Steven A. Cook

From the Potomac to the Euphrates

Cook examines developments in the Middle East and their resonance in Washington.

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Turkey and Israel: More Strategic Than You

by Steven A. Cook
November 18, 2011

Turkey's Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu speaks during a news conference in Ankara September 2, 2011. Davutoglu said Turkey was reducing its diplomatic presence in Israel and suspending military agreements after details emerged of a U.N. report on an Israeli raid on a Gaza-bound ship that killed nine Turks.

Turkey's Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu speaks during a news conference in Ankara September 2, 2011. Davutoglu said Turkey was reducing its diplomatic presence in Israel and suspending military agreements after details emerged of a U.N. report on an Israeli raid on a Gaza-bound ship that killed nine Turks (Stringer/Courtesy Reuters).

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.

Post a Comment 5 Comments

  • Posted by Mark

    Okay you have a point, but when Israel will Apologize to Turkey and stop playing the victom all the time, and display such a arrogant behavior just bz, they have the US Congress in their pocket?
    I agree with Israel having their homeland without question but there are other ways to go about it, killing Turkish citizens regardless of their motives( they were just protesters and state can not have not right to kill protesters expecially in international waters, Israel has to come to terms with this and do the right thing, and l am ophold with the comments l read in Jewish newspapers about Turks all the hate spweing from them, such a shame,and Israel been popular in US? I beg the differ, many Americans finds Israel as liability to their intrest they do not come out and screak bz, they do not want to be labeled Anti-Semitic as Jews calls everyone critisize Israel as Anti-Semitic,it is getting old and not working any longer, as a Turkish Jew many people do not know my heritige and speak out and l hear all the time the question” What is the big deal about Israel why do we support them unconditionally, and why every canidiate has to make statements to Israel and their full support of Israel no matter what” questions strated and getting louder, it is time Israel to get off the news ,tomuch of it and people are sick and tired of it,
    but yes Turks and Israilies should go back the way things were,it is good for both country but ball is in Israel’s court

  • Posted by serhat kocatas

    I don’t think Turkey is more strategically important. Both countries have their advantages and which Israel takes precedence over Turkey on many issues. Both countries need each other in the region for many reasons. But Israelis are playing cunning game on Turkey’s domestic peace. Who is really a big supporter of PKK? Who is behind it? If we really get the answer I believe that Turkish politicians should do more than being conceited and do whatever it takes to stop these terrorist activities taking place in Turkish soil. Israelis hands are not clean when it comes to supporting terrorist group PKK.

  • Posted by Omer Karasapan

    Nice analysis. It is clear that both sides have their strengths and weaknesses when it comes to relations with the US and other powers in the region and beyond. What is also clear is that both countries would be much better served if indeed an apology was issued, rhetoric toned down and normalcy returned to the relationship. Especially so as the Assad regime further isolates itself and will probably move in the direction of ever more desperate acts internally and externally. One would imagine that there are some in Damascus who would like nothing better than instigating acts that would rathchet up tensions with Turkey and Israel to divert attention from the mounting toll in Syria. At a time like this it would be much better to have an ongoing constructive dialogue between Turkey and Israel then the current situation.

  • Posted by Andrew

    Nice. Of course, Israel can’t simply apologize and make up. Turkey says they must also end the blockade of Gaza. Right now, it doesn’t look like Turkey is interested in reconciliation under any terms, which is a shame.

  • Posted by serhat kocatas

    hopefully whole region will be able to get peace soon. This will help not only America but many countries around the world. “peace at home , peace in the world” K.Ataturk.

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