Turkey’s response to UN flotilla report: not just about Israel

Turkey’s response to the UN’s Palmer Report investigating the 2010 flotilla debacle was like a roar in the jungle of Middle East and global politics that had been building for at least two years now.  Turkey had leveraged the report even prior to its publication as the deadline for an ultimatum to Israel: apologize or face punishment. The UN commission returned a relatively balanced verdict of blame; Israel predictably failed to apologize, and Turkey wasted no time: it dramatically downgraded Israel’s diplomatic relations, with promises of further measures, and brashly swept aside the report itself.

It’s hard to ignore the sense that Turkey’s response is part of a larger drama both within Turkey itself and stretching beyond Israel, both East and West.

Sure, much of this is between Israel and Turkey. The incident follows a series of milestones marking the deterioration of relations, starting with Turkey’s indignation at the Gaza war in 2009, in part because as a strategic ally, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was irritated not to have been informed.   A flare up between Erdogan and President Shimon Peres at a conference during the war made the tension public; later that year, Israel humiliated the Turkish ambassador as punishment for the airing of an anti-Israel-cum-anti-Semimtic television show. With relations dangerously on edge, the flotilla incident sent the two countries into collision course.

Israel’s behavior, alienating one of its most vital allies, is irrational and inexplicably self-defeating. From Turkey’s perspective, however, the changing relations are clearly calculated and strategic responses to various developments – some domestic, some foreign.

The domestic scene could involve Erdogan and the AKP’s long-standing mission to shift power from the country’s legendary military to the political realm. Perhaps the Israel policy is partly intended to further win favor from the domestic audience by steering a bold new foreign policy path, one that cashes in on likely growing anti-Israel sentiment among the Turkish public – after all, why not learn from the Middle East? The AKP has also been criticized for increasing concentration of its power : “Turkish political life…has now created something resembling a democratically elected single-party state,” and some even see authoritarian leanings.  If the AKP would rather further consolidate its authority than deal with democracy, pumping up the image of an external enemy will be useful. Yigal Schleifer gets at this point in Foreign Policy:

By removing what has been described as the greatest roadblock to Turkey’s further democratization [the power of the army – ds], the AKP must now prove that it can deliver the democratic goods it has been promising. If it can’t, it may find itself forced to find another punching bag.

On the international stage, Turkey has been vying for a stepped-up leadership role in the Middle East for some time.  There are various reasons: Steven Cook thinks it is a “natural” post-Cold War evolution . I think that in addition, Turkey may perceive greater urgency over the last year or two, for two reasons: its floundering EU bid, and fallout from the Arab spring.

Since the EU accession isn’t making much progress, Turkey is probably re-grouping its global strategy. One response is a sort of rejection – ‘if you don’t want us, we’ll antagonize your Western ally in the Middle East and your institutions in general.’ As Turkish journalist Ilhan Tanir observed on Twitter:

Turkey, by calling Palmer findings “null,void” starts dangerous precedent. Then Israel’s constant disregard of other UN reps also validated.

At the same time, there’s a ‘keep the door open,’ response – an ongoing attempt to show the West that Turkey is a vital diplomatic resource, a credible and sane player with clout in both Europe and the Middle East. Turkey’s revelation of massive support for the Libyan rebels is one example. To play that role, Turkey must continue gaining leverage among Middle Eastern countries.

And of course the Arab spring is toppling regional dictators, leaving a growing power gap – especially with Egypt’s future so uncertain. Turkey is well-poised to grow its influence.

It seems to hold true – no matter how tiresome – that the road to influence in Middle East countries runs through Israel-whipping. Or that Erdogan thinks it does – but there’s little evidence to prove him wrong.

There’s another possibility that does not necessarily contradict the above: Erdogan might really believe that the damage to relations will shock Israel into reconsidering its policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians. In a way, this is what the US could never do.

Note that Turkey’s responses – the diplomatic downgrading, suspension of military relations, and a pledge to challenge Israel in courts and in the Mediterranean – are harsh but mostly diplomatic in nature. As military agreements were already largely suspended, some – such as Israeli Channel 2’s Arad Nir – believe the measures were carefully designed not to create a genuine rupture. This supports the notion that they are meant to produce specific strategic results, without going too far, at least not yet.

The Cyprus factor. There’s the small matter a recent gas-exploration deal between Cyprus and Israel. Turkey has asked the countries to hold off on this until a resolution over the Cyprus conflict is reached. Looks to me like Turkey was banking on the fact that there might never be such a resolution. The advances between Cyprus and Israel just this week must have further raised Erdogan’s blood pressure and his determination to stop Israel’s “bullying” on this front too.

Whatever goals Erdogan actually has in mind, the unraveling of relations between Israel and Turkey is a dangerous animal. Israel was foolish to contribute to it and should think hard about how to defuse it. Zvi Barel of Haaretz thinks an apology is due. But progress on the Palestinian front would also be a very strong start.