Opinion: It's getting chilly between Turkey and Israel


BOSTON — A strategic fault line is opening up in the Middle East with balance of power ramifications for the region. It is the growing coolness between two previously close allies: Turkey and Israel.

Last week “Anatolian Eagle,” a planned NATO exercise on Turkish soil was canceled when Turkey withdrew an invitation to Israel to participate. The United States and Italy promptly withdrew their participation, making the exercise pointless. Turkey said the reason was its opposition to Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians in Gaza.

Israel and Turkey have a long history of military cooperation, and a joint naval exercise did take place as recently as last summer. Israeli airplanes routinely train over Turkey’s vast Anatolian airspace — Israel’s own space being so limited.

On the cultural front, Israel has made the strongest possible protests over a Turkish TV drama called “Separation.” The show depicts what Israelis claim are Israeli soldiers gunning down Palestinian children. Israeli foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, said that the TV series “would not be appropriate in an enemy country and certainly not in a state which maintains diplomatic relations with Israel.” The Turks responded by saying that theirs was not a country based on censorship.

Israel has long had a strategic policy of trying to woo a non-Arab ally in the region in order to outflank the Arab powers still hostile towards Israel. Until 1979 that ally was Iran under the Shah. The Israelis had an embassy in Tehran, masquerading as a trade mission, and it was possible to fly directly between Tehran and Tel Aviv on El Al, the Israeli national airline. The Khomeini revolution paid lip service to that, and today Iranians mouth anti-Israeli sentiments that would make an Arab blush.

Turkey became the new Iran in Israeli strategic thinking.

In Turkish eyes, when there were bad relations between Turkey and many of its neighbors —  Iraq, Iran and Syria — it looked like a good bet to have Israel watching Turkey’s back.

Today, Turkey has better relations with Syria and Iraq than in the past and, according to some, Turkey doesn’t need Israel as much as in the past.

Undoubtedly, the relationship with Israel came at a political cost after the Gaza war, which was very unpopular with the Turkish public.

The outrage in the Muslim world, not just among Arabs, over the damage done in Gaza during the brief, winter war of 2008-2009 is little appreciated in the United States. Almost as irksome is the continuing Israeli blockade of Gaza, which the United States still supports even though Barack Obama promised a new outreach to the Muslim world.

This was not helped by the U.N. report, written by the respected South African judge, Richard Goldstone, charging both Hamas and Israel of war crimes in the Gaza conflict — a report that the United States does not support.

Some think the cooling of Turkey towards the relationship has to do with the moderately Islamic cast of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party. Other’s think it has a highly personal element, beginning when Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan walked off the stage at the World Economic Forum in Davos last January in a tiff with Israeli President Shimon Peres.

I happened to be in the room during that startling bit of political theatre. Peres, usually so calm and collected, worked himself up into a rage over criticism of Israel’s Gaza war, and began wagging his finger in Erdogan’s face. It was an “et tu Brute” moment, in my view, expressing Peres’ disappointment that Erdogan, a close ally, would join in the criticism being leveled at Israel. Erdogan, who had just been explaining how he had helped Israel and Syria get closer together, was also disappointed that Peres would show such disrespect.

The breech is probably worse for Israel than it is for Turkey, for Israel is becoming more isolated and Turkey less. The timing is especially bad for those in Israel who would like to lessen Israel’s dependency on the United States. And since Benjamin Netanyahu came to power, Turkey’s efforts on behalf of Israel with Syria are on the back burner with the heat turned down.