than it already is.
Erdogan’s image inside Israel is conveniently that of a megalomaniac. The nation manages to demonize any foreign leader who stands in the way of its perceived interests. Needless to say, while I don’t believe Erdogan or his party are gods among men, I don’t buy the Israeli view either. After all, if Ehud Olmert hadn’t gambled on a stupid war against Gaza and had pursued peace with Syria under Turkish mediation, Israel might have a peace treaty by now, the Lebanese border might be at peace, and Israel might have two less frontline states to worry about. All this Erdogan was prepared to do for Israel, for Syria, and for the region until Olmert left him high and dry.