ISRAEL-TURKEY RELATIONSHIPS VITAL TO U.S. INTERESTS
Introduction: Turkey and Israel formalized their relationships in 1949 and Turkey became the first Muslim country to recognize the State of Israel. Both countries have close economic and military ties. Turkey is the first Muslim country to have signed a free trade agreement with Israel and Israel has been a major supplier of arms to Turkey. The Gaza flotilla raid has strained relationship between the two allies but even before it the Israel-Turkey friendship needed some serious attention and repair.
Ties between Israel and Turkey have cooled down since the accession of the Justice and Development Party in Turkey in 2006. That same year the leader of Hamas’ political wing made an official trip to Turkey. In 2007 Israeli warplanes mistakenly violated Turkish airspace leaving empty fuel tanks on Turkish territory; Israel formerly apologized. Turkey continued to publicly condemn the 2008-2009 Israel-Gaza conflict and in 2010 did not invite Israel for the annual Turkey-Israeli-American military exercise. Recently Prime Minister Erdogan rallied the Arab league against Israel cementing a major foreign policy shift. The Gaza flotilla incident builds on a trend of increasing confrontations between the two countries that needs to be reversed to avoid more instability in the Middle East, defend the U.S. interests in the region and secure the State of Israel.
The turmoil in Egypt and the conflicts with Turkey have left Israel with only one regional ally, Jordan. Israel and Turkey need to improve their relationships to enhance Israel’s security. Turkey also plays an important strategic role for the U.S. as Turkey borders among others Iraq, Iran and Syria. Turkey is a member of NATO and agreed to host NATO’s missile defense system. Turkey has normalized diplomatic relationships with Iran that the U.S. can use to help contain Iran’s nuclear program. Turkey supported the first Gulf War and the post 9/11 War on Terror.
How can we recover the deteriorating relationship between two of our military and political allies? First we need to recognize that a status quo is not acceptable and that engagement from the U.S. is necessary. If left to heal by itself another conflict will occur driving Turkey farther away from Israel and the U.S. into the hands of unstable and quite often U.S. hostile Middle Eastern regimes. Turkey may end up building political and military alliances with other Muslim countries in the region to further isolate Israel. Second, avoid putting pressure on Israel to make more compromises in their bilateral relationship with Turkey. Israel is under enough pressure both domestically as abroad. There are several practical diplomatic steps we can initiate. For example, restart the annual Turkey, Israeli, American military exercise or work together with both countries to pursue regime change in Syria. We can also leverage Turkey’s relationships with Iran to reduce the nuclear threat of Iran to Israel. We may reenergize our efforts to have Turkey join the E.U. Needless to say the U.S. can put pressure on Erdogan to limit his anti Israel rhetoric as the U.S. remains the largest arms supplier to Turkey.
Assessing its strategy to reduce tensions between Israel and Turkey, the U.S. could default to brokering high level talks between the two or hope that the recent feud will vanish by itself. The Gaza Flotilla incident however highlighted how sensitive the relationship has been between the two nations for a long time. We need to be proactive and take specific diplomatic initiatives to bring the two countries back together and we have several options to do so.
Reinier Prijten, Fall 2011