A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Israel and Turkey: A Strategic Shift of the First Order

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is being quoted all over the place as saying, while on a visit to France, that Israel is "the principal threat to regional peace" in the Middle East. In return, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman says the problem is not Turkey, it's Erdogan; Lieberman is comparing Erdogan to Mu‘ammar Qadhafi and Hugo Chavez. (But Erdogan's AKP won 341 of 550 seats in the 2007 Parliamentary elections, which would seem to suggest he's got the voters behind him.)

Now my views of Avigdor Lieberman's diplomatic skills are easily found in the archive; and Erdogan's AKP party's Islamist credentials are well known; and Lieberman may be deliberately playing to the Turkish military. But the point I want to make is that one of Israel's prime strategic achievements in recent decades has been its ability to forge a strategic alignment with a Muslim country in the Middle East, Turkey, that in effect outflanked its Arab neighbors, put an Israeli ally and traditional Syrian rival at Syria's back door, and created a geopolitical reality that was clearly felt in Damascus (and Beirut). In recent years, as Turkish-Syrian relations have warmed, Turkey has become a key interlocutor between Israel and Syria.

Israel has made what I and many of its friends (and a great many Israelis) think are profound blunders in recent years: the Gaza operation, which helped sour the Turkish friendship; the open battle with the Obama Administration over settlements; and a profound alienation in its ties with the European Union. But the souring of the Turkish link may be the most strategically and geopolitically unwise of them all (unless the quarrel with Obama worsens to the point of souring the US alliance). And some of it was unnecessary. The Danny Ayalon insult to the Turkish Ambassador (earlier reports here and here and here) was a deliberate diplomatic affront that led to a threat by Turkey to withdraw its Ambassador.

Of all the diplomatic and public relations gaffes of the Netanyahu government and the Lieberman/Ayalon Foreign Ministry, the deepening spat with the US is at least over a fundamentysal difference: the settlements issue. The Turkish quarrel is much more peripheral and seems to amount to petulance over Erdogan's criticisms of Operation Cast Lead. The latest remarks by Erdogan and Lieberman raise the probability that Israel is throwing away its one ally in the Muslim Middle East over a spat. It strikes me as a strategic blunder of the first order.

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