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Saturday, September 17, 2011
Obama Must Deal With Turkey-Israel Crisis
By Morton Abramowitz and Henri J. Barkey
Obama and Ardogan
policy in the Middle East is f loundering. President Obama’s two most important
allies in the region are on a collision course. It will not be resolved by the
State Department’s injunction to Turkey and Israel to “cool it.”
importance to Washington is clear: its involvement in NATO and its forces in
Afghanistan; its strong economic ties to northern Iraq; its ongoing cooperation
against terrorism; and, most recently, its role in the NATO missile defense
shield. The depth of the U.S.-Turkey alliance makes the crisis in
Israeli-Turkish relations one that equally involves the United States.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has expanded his confrontation with Israel
beyond the 2010 Gaza flotilla incident and into a full-scale assault on
Israel’s position in the region. He recently declared that the Turkish navy
will escort Turkish vessels going to Gaza to provide aid. Washington did not
grasp where Erdogan’s sustained verbal attacks on Israel were heading. He now
directly challenges our major alliance in the Middle East, and how far he will
go is unclear. Obama himself must acknowledge that the situation is a crisis.
As the political climates in Turkey and the United States harden, Erdogan and
Obama will find it increasingly difficult to compromise.
Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said years ago that Turkey would construct a new order
in the region. Erdogan followed this with criticism of interference in Middle
Eastern affairs by “outside” powers, a clear shot at Washington. Erdogan’s
rhetoric of late is about reducing Western influence in the region and teaching
Israel a lesson for “irresponsible” or “immature” behavior.
Erdogan pushed only for an apology over the deaths of Turkish citizens in the
May 2010 flotilla incident, Turkey’s actions would be understandable in the
face of Israel’s unwise decision not to immediately resolve the problem. The
recently leaked U.N. report on the flotilla affair sought to find a way for the
sides to reconcile. Erdogan, however, is not interested in repairing the
situation with Israel.
is calculating that, as a NATO member, a European Union candidate country and
the world’s 16th-largest economy, Turkey can move the Middle East in ways no
other regional country can. He has significantly expanded Turkey’s trade and
investment. He has successfully pivoted away from Libya and Syria, where he had
been closely affiliated with the authoritarian regimes. He is wildly popular on
the Arab street, and his address to the Arab League last Tuesday could well be
a bid for the populist mantle last held by the late Egyptian president Gamal
Abdel Nasser. His vigorous battle at the United Nations for a Palestinian
statehood resolution is another step in his effort to isolate Israel.
threatening to militarily contest Israel’s blockade of Gaza — which was deemed
legal by the U.N. Palmer Commission — the Turkish government has laid down a
serious challenge to American policy. Danger stems not just from potential
miscommunication between those two countries but also from third parties with
their own agendas, creating conditions for confrontation.
eastern Mediterranean is already a caldron of competing claims and threatening
rhetoric. Turkey’s minister for E.U. affairs warned this month that his country
might stop Cyprus’s exploration for gas and oil, saying, “This is what we have
the navy for.” Lebanon’s Hezbollah-dominated government is engaged in a verbal
war with Israel over the latter’s gas discoveries off the coast at Haifa.
Erdogan involved Turkey in negotiations between Cyprus and Israel on joint
exploration opportunities when he told al-Jazeera this month that Israel would
be prevented from exploiting the eastern Mediterranean’s oil and gas reserves
on its own.
is caught between two longtime allies. It cannot deal with the Israelis and
Turks separately. Inaction is not a real option, as Israel could become a
significant issue in the 2012 presidential campaign, especially if the United
States is defeated in its opposition to a General Assembly vote to create a
Palestinian state. The situation will generate concern on Capitol Hill and give
Republicans another opportunity to attack Obama for not defending American
interests and Israel.
could also worsen the fray by reviving legislation regarding the Armenian
genocide. A resolution recognizing the 1.5 million Armenians killed by Ottoman
Turks has repeatedly failed to garner enough support for a floor vote. But its
backers may calculate that the worsening conditions between Israel and Turkey
would prompt the powerful Israel lobby to no longer support Turkey on this
matter, raising the likelihood that the resolution would pass. Similarly, arms
exports to Turkey will face greater scrutiny.
may not have much time to prevent further deterioration. Israel has been
seeking to build ties with Asia, Europe and the Americas; while the Arab Spring
evolves, Israel is becoming increasingly isolated as countries such as Egypt
and Jordan reassess ties. It is also floundering from the Obama administration’s
mishandling of the peace process and of Israel in particular.
meeting with Erdogan on Tuesday is crucial. He can take a few important steps.
He should immediately deploy 6th Fleet ships from Norfolk to the Eastern
Mediterranean to signal that the United States will not tolerate even
inadvertent naval clashes. He needs to make clear to Erdogan that the United
States will not side with Turkey against Israel and that Turkey’s current
strategy risks undermining regional stability.
could offer to work with Turkey and Israel to end the partial blockade of Gaza,
provided Erdogan can persuade Hamas to abandon, once and for all, missile
barrages and violence against Israel. Such a policy course would have wide
international backing and give everyone some of what they want.
has a choice: He can boost his domestic and regional popularity by deepening
the confrontation with Israel or he could think beyond that by engaging in a
constructive endeavor that will help regional stability.
-This commentary was published in The Washington Post on
-Morton Abramowitz, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, was U.S.
ambassador to Turkey from 1989 to 1991. Henri J. Barkey is a professor of
international relations at Lehigh University