In the view of some critics of Israel, Turkey’s decision to downgrade its diplomatic ties with the Jewish state is more than just a setback. It is seen as further evidence of Israel’s intransigence as the Netanyahu government allowed its foolish pride to alienate an important ally and unnecessarily heighten the nation’s diplomatic isolation.
But this false narrative doesn’t just get the dispute between Israel and Turkey wrong. It is based on a misreading of the fundamental shift in Turkey’s foreign policy that predates the Gaza flotilla dustup that served as the spark for the current contretemps. It is important to remember that long before Turkey tried to break the blockade of Hamas-run Gaza, its Islamic government had not only distanced itself from Israel but had begun to turn its back on the United States.
No blame should attach to Netanyahu for Turkey’s decision to expel Israel’s ambassador and to reduce the level of its own representation in the Jewish state. The long negotiations between the two countries over the content of the United Nations report on the Mavi Marmara incident blew up because Turkey had no intention of accepting anything close to a compromise. Netanyahu was ready to express “regret” for the deaths of several Turkish nationals who were killed while resisting an Israeli boarding party. But as even the final UN report noted, Israel’s blockade of the terrorist state in Gaza was legal. The report also said the Israeli soldiers who landed on the ships were attacked by the Turks in an act of organized and violent resistance and had a right to defend themselves. That a UN report would fundamentally vindicate Israel’s position shows how unreasonable Turkey has been.
For Israel to go beyond an expression of regret to a full “apology” for its actions as the Turks demanded would have opened up the door to attempts to hold the Israeli soldiers in question accountable in international courts. It would also have compromised Israel’s right of self-defense against Hamas or any party, such as the Turks in the flotilla, seeking to re-supply the terrorists.
However, the problem here is not just that Israel was in the right, but the cooling off of relations with Turkey predated the argument over the flotilla. The once close ties between Israel and Turkey, and in particular, their militaries, had begun to fray ever since the latter’s government was taken over by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Islamic Justice and Development Party in 2003. Turkey’s tilt toward Hamas and away from Israel is an inevitable consequence of Ankara’s desire to become a leader in the Islamic world in the fashion of the Ottomans rather than to be an integral part of Europe and the West. No apology from Israel or diplomatic concessions made to the Palestinians can restore the former relationship.
The lack of perspective about Turkey’s diplomatic offensive against Israel is all the more egregious because it also ignores Erdoğan’s policy shift away from the United States. In 2003, Turkey’s decision not to allow coalition troops to use their territory in the effort to depose Saddam Hussein in Iraq not only was a blow to the U.S.-Turkey alliance but set in motion circumstances that ultimately helped create the insurgency. Since then, Turkey has consistently set itself apart from its NATO allies on a host of security issues. Erdoğan’s desire to strengthen Turkey’s trade ties with Iran has fatally undermined the sanctions the United States has sought to impose on the Islamist regime’s effort to gain nuclear capability.
Those who wish to blame Netanyahu for the loss of Israel’s Turkish alliance have short memories. Long before the Turks provoked and then dumped Israel in their pursuit of greater influence among Muslims, they did the same to the United States. Rather than wondering what Israel can do to abase itself in order to regain Turkey’s good will, the better question to ask is what actions the United States Congress and the Obama administration can now take to show their displeasure with Ankara.