Israel’s Strategic Blunder With Turkey

Israel is in an untenable international position vis-à-vis Gaza, and the souring of relations with Turkey is a major strategic mistake. Israel stands to be the bigger loser if this relationship disintegrates. Jon Western explains.


The relationship between Israel and Turkey has been souring for the past several years, but it has deteriorated rapidly in the wake of the Gaza flotilla fiasco on May 31.   The rhetoric on both sides has flared. Turkey’s prime minister Recep Erdogan called Israeli actions “pirate-like” and “barbarous” while Turkish Foreign Minister Amet Davutoglu warned that Turkey will sever relations with Israel unless it receives a formal apology and allows an independent international investigation. 

For their part, the Israelis have called Erdogan’s government “Islamist”, claiming that it seeks to unify the Islamic world against Israel.  American neoconservatives have been even more charged, labeling Turkey an “adversary,” an “Iranian ally,” and “an Islamist power” not to be trusted with American military secrets or technology.  

Last week, British Prime Minister David Cameron entered the fray with his comments in Ankara that Gaza is an Israeli “prison camp.”  Predictably, this generated an outburst of criticism from American neoconservatives and several Israeli commentators. There is, however, a sharper message here for the Israelis and their American supporters.  Despite their protestations, Cameron’s comments should be a wake up call: Israel is in an untenable international position vis-à-vis Gaza, and the souring of relations with Turkey is a major strategic mistake. Israel stands to be the bigger loser if this relationship disintegrates.  

First, Turkey is in a stronger strategic position vis-à-vis the United States and Europe than is Israel. I’m not a big fan of realism in IR theory, but some material factors really do matter in global politics.  Israel might have a “special” relationship with the United States and significant US domestic constituencies backing it. Turkey, however, is a member of NATO, it is pulling significant weight in ISAF (the Turks just re-upped their command of the Kabul ISAF command), and it has the air base at Incirlik that is supporting US military operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Significantly, it also has the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, which has the capacity to transport a million barrels of crude oil per day from the Caspian Sea to western markets. British Petroleum controls a 30% share in the pipeline, which may help explain Cameron’s strong statement. 

Second, claims about Turkey’s shift towards the East, and its move to some form of radical Islamization, simply do not hold. Turkey is not turning its back on the West.  It has the world’s fifteenth largest economy with a GDP nearing $800 billion (four times the size of Israel’s) and over half of its exports go to the EU while 40 percent of its imports come from Europe.  It is a member of both the OECD and the G-20.   And, despite the problems it has encountered with regard to European Union membership, it continues, albeit slowly, to move toward the EU.  Even if it can’t attain full member status, it almost certainly will achieve some form of privileged partnership. 

There is no debate that Erdogan is a devout Muslim and many Islamic tenets are embedded within AKP’s platform and its governing policies.  But this is hardly some form of fundamentalist Islam.   AKP draws much of its support from social conservative Muslims from Anatolia. Those core supporters, however, also happen to be merchants and traders, and AKP’s support is premised on sustained levels of economic growth.  That requires greater liberalization of markets, of regulatory structures, and political processes. 

Turkey clearly is a transitioning society – its economy has grown fourfold in this decade – and, with the power vacuum created by the botched American war in Iraq, it has refocused more to the East than before. But, it most certainly has not and will not abandon the West.   

Third, Israel needs regional partners – especially partners with some leverage and credibility with the Palestinians.  The undifferentiated analysis and discourse from the Israeli right and from the American neocons posits that Erdogan’s efforts to take up a pro-Palestinian leadership role pose a direct challenge to Israel.  Yet, the Israelis should be encouraging greater Turkish influence among the Palestinians, especially if it gains more leverage than Iran.  Since the end of the war in southern Lebanon and Operation Cast Lead, Iran has been supplying both Hamas and Hezbollah with rocket and missile upgrades.  Israeli officials estimate that somewhere between 40,000 and 45,000 rockets are now aimed at almost every Israeli town and city.  Iranian influence over Hamas and Hezbollah is greater than ever, and now that those two organizations have more capabilities than ever, their current and unchecked relationship to Tehran poses a much more significant strategic threat to Israel than in the past.  Anything that can arrest these developments is a strategic plus for Israel.

All sides need to tone down the rhetoric.  The current campaign against Turkey is overly polemical and strategically dumb, and there is simply no up-side for Israel to exacerbate a feud with Turkey.  Both the Israeli government and their supporters in the United States need a reality check.