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September 15, 2011, Thursday

Turkey-Israel tension: High stakes for US

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan recently said Israel is acting like a “spoiled child.” From the US government's perspective, however, Turkey and Israel are both looking like spoiled children lately. Israel has refused to apologize for the terrible actions of its military when they killed nine Turkish civilians during the Mavi Marmara raid. And Turkey seems to be more than ready for a fight. Seriously? Is this high school or something?

Being Turkey and Israel's big brother in the region, the US is likely to suffer from a further escalation of this conflict, perhaps even more than the actual disputing parties. The Americans are working hard to ease the tension but neither party is showing signs of backing off. The world has turned upside down for the US in the Middle East due to the Iraq war and the Arab Spring. This Turkey-Israel conflict is just the latest glitch.

For decades, the US has relied on its allies to continue its dominance in the region, with little or no interest in whether they are democratic or autocratic. Not only Israel's controversial military actions but the democratic shortcomings of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and pre-revolution Iran were also often overlooked. However, Americans dealt with conflicts between its allies more thoroughly. The Egypt-Israel peace treaty of 1979 was so valuable for the US that billions of US tax dollars were allocated with ease. Had Turkey not been more economically and democratically sound as it is now -- and the US not as broke -- Washington might have offered similar incentives.

Followed by a series of disappointments, reactions and denials since the early 2000s, the US has finally come to realize that a relatively independent Turkey could actually be useful. When Turkey does not look like a total US satellite, the region, especially its people, trusts Ankara better. A popular Turkey that keeps its communication channels open with Washington is expected to smooth things out. Engagement with Ankara helps the Obama administration “lead” regional developments “from behind” -- as well as keep an eye on Turkey. Given its geostrategic, military, economic and democratic assets, Turkey is a shining star that is very valuable to US interests. Hence, there is a lot of concern in Washington when Ankara tries to test its US friendship with a conflict with Israel, another indispensable friend.

At the end of the day, I don't expect the Obama administration to pick clear sides between Turkey and Israel. America, along with Israel, will certainly be lobbying against the Palestinian bid for statehood at the upcoming UN General Assembly, which Turkey vigorously supports. Despite upcoming presidential elections, where Jewish Americans are an important factor, the White House is not likely to go too hard on Turkey. The clear choice of the US Congress, however, is Israel, thanks to some very powerful lobbying mechanisms there. Lifting the blockade on Gaza, a newly adopted Turkish precondition for normalization with Tel Aviv, is a non-starter in Congress. Turkey-hating Armenian and Greek groups can now make life even more difficult for the US and Turkish administrations. The Turkey-Israel conflict is likely to give an already unfriendly House Republican majority another reason to slam the White House.

Although most higher level US officials, first and foremost President Barack Obama himself, care about Turkey, some of Ankara's policies on the 2003 Iraq war, Armenia and the Iran nuclear program have left scars among many in mid and lower levels of bureaucracy. For them, Turkey may seem a major troublemaker and this recent conflict with Israel is just another example. Some Washingtonians yearn for the days when they mainly worked with the old secularist Kemalist elite who generally conformed to the US in exchange for international legitimacy for their corrupt and antidemocratic ways. So they might be less sympathetic to the Turkish position on Israel. On the other hand, when you talk to Turkish diplomatic sources they say administration officials who are familiar with negotiations on apologies and reparations are disappointed by the non-compromising Israeli attitude.

Rubbing salt into the wound for the US are the seriously deteriorating relations between Tel Aviv and Cairo, further isolating Israel in the region. An isolated Israel is likely to get more hawkish and defensive rather than self-corrective. That might create a vicious circle calling for more reaction from Turkey and others in the region. Ankara has clearly concluded that the Israelis have more to lose from this confrontation. They think a tough stance against Israel opens up strategic space for Turkey in the region. Certainly, it doesn't hurt the Erdoğan government in domestic politics, either. But the US is concerned the situation might get out of control. Ankara's declaration that it will not let the eastern Mediterranean be dominated by Israel and that it will dispatch more Turkish navy vessels there is especially worrisome. The situation is reminiscent of risky Turkish-Greek encounters in the Aegean. Who needs another hard player in the eastern Mediterranean, especially if the player is a NATO member?

Israel-Turkey relations have historically been marked with ups and downs. So, this is not the first time they went bad. For example, in 1980, Turkey downgraded its diplomatic presence in Israel to junior chargé d'affaires level in reaction to a controversial Jewish decision vis-à-vis East Jerusalem. Perhaps what makes the latest tensions more serious is that we are dealing with a more powerful new Turkey and a dramatically transforming region. Especially since we are in unchartered territories, extreme attention and caution is essential for all parties involved, including the US.

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