from From the Potomac to the Euphrates and Middle East Program

Between Barack, Bibi, and Tayyip

March 27, 2013

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There has been much ink spilled in the last week over the rapprochement between Israel and Turkey.  I have been somewhat reluctant to weigh-in if only because I was fairly certain that reconciliation between the two countries was not going to happen anytime soon.  I am now eating crow.

The Turkish-Israeli make-up is certainly in the interest of both Jerusalem and Washington.  For the Israelis, resolving their dispute with Turks means reestablishing full diplomatic ties with a leading regional power and a large Muslim country, making them a little less isolated than before Prime Minister Benjamin Netanayahu placed the call to his counterpart in Ankara, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.  Netanyahu’s expression of regret over the Mavi Marmara incident and his commitment that Israel would pay compensation to the families of the eight Turks and one Turkish-American killed during the raid on the Turkish flagged ferry was a diplomatic achievement for the Obama administration that was three years in the making.  The Turkish-Israeli fallout was a complication for American policymakers in a region that was already difficult to navigate.  Ties will unlikely return to the strategic alignment of the 1990s, but the fact that Washington will not have to say, referee, between the Israelis and the Turks in the Eastern Mediterranean is a net positive for the United States.

Although it is clear that the Turkish-Israeli entente is in the interests of both Israel and the United States, it is a bit harder to understand what is in it for Ankara.  The Turks are obviously not solely responsible for the deterioration of their relations with the Israelis over the last three years, but it was clear that Prime Minister Erdogan used the tension to his great political benefit.  To the extent that Erdogan was tough on the Israeli government it played well in Erzurum.  It also played well in Cairo.  And the fact that it played well in Cairo reinforced how well criticism of the Israelis played in Erzurum.  It is not at all clear that Prime Minister Erdogan is the “King of the Arab Street”—he is very popular around the region—but the fact that many Turks perceived him to be a regional leader accrued to his and the AKP’s political benefit.

It seems that this kind of political gold would be hard to give up.  Perhaps the Turkish prime minister has calculated that he and his party are so popular that they no longer need the confrontation with the Israelis, but that runs counter to everything anyone knows about Erdogan who rarely leaves anything politically to chance.  Some AKP stalwarts portrayed Netanyahu’s apology as a triumph:  Having brought the Israelis to their knees, Netanyahu had no choice but to accede to the Turks.  That is one way of spinning Israel’s act of contrition. Yet Erdogan did not get everything he wanted.  He did take some heat for accepting Netanyahu’s apology without getting an Israeli commitment to lift the Gaza blockade while at the same time dropping charges against the Israeli officers whom Ankara deems responsible for the raid on the Mavi Marmara.   That’s why Erdogan almost immediately walked back the renewal of ties, stating it was too early for a full resumption of relations, that the charges might not be dropped so quickly, and warning that Israel should still alter its policy toward the Palestinians.

If Erdogan was willing to take the political hit for restoring ties with Israel, he must have gotten something out of the deal.  Other analysts have argued that the Turkish willingness to patch things up with the Israelis has to do with Syria, Iran, energy, or all three.  Of these issues, access to energy resources and the benefits of cooperating with the Israelis in the Eastern Mediterranean even if it is awkward politically far outweighs the drawbacks of continued dependence on Russia and/or Iran.  I don’t see how renewed Turkish-Israeli relations change the situation in Syria or the calculations of the Assad regime or the Obama administration.  The best that anyone can muster is that Damascus must remember how uncomfortable life was when Turkey and Israel seemed to have Syria in a pincer in the late 1990s.  No doubt people remember, but the world has changed in the almost two decades when the Israelis and Turks were sharing airspace, training together, and Israeli advisers were invited to observe the Turkish armed forces do its best imitation of the IDF’s forays into Lebanon with similar operations in Northern Iraq.  Perhaps Assad, who was an ophthalmologist back then, will wonder what the reconciliation means (like everyone else), but it certainly won’t alter the way he has pursued the rebellion in his land.  On Iran, it is true that Ankara has given up on its efforts to shape the behavior of the clerical regime, but that does not mean that Erdogan, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, or anyone else with any influence in foreign policy/national security decision-making circles concurs with the Israeli approach to Iran’s nuclear program.  The Turks have been clear that they do not look favorably on Iran’s proliferation, but they also believe that a military option to delay or stop the Iranians is unwise because it is unlikely to work.

I would not totally dismiss these factors in contributing to the change in Turkey-Israel ties, but just maybe it had more to do with one leader who needed to give President Obama something and another whom the American president  put in a position where he could not say no.  Clearly, Netanyahu had to deliver on something.  Here was the President of the United States who has, despite erroneous allegations that he had it in for the Israelis, funded Israel’s missile defense, done more than any other President to ensure the country’s qualitative military edge, worked with Israel to damage Iran’s nuclear program, and turned the other cheek after the Israeli prime minister worked to get Mitt Romney elected.  Netanyahu could not stiff President Obama given his reluctance to move on the Palestinian front.  As a result, apologizing to Erdogan became the Israelis’ “deliverable.”

When it came to the Turks, the White House—along with Secretary of State John Kerry—put the squeeze on  Erdogan.  Until now, the Obama administration has preferred to handle disagreements between Washington and Ankara quietly and behind closed doors.  In the summer of 2010, there was a general sentiment among the Turkey watchers in Washington that President Obama should not meet Prime Minister Erdogan at that year’s G-20 summit in Toronto over Turkey’s vote against  UNSC sanctions on Iran, the Tehran Research Reactor deal that the Foreign Minister Davutoglu negotiated with the Brazilians, and the extraordinarily caustic rhetoric the Turkish leadership used after the Mavi Marmara incident.  (Davutoglu, for example, likened it to the attacks on New York and Washington in September 2001.)  Instead, the President chose to meet Erdogan and express his dissatisfaction with the Turks directly.  The strategy worked, laying the ground for almost three years of close cooperation.  More recently, the administration chose a different tactic.  After Erdogan called Zionism a “crime against humanity” during a speech on February 28 in Vienna, Secretary Kerry criticized the prime minister twice publicly—one of which was at a press conference with the Turkish foreign minister.  Then Obama went to Israel—a trip that was closely watched and scrutinized in Turkey—and gave what amounted to a ringing endorsement of Zionism in his Jerusalem Convention Center speech followed with a visit to Theodore Herzl’s grave.  Clearly, the President of the United States with whom Prime Minister Erdogan has developed a very good relationship does not consider Zionism on the same level as fascism and Islamophobia.  Consequently, when the phone rang and the Turkish leader learned it was the Israeli prime minister along with the president of the United States, he likely calculated that he could not turn down Netanyahu’s apology.  Had he done so, it would have undermined the trust Obama and Erdogan have worked to develop.