Sunday, February 01, 2009

Turkey and Israel Seriously Parting Ways?

Turkey's rift with Israel seems to be more significant than it first appears.

First, when I'm wrong about the Middle East, it is usually that pro-US dictatorships or actors are more loyal to their patrons and/or more effective than I expected. Sometimes I'm right, for example I was sure Saniora couldn't prevail over Hezbollah in Lebanon. But sometimes I'm wrong. For example, I had no idea Egypt would go along with Western hostility to Hamas to the degree that it has.

Turkey is a democracy with a pro-Western military sector that is to some degree shielded from democratic pressure. If I'm wrong, it will be because this sector asserts itself in Israel's favor in a way that I can't foresee now.

More background, I am a big fan of Erdogan, and have been since I first noticed him on the scene of Turkish politics. His success in Turkish politics against the political forces that have been arrayed before him demonstrate extraordinary political skill. In terms of political skill - by which I mean the ability to use a competitive political system to position oneself to move a country in the direction one favors - I'd guess that Erdogan is one of the five most effective politicians in the world today.

My first impulse regarding the blowup at Davos was that this is just personal theatrics. The type of thing that ebbs and flows in interstate relations, but does not have any long term impact. It was somewhat entertaining. I was personally struck by Erdogan's claim that he complained to Olmert about Israel's imprisonment of Palestinian parliamentarians and Olmert said that to release the elected members of parliament would cause problems for Abbas. I guess everyone knows this, but for Erdogan to say it in public would have been painful for Abbas' supporters. Israel's direct interference in Palestinian politics against the expressed will of Palestinian voters and in support of Abbas is so openly known that it is not even notable that the Prime Minister of Turkey describes an instance of it, confidentially related by Israel's prime minister, at the World Economic Forum.
And I said to Prime Minister Olmert that they held the Ministers and Members of Parliament of Palestine. I suggested also, that there could perhaps be a gesture made, similar to the gesture made to President Abbas before, they could be released perhaps. But Prime Minister Olmert said that this would make things very difficult for President Abbas.
Afterwards, Israel has not been acting like this is an isolated episode of hurt personal feelings on the part of Erdogan, and neither has Turkey. First Turkey claimed that Peres apologized to Erdogan, which Israel denied. So Turkey released what it claims is a transcript of the telephone conversation. (!?)
Peres: Such things happen between friends. I am very sorry for today's incident. Firstly, my respect towards the Turkish republic and you a prime minister has never changed.
In Erdogan's Newsweek interview the next day, the interviewer pressed Erdogan on a sense of disfavor for Turkey that apparently is being felt in the US Jewish community. This recent increase in disfavor had until now been outside of my field of observation.
[Erdogan] There are those who try to claim that my attitude towards Israel's latest attacks on Gaza is because I'm anti-Semitic or against the Jewish people.
[Newsweek] And some American Jews are very upset about it.
[Erdogan] And I'm very upset at them. Beginning with the Jews who live in my country, they are witnesses to my attitude towards Jews. As an individual, I have always declared that anti-Semitism is a crime against humanity. As a prime minister I have always been against anti-Semitism and my frustration is against the current Israeli government because they did not act fairly towards us.
Then Israel's foreign minister, instead of attempting to move past this incident, ties it to Turkey's willingness to meet with Hamas years ago.
"It must be remembered that after Hamas took power, Turkey was the first country to invite them over, so we find ourselves both in an important relationship but also in a dispute about how to conduct ourselves regionally," Livni told Israel Radio.
Peres and Livni both compare Erdogan unfavorably to Mubarak and Abbas. This is a mind-boggling example of a lack of self-consciousness. Does it even need to be said that unlike Mubarak or Abbas, Erdogan can actually win an election without imprisoning his opponents? Israel has stooges in the region, and manages these stooges sometimes more effectively than I give Israel credit for. But has it reached the point that Israel's leaders no longer even realize that Abbas, Mubarak and the Abdullahs are stooges?

