Turkey’s Clash With Israel Warrants a U.S. Reassessment: View

Turkey has been a close ally of the West for 60 years. But its reaction to an evenhanded United Nations report on the May 31, 2010, flotilla clash should raise serious concerns about its broader shift in direction.

This change became obvious when Israeli naval commandos enforced their government’s blockade of Gaza by boarding a mainly Turkish flotilla of six ships carrying pro-Palestinian activists and non-military supplies. The flotilla was organized by the Turkish humanitarian organization Insan Hak ve Hurriyetleri, which Israel has alleged to have ties to Hamas, the terrorist organization that is the de-facto government in Gaza. Nine people aboard the flotilla -- eight Turks and a Turkish-American -- were killed. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon established a Panel of Inquiry and asked it to examine the facts and recommend ways to avoid similar conflicts.

The UN has a well-deserved reputation for being biased against Israel. Not surprisingly, Israel originally opposed a UN inquiry and threatened not to cooperate. Turkey welcomed it. To his credit, Ban appointed a prominent, unbiased panel that included Turkish and Israeli representatives.

On Sept. 2 the commission released a balanced report that sided with Israel on most major points. The panel found that the Israeli blockade of Gaza was a “legitimate security measure,” and that “there exist serious questions about the conduct, true nature, and objectives of the flotilla organizers, particularly IHH.” The Israeli commandos used force for their own protection after they faced “significant, organized and violent resistance from a group of passengers,” but that forcibly boarding the vessels without warning was “excessive and unreasonable” and the loss of life was “unacceptable.”

Sensible Recommendations

The report also contained a number of sensible recommendations, including a call for Turkish-Israeli rapprochement on the basis of an Israeli “statement of regret,” and an offer to pay compensation to the families of those killed. The Obama administration tried to broker an agreement between the two sides along those lines. Israel agreed to express regret and pay compensation.

But negotiations floundered when Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan insisted that Israel issue a full apology and then upped the ante by demanding that it also lift the naval blockade of Gaza. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refused both demands. Although we understand why Israel wasn’t prepared to end the blockade, we believe it should have been prepared to apologize for operational mistakes that cost lives.

Turkish Aspirations

Turkey aspires to be treated as a major power in the Middle East, but since the report’s release its actions have been inconsistent with that aspiration. Faced with a UN report that was unexpectedly supportive of Israel, and Netanyahu’s adamant refusal to apologize, Erdogan took a confrontational line that has managed to make Netanyahu look statesmanlike by comparison. Erdogan has curtailed Turkey’s relations with Israel, threatened to seek international legal remedies for Israel’s policy toward Gaza and warned that it would use its navy to “ensure freedom of navigation in the eastern Mediterranean.” The Israeli government has tried to play down the dispute and reiterated its interest in normal relations with Turkey.

For Israel the escalating war of words will have tangible consequences. Turkey was once Israel’s closest friend in the Muslim world, and they cooperated against terrorist groups and other regional security threats.

Rupture With Israel

For Turkey the impact of a rupture with Israel may be less direct. Both the Obama and Bush administrations have made constructive relations with Turkey a priority. The U.S. strongly supported Turkey’s accession to the European Union and lobbied EU members on its behalf. Turkey’s positive image in the U.S., including in Congress, is largely based on its reputation as a democratic, tolerant nation that is a force for moderation in the Middle East. This image has shielded Turkey from criticism for its 37-year occupation of northern Cyprus and its denial of the Armenian genocide. But Turkey’s diplomatic flap with Israel could lead Americans and others to take a second look at where Erdogan is headed. Such a policy review is overdue.

The secular Turkey that Kemal Ataturk created out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire has vanished. In its place is a new Turkey that reflects the moderate Islamism embodied in Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP). Erdogan and the AKP are not jihadists, but neither are they liberal democrats or an Islamic version of Europe’s Christian Democrats. The AKP’s Islamic identity means that Turkey’s foreign policy will be increasingly nationalist, as the country becomes as willing to align with the Islamic world as with the U.S. and Europe. Under the AKP, Turkey will no longer be the reliable NATO ally it once was.

Turkey is an increasingly important country. But as the diplomatic crisis with Israel demonstrates, it is moving in troubling new directions that were unimaginable a few years ago. The U.S. and Europe need a revised policy that responds to the new Turkey, not the Western-oriented country of the past.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.