The Imperative of Strong Turkish-Israel Relations

03/23/2010 05:12 am 05:12:01 | Updated May 25, 2011

The recent lightning sequence of events between Israel and Turkey highlights the complexity of the relationship between the two countries.

The truly unfortunate decision by Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, one of Israel's most skilled diplomats, to publicly humiliate Turkey's ambassador to Israel apparently set things in motion.

I say apparently because the very fact that Ayalon, together with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, believed it important to protest the strongly anti-Israel statements by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and for another vicious anti-Israel, anti-Semitic television program really goes to the root of the problem.

Yet, only days later, Israel's Defense Minister Ehud Barak made a scheduled visit to Turkey. Reports circulated of positive meetings with Turkey's defense and foreign ministers and of recommitments to the strategic relationship between the two nations.

What will now be different in the relationship? Will it continue to be a two-track affair with each existing as if the other did not? Will this dichotomy be able to be sustained? Is this, should this, be acceptable to Israel?

The two tracks are strategic and diplomatic. On the strategic track, despite the disheartening Turkish decision several months ago to cancel Israel's participation in a US-Turkey military training exercise, signs are that Turkey and Israel both recognize how vital the relationship is to each. Turkey benefits from arms deals with highly sophisticated Israeli defense industries as well as strengthening its relationship with the U.S. through ties with Israel.

Israel benefits from having a Muslim majority nation as an ally and strategic partner for training, coordination, water access and intercession in the Arab world. The recent events, despite the highly inflamed emotions on both sides, point out that neither side is so quick as to give up those benefits. That's a good thing.

However, if the second track, the diplomatic front, continues as it is going, it could lead to other contretemps that could threaten that strategic relationship. Let's be frank about this. It's all coming from Turkey. Israel seeks the continuation of the best of diplomatic relations.

It is the Turkish government, in a host of statements and actions, many by the prime minister, that has been treating Israel not like an ally but more like an enemy. Erdogan's tirade against Israel during the Gaza war, his continuation last year at Davos which forced Israeli President Shimon Peres to react, his unstinting support of the United Nations Human Rights Council's Goldstone Report accusing Israel of war crimes, and his support of Iran in the nuclear standoff, are impossible for Israel to ignore.

It is not merely a matter of national pride, not an insignificant thing, nor is it only a matter of mutual respect in a relationship, also not insignificant. It speaks to Israel's need to challenge growing efforts around the world to delegitimize the Jewish State. To have a longtime ally like Turkey leading international criticism plays into Israel's enemies and must be countered.

For Israel, the lesson of the Ayalon incident will be to maintain proper diplomatic decorum at all times but not to allow it to inhibit it from calling out inappropriate Turkish behavior. Turkey may be doing this to win favor in the radical Islamic world but Israel must make clear it cannot be at Israel's expense, nor at the expense of Turkey's Jewish community, which is feeling exposed. Unfortunately, future brawls may be inevitable.

Despite some comments that U.S. influence on Turkey may be limited, I'm a believer that the U.S.-Turkish relationship matters to both sides. I will be urging the Obama administration to continue to monitor this situation very closely and to continually urge Erdogan to exercise restraint in his comments about Israel.

I am not one who believes that Erdogan has made a strategic decision to move from the West into the Islamic camp. He is trying, for now, to have his cake and eat it. The U.S. message should be, however, that Turkey could easily slide into the Islamic camp without ever fully deciding upon it if it continues this massive ant-Israel campaign. This would be a disaster for the modern state of Turkey.

Abraham H. Foxman is National Director of the Anti-Defamation League and author of The Deadliest Lies: The Israel Lobby and the Myth of Jewish Control.