When analysts and historians look back at the unravelling of the Israeli-Turkish relationship, it won't be difficult to map its downwards trajectory. Yesterday's killing of at least ten activists aboard the flotilla heading to the Gaza strip, which included many Turkish citizens, will have a special place in that story, standing as the moment when Israel sacrificed its strategic ties with the rising power of the Middle East.
Whether the killings were a result of overreaction, incompetence or worse on the part of the Israeli commandos who stormed the boats, it is certain that the episode will have a durable impact on how the Israeli and Turkish establishments and societies view one another. The strategic relationship between the two countries survived diplomatic tensions of recent years largely because the defence and national security communities on both sides were able to come together, albeit with more difficulty in recent years, around tangible security benefits.
The Turkish military is a prime client of Israeli technology and hardware. Israel's defence industry has upgraded Turkish planes and tanks, sold missiles and communications technology. Israel had plans to provide the Turkish military with satellite access and air defence systems. Israel, in other words, has been key to Turkey's defence modernisation. In return, Israel received space where its air force, navy and army could train, and a relationship with Nato's second largest military. Defence co-operation extended to training and joint exercises between Israel and Turkey, many of which were held secretly.
For a while, it seemed that these two non-Arab powers, both operating in a region dominated by Arabs, were linked by a shared understanding of their neighbourhood. Turkey's then two problematic Arab neighbours Syria and Iraq, and Iran, were also Israel's top concerns. Turkey's westward, democratic orientation fitted well with Israel's purported values. Israeli analysts even speculated that rapprochement with Turkey would put Syria, Iran and Saddam Hussein's Iraq within reach of the Israeli air force if there were a need for a military strike. An alliance with Turkey would balance Israel's own strategic vulnerability.
This fantasy has now vanished. The changing strategic landscape in the Middle East, Turkey's new regional outlook and, importantly, Israel's mind-boggling mishandling of Turkey have changed the game. While Turkey will remain Iran's historical and political rival, it does not share Israel's existential, and probably overinflated, fear of Iran. Turkey's engagement with Iran has also profoundly irritated Israel. The Jewish state's obsession with Iran means that it has become strategically paralysed, incapable of entering a game of triangulation that Turkey has played so well. Likewise, Turkey has skilfully managed the aftermath of the Iraq war, emerging as one of the few players to have benefited from an invasion it originally opposed. After neutralising the Kurdish question and building ties with most Iraqi factions, it is now focused on developing the economic relationship and ensuring a balanced government in Baghdad. In comparison, Israel was fixated on the threat Saddam Hussein presented. But when he was removed it projected its fears and political attention onto Iran.
Ankara even transformed what was once a contentious relationship with Damascus into one of mutual benefit. Of course, Turkey first had to compel Syria with the threat of force to undergo a radical transformation, dropping its support for the Kurdish separatist movement and its territorial claim over the province of Hatay. Once this was done, however, Turkish policy moved quickly to turn Syria into a junior partner. For its part, Israel is incapable of thinking beyond the comfort of military dominance vis-à-vis a weaker Syria.
That divergence in strategic perspectives is not the only problem. After the Israeli raid on the flotilla, the IDF is clearly responsible for the killing of Turkish citizens and it has certainly lost the Turkish military as its prime advocate in Ankara. Turkish commanders may not want to lose their Israeli connection, but they have other, more important fights with the government. Picking up Israel's cause will be very unpopular.
The Turks are now busy burying their dead who have already joined the long list of Palestinian martyrs in Arab and Turkish minds. That symbolic link with Palestine will not be broken soon, constituting valuable political mileage for Turkish politicians wanting to break ties with Israel. Israel's disregard of the democratic nature of Turkish politics has also played a role. Israelis have blamed the attachment of the Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to the Palestinian cause on everything from political opportunism to pan-Islamist tendencies. This shows how little attuned to Muslim popular opinion Israel has become. His stance simply reflects a growing consensus in his country and in the region that Israel, even when met with the most accommodating peace proposals, is only interested in military dominance.
The loss of the Turkish partnership is not Israel's only headache. Yesterday's deadly incident has turned Turkey into the foremost champion of the Palestinian cause. Turkey's leaders have more credibility on the Arab street than the Palestinians' own feeble leaders. Turkey is also far less toxic on the international scene than Iran. Any cover Arab leaders wanted to provide for the resumption of talks between the Israelis and Palestinians will not be able to survive a Turkish campaign to drag Israel to the UN Security Council.
In the coming days Turkey will no doubt lead the diplomatic charge to condemn Israel at the United Nations, of which it is a non-permanent member, and with its European partners, who cannot dismiss a large, powerful state at their door. Turkey is in a position to rally the kind of support among middle powers and the non-aligned movement that no Arab state can muster. Ankara's handling of the crisis will be critical if conflict is to be avoided in the region. Controlling passions and preventing an escalation are things only the Turkish government can achieve.
@Email:firstname.lastname@example.org This story has been altered. The paragraph "Turkey's three problematic Arab neighbours, Syria, Iraq and Iran, were also Israel's top concerns." has been replaced with "Turkey's then two problematic Arab neighbours Syria and Iraq, and Iran, were also Israel's top concerns."