INSTANBUL — So far I have been in Turkey four days and try as I might to avoid it at all costs, it keeps coming up. What is “it”?, you ask? It is the subject of Turkey-Israel relations. Perhaps my Turkish interlocutors believe that, because I am an American and I live and work near and inside the Beltway, I must want to discuss the consequences of Israel’s Operation Cast Lead, the notorious Davos Smackdown, and the infamous Mavi Marmara incident. I don’t really, but I will because I am both polite and my hosts have brought up the topic and just in case anyone hasn’t noticed I am interested in the political effects of narratives.
The Turkish account of where their relationship went wrong with Israel is all-at-once principled, self-righteous, rife with head-spinning ironies, and a certain amount of bravado. The latter is manifested in the declarations that “Israel needs Turkey more than Turkey needs Israel,” and “Turkey is more strategically important to the United States than Israel.” The Israelis and their supporters respond that whatever anyone says, “Israel actually really is strategically important to the United States.” Never mind the fact that if either country was actually confident in their strategic value to the United States they would not need to declare it much less get into a spitting contest over it. Still, any way you look at it, you have to give this one to the Turks.
The breadth and depth of Ankara’s reach from the Balkans, the Caucuses, Central Asia, South Asia, the Levant, and North Africa is unparalleled even if “zero problems” turned out to be a zero. Washington may not always like what the Turks are doing everywhere, but they are well-positioned to play a constructive role in places where American and Turkish interests overlap. Needless to say, the Israelis don’t even have relations with many of the countries in these regions, making it hard to see Israel as a major strategic asset in anything other than the considerably narrower and technical areas of intelligence cooperation, military technology, and homeland security. Important stuff, but altogether of a different and scale and magnitude than the kind of opportunities that Turkey brings to the table.
The Turks shouldn’t get too big for their britches, however. Israel, unlike Turkey, is genuinely popular in the United States. For good or bad, Americans—especially Christian evangelicals—tend to identify with Israelis and their cause, making it good politics for members of Congress to support Israel. An energetic, well-resourced, determined, and perfectly legitimate lobby also helps. This means that while the Turks may be correct that they are the superior strategic partner, the political risks associated with the Turkey-Israel row are far greater for Ankara. For all these reasons, it is a good time for the Israelis to apologize, for the Turks to ratchet down the rhetoric, and for everyone to move on. I know that most of the time it is not about me, but at least if the Turks and Israelis can forge a new relationship, I won’t have to talk about it so much.