Back to Turkey. My take now is that, in the background, Turkey has been a more insistent advocate for Hamas being allowed to take power than has been widely expressed. It also has not cooperated sufficiently, by Israel's standards, in Israel's project to isolate Iran. I can't see any other fundamental basis for dispute that has existed between Israel and Turkey over the past few years. Turkish Iran and Palestine policy has genuinely been less pro-Israel than at least the Israelis would like and this has reached a point that Israelis are now openly discussing the breach, and beginning to threaten that there can be consequences for the breach.

The difference between Israel and Turkey, in terms of the United States, is that Israel is a strategic liability for the United States that the United States tolerates because of a sentimental feeling of kinship that many Jewish and non-Jewish Americans feel with Israelis. Turkey's relationship is a legitimate strategic asset for the United States. If the two come into direct contradiction, Turkey is essentially guaranteed to win - or if Turkey loses, Russia and anti-US segments of Europe win.

On example of a direct confrontation between Israel's interests and Turkey's is Kurdistan. Israel's advocates have for years advocated the atomization of Arab states, because smaller pieces of disintegrated states are weaker and easier to set against one another than unified states. For the same reason, I always (I cannot think of an exception) oppose separatist movements in the global South.
Furthermore, as far back as 1982 the Israeli newspaper Haaretz's legendary military correspondent Ze'ev Schiff (recently deceased) had written that Israel's "best" interests would be served by "the dissolution of Iraq into a Shi'ite state, a Sunni state and the separation of the Kurdish part,"
An atomized Iraq means Kurds are in a better position to pressure Turkey, and if Kurdish dreams come true, even to atomize Turkey itself, creating a Kurdish homeland on soil now under Turkish control.

I worried that the United States was effectively assisting Kurdish moves towards independence. George W. Bush was just stupid enough, just a poor enough politician that it seemed as if the US would, in practical terms if not openly, work in Israel's interests and against Turkey's for a decentralized Iraq. This would, of course, lead to a Turkish anti-US reaction that would only escalate over time.

There never was a big announcement, but somehow the Kirkuk referendum has been forgotten and the US has backtracked on its decentralized Iraq policy. This was pretty close to a direct Turkey vs Israel fight over US policy and while the US legislature spoke as if it favored decentralization, somehow the US professional military and strategic policy class overruled the advocates of decentralization.

Turkey is not like Israel. The US does not support Turkey because it likes Turks. Turkey is essential for US and US-friendly forces, instead of Russian forces, to maintain long-term control over the Mediterranean.

US support for Israel has limits. The US is willing to send guns, bombs and money and willing to be unpopular while vetoing UN resolutions for Israel. But the US is not going to risk Turkey becoming anti-American for Israel. This should have been clear almost from the day of the invasion of Iraq. It is a testament to the incompetence of George W. Bush that a US policy against partition took until late last year to form and be implemented. Obama is not nearly as poor a leader.

Parenthetically, the same military and strategic professionals who eventually vetoed US support for Iraqi partition are also preventing, for US military and strategic reasons, either a US or Israeli direct strike against Iran.

But back to Turkey. Turkey has a pro-Israel military segment that is to some degree protected from the democratic process in the country. Erdogan, it now seems, has been removing this insulation with the end result possibly being a Turkey that looks, to Israel, more like Iran and Syria than Egypt and Jordan. If he is not, Israel at least seems to think he is.

If a hostile Turkey is a smaller threat to Israel than Iran breaking out of its Western isolation, it is only so by a very small amount. A hostile Turkey and a hostile Iran together would probably make the cost of supporting Israel unbearable for the US.

We aren't there yet. Israel's leaders though don't seem to be acting as if Turkey is a very important ally for them that, at least long term, Israel cannot afford to lose. The converse is just not the case. If Israel had a political leader as skilled as Erdogan, that person would realize this immediately.

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