The Gaza Flotilla Raid and its Aftermath

On May 31, Israeli commandos raided the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara in international waters resulting in the death of at least nine passengers and the temporary detention of several hundred others who were seeking to break Israel’s blockade of Hamas-controlled Gaza. The raid and its aftermath seriously threaten Israeli-Turkish relations, complicate U.S. ties with both allies, and undermine Washington’s efforts to advance indirect talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The incident presents the Obama administration with a series of complex diplomatic challenges at a time when it seeks to focus efforts on a new UN Security Council resolution against Iran.

Q1: Why did Turkey play a leading role in organizing the flotilla?

A1: (Bulent Aliriza) Under the current government, Turkey has been raising its diplomatic profile and increasing its influence in regions beyond its borders, particularly in the Middle East. This sustained drive, directed by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, has included stronger public support for the Palestinians and criticism of Israel since its attack on Gaza in December 2008. Turkey has been especially vociferous in its denunciation of the Israeli blockade of Gaza, and it clearly hoped that the open challenge posed by the aid ships would help force Israel to end it.

Q2: How has the United States responded to the crisis?

A2: (Stephen Flanagan) The Obama administration has held extensive consultations with Israel and Turkey in order to defuse mounting tensions between these two allies and preserve good bilateral relations with each of them. However, initial U.S. comments were so nuanced that they angered Turkey. U.S. diplomats blocked efforts by Turkey and others to secure a UN Security Council statement blaming only Israel, ultimately endorsing a condemnation of actions that led to civilian injuries and deaths. While Turkey and the UN Human Rights Council have called for an independent international fact-finding mission, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said the United States supports an Israeli probe but is “open to different ways of assuring a credible investigation.” The United States also allowed discussions of the incident to proceed at an extraordinary session of the North Atlantic Council called by Turkey.

Q3: How will the Gaza flotilla incident affect recent U.S. efforts to spur Israeli-Palestinian negotiations?

A3: (Haim Malka)The crisis refocuses the spotlight on Gaza, at a time when the Obama administration seeks to highlight modest gains in the West Bank and restart Israeli-Palestinian talks. With Gaza in the headlines again, it is difficult to ignore the fact that no viable Israeli-Palestinian agreement can exclude Gaza. Moving forward, the Obama administration will have to decide whether to continue supporting the Israeli-Egyptian siege of Gaza or offer a way out of a situation Secretary of State Clinton described as “unsustainable.” The decision will have significant ramifications for both internal Palestinian politics and broader Israeli-Palestinian dynamics. Hamas will undoubtedly declare victory if the blockade is eased and claim credit for the reconstruction of Gaza. But easing the embargo could also increase pressure on Hamas to articulate a coherent strategy for governing and make difficult choices it has shirked. Every option carries significant risks for Israel, the West Bank Palestinian Authority, and the United States.

Q4: How serious is the Turkish-Israeli crisis?

A4: (Bulent Aliriza)The gravity of the current crisis in Turkish-Israeli relations was underlined by Erdogan’s comment that “nothing will be the same” after this incident. The attack on a Turkish ship in international waters and the death of a number of Turkish nationals has inflamed Turkish public opinion, and the relationship, which stretches back to Turkey’s recognition of Israel soon after its creation in 1948, is facing its toughest challenge. The recalibration of the relationship began with the withdrawal of the Turkish ambassador and could eventually include the cancellation of existing defense agreements, which continued while Turkey drew closer to the Arab world.

(Haim Malka)Turkish-Israeli relations have been on life support since the December 2008 Gaza War. Since then, there have been few high-level political discussions, and the bilateral agenda, outside of military sales, has been limited. Turkey no longer views Israel as a strategic asset, and 2010 was the first year Turkey did not request Israeli assistance in Congress on the Armenian genocide issue. Even if diplomatic ties are mended down the road, the fact remains that Turkey’s government appears to have embraced Israel’s arch foes, Iran and Hamas. Rather than a potential mediator, Turkey has effectively become a party to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Given such diverging interests, it is likely that the Gaza flotilla incident, which the Turkish government indirectly supported, will intensify the long and painful break in Turkish-Israeli relations.

Q5: How will the incident affect U.S.-Turkish relations?

A5: (Bulent Aliriza and Stephen Flanagan) The two allies have been promoting the development of a “Model Partnership,” introduced by President Obama during his trip to Ankara in April 2009 and embraced by Prime Minister Erdogan during his visit to Washington in December 2009. However, congressional support for recognition of the “Armenian Genocide” and differences over how best to deal with Iran’s nuclear program have recently strained the relationship. With the Obama administration refraining from open condemnation of Israel after the attack on the Turkish ship, opposing international investigation of the incident, and failing to support calls for the immediate lifting of the Gaza blockade, there is a very real danger of Turkish-Israeli tensions seeping into U.S.-Turkish relations.

Bulent Aliriza is senior associate and director of the Turkey Project, Stephen Flanagan is senior vice president and Henry A. Kissinger Chair, and Haim Malka is senior fellow and deputy director of the Middle East Program, all at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Bulent Aliriza
Senior Associate (Non-resident), Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program

Stephen Flanagan

Haim Malka