The Turkish-Israeli Crisis and U.S.-Turkish Relations

Simmering Turkish-Israeli tensions have escalated sharply since the release on September 2 of the UN secretary general’s panel of inquiry report on the Gaza flotilla crisis last year. The further worsening of relations does not only underline changes in the strategic balance in the Middle East, it also presents serious policy questions for the United States, which is allied to both countries and has long viewed the Turkish-Israeli friendship as one of the most important components of its policies in the region.

The Origins of the Current Crisis

There has been a steady deterioration in the previously close relationship between the two countries since Turkey’s strong condemnation of the Israeli military operation in Gaza in December 2008 and the subsequent public confrontation in Davos a few weeks later between Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and President Shimon Peres of Israel. However, the roots of the current crisis can be traced directly back to May 31, 2010, when Israeli soldiers boarded a vessel owned by the Turkish nongovernmental organization, the Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH), that was part of a six-ship flotilla sailing to Gaza with the declared intention of breaking Israel’s naval blockade, and killed eight Turkish citizens and a Turkish-American. Turkey immediately recalled its ambassador in Tel Aviv and declared that the normalization of relations required Israel to issue a formal apology, pay compensation to the victims’ families, and lift the blockade on Gaza. It also called for an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council (UNSC), which issued a presidential statement ordering “a prompt, impartial, credible and transparent investigation.”

As the UN inquiry panel chaired by Sir Geoffrey Palmer, a former prime minister of New Zealand, with a representative each from Turkey and Israel, carried out its task during the past year, senior Turkish and Israeli officials also held four ultimately unsuccessful bilateral meetings to try to overcome their differences. Two days before the release of the report, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu of Turkey reiterated that if Israel met Turkey’s conditions, relations would be normalized and the report would, in effect, be disregarded. However, he also warned that the failure to do so would force Turkey to implement “Plan B.”

The Israeli coalition government, which was clearly as wary of the political and legal implications of acceding to the Turkish demands as the diplomatic consequences of not acceding, chose to try to play for time by asking for a further six-month delay of the release of the report. Although Turkey opposed the request, it was nonetheless willing to accept a recommendation for a one-month postponement made by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during a meeting with Davutoglu in Paris on September 1. However, the leak of the report a few hours later by the New York Times, which highlighted the parts favorable to Israel, prompted Davutoglu to announce that the “time had come for Israel to pay a price for its actions.”

Turkey’s “Plan B”

While the Palmer report characterized the actions of the Israeli soldiers who boarded the Turkish ship as “excessive and unreasonable” as Turkey had maintained all along, it also concluded to Ankara’s dismay that Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza “was imposed as a legitimate security measure” and that “its implementation complied with the requirements of international law.” This was clearly unacceptable for Turkey, and President Abdullah Gul categorically rejected the report as “null and void.” Davutoglu then proceeded to unveil, even before the official release of the report, a five-point set of measures against Israel.

These included the downgrading of diplomatic relations to the level of second secretary—in effect expelling the Israeli ambassador who had stayed on in Ankara even as Turkey had refrained from representation at that level in Tel Aviv—and the suspension of all military agreements. Davutoglu also stated that Turkey would give support to victims of the Israeli raid seeking legal redress while endeavoring to get the International Court of Justice to review Israel’s blockade of Gaza. At the same time, Turkey would take “whatever measures it deemed necessary to ensure the freedom of navigation in the Eastern Mediterranean.”

With Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel confirming once again after the release of the report that his country would not satisfy Turkish demands, Erdogan declared that further steps would be taken in accordance with what could be called “Plan C.” He followed up by a virtually daily series of increasingly strident comments, first in Turkey and then during his tour last week of the three Arab countries in North Africa that had witnessed regime change during the current upheaval. These included characterizing Israel as “a spoiled child of the West” that wrongly assumed it could always avoid the consequences of its actions but was in fact “endangering its future.” Erdogan also stated that the Turkish Navy would be challenging Israel’s “ability to do what it wanted in the Eastern Mediterranean” and to “unilaterally exploit natural resources” in the region. He thus raised the very real possibility of a naval confrontation between Turkey and Israel, especially as he had earlier announced that warships would escort and protect Turkish ships delivering humanitarian aid to Gaza. Although Erdogan did not make the symbolically important visit to Gaza from Egypt as he had previously suggested, he escalated his diplomatic challenge to Israel by meeting the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in Cairo and then reminding members of the Arab League that it was “the duty of the Arabs” to support the Palestinian bid for statehood at the United Nations and to struggle with Turkey until the Palestinian flag was raised there.

Between Two Allies

As the U.S. State Department spokesperson confirmed on September 6, the Obama administration has been publicly and privately urging both sides to reach a compromise throughout the past year in order to avoid the complications that now seem inevitable.

President Barack Obama has been looking to Turkey as “a model partner” to help improve U.S. relations with the Middle East and the wider Islamic world, particularly since his visit to Turkey in April 2009. As part of this policy, he has been regularly consulting Erdogan during the region-wide upheaval resulting from the “Arab Spring.” However, the maintenance of this close relationship, recently underlined by Turkey’s agreement to host a radar station associated with the projected U.S. missile defense system, may prove more difficult for Obama during the current pre-election phase in the United States, which inevitably maximizes the influence of Israel’s supporters, especially in Congress. They were already uncomfortable with Obama because of what many of them regard as his “ambivalent” attitude toward Israel and also critical of Turkey because of the flotilla incident as well as its “no” vote at the UNSC on additional Iranian sanctions. This influential bloc, which has recently been drawing closer to Obama’s Republican opponents, has already begun to try to force Obama to distance himself from Erdogan. On September 19, seven U.S. senators sympathetic to Israel sent a letter to Obama urging him to “mount a diplomatic offense” to reverse what they characterized as Turkey’s “ill-advised policy towards Israel,” which “threaten[ed] regional stability and undermine[d] U.S. interests.” It is likely that there will be additional moves in Congress. These could include renewed calls for the administration to officially designate the IHH as “a terrorist organization,” backing for a resolution recognizing the “Armenian genocide,” and opposition to additional military cooperation with Turkey.

While Obama, who is meeting Erdogan at the United Nations this week, will resist such efforts, it nevertheless seems likely that their relationship will be strained by the Palestinian bid for UN recognition. Erdogan will be personally directing a major Turkish drive at the United Nations to maximize support for the Palestinians and intends to remind Obama of his pledge to support a two-state solution that would bolster their joint efforts in what the Turkish leader has been calling “the new Middle East.” However, Obama, who is due to also meet with Netanyahu, has already declared that he would use his veto if the issue comes up before the UNSC and seems certain to resist Erdogan’s arguments. Erdogan, in turn, will resist Obama’s advocacy of a softer Turkish line against Israel. In a preemptive move, Davutoglu discouraged Obama from even attempting to act as a mediator by saying bluntly that “No mediation is needed. The demands of Turkey are clear.”

To be sure, the current Turkish government’s drive to increase its profile and influence in the Middle East, coordinated to a considerable extent with the United States, predated the current crisis with Israel. Erdogan’s postelection victory speech on June 12, for example, stressed that the people across the region benefited from his reelection as much as Turkish citizens. Nevertheless, it is clear that stronger opposition to Israel further enhances Erdogan’s appeal to Arab public opinion, while making it difficult for Arab regimes—new as well as old—to resist his calls for closer cooperation or openly express concern about Turkish activism in the region. As the new approach, which has the overwhelming support of the Turkish people, is perceived to bring regional benefits, it is difficult to see why Erdogan would abandon his policy of confronting Israel at the diplomatic, economic, legal, and even military levels in the foreseeable future. Consequently, Obama has a difficult hand to play with respect to U.S.-Turkish relations.

Bulent Aliriza is a senior associate and director of the Turkey Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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© 2011 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

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