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Alon Ben-Meir Headshot

Mending a Strained Alliance

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What should have been a multinational exhibit of military cooperation earlier this month between the Turkish Air Force and its counterparts in the US, Italy, and Israel, has become yet another political snub in the growing public rift between Turkey and Israel. The joint exercise, which takes place every few years, was canceled indefinitely after Turkey withdrew Israel's participation, causing the US and Italy to forgo the exercise in response. This public rebuff is one of many in a string of events that has shown Turkey's visceral frustration with Israel's handling of its incursion into Gaza late last year.

While Turkey and Israel continue to enjoy a strong alliance and their commercial and trade relations remain uninterrupted, the public slights have undoubtedly put a strain on their bilateral relationship, especially after Turkey relied heavily on the Israel lobby to prevent the Armenian genocide bill from being passed in the US Congress only two years ago. But what is Turkey gaining from these public outcries? Unless Turkey wants to seriously undermine its relations with Israel and its Western allies, it should start to act judiciously as a partner to both Israel and the Arab world.

Turkey's ability to lead in the future will depend on its capacity to balance its relations with the powers in its diverse neighborhood--Iran, Syria, Israel, Russia, and Greece all being immediate neighbors--without trading one bilateral relation for another. Turkey views itself as a strategic power with the capacity to maintain regional stability, not only in the Middle East, but as a bridge between East and West. But after the infamous Davos incident in January, where Prime Minister Recep Erdogan walked out on a panel with Israeli President Shimon Peres after stating, "When it comes to killing, you know well how to kill," Turkey has looked less like a skilful diplomatic mediator and more like an instigator. At this point, after earning the praise of the international community for its efforts as a member of NATO and the G-20, Turkey has too much at stake to start playing the blaming game in this intractable 61-year-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Much of Turkey's animosity towards Israel is likely out of frustration, after Israel's failure to deliver an initial agreement with Syria from negotiations Turkey so painstakingly mediated throughout 2008. Furthermore, Netanyahu has refused to resume the negotiations from where they were left off. But Turkey should not underestimate its role as the only strong political ally of Israel, Iran, and the Arab world. Apart from government and diplomatic relations, Turkey has been the number one tourist destination for both Israelis and Iranians, though since January it has seen a huge downturn in Israeli tourists. To sabotage its unique standing in this delicate global order at such a crucial time would be a major strategic blunder. Sooner rather than later, Turkey should realize that this isn't a fight worth having at this particular junction, especially when Israel has seen an increase in cooperation from its Arab neighbors since the Gaza war.

Many recall January 2008, when Sudan's Omar al-Bashir came to Ankara as a guest of the Turkish government after being accused by the ICC of heinous war crimes in Darfur. Only months later, Turkey participated in joint naval exercises with Israel, a tradition that has continued even after the Gaza war. The point is that Turkey has chosen a path as an ally to the many feuding nations it sits between, and in recent years has seen its integrity as an international partner skyrocket. It even made the final step of reconciliation with the Armenians this month, establishing diplomatic ties and reopening their shared border. So why now, should Turkey find it necessary to undermine its historic and valuable ties with Israel, who has considered Turkey a partner of the utmost importance since its foundation as a state? As Turkey found out through the US and Italy's immediate withdrawal from the military exercise, a rift with Israel can have destructive ramifications in its ties with the West. At this point in time, in its push for EU membership, and as it seeks to work with the US over its Kurdish issue, a public schism with Israel will only weaken the Turkish case. And as the international community -including the Arab states--unites around the Iranian nuclear threat which is as worrisome to Turkey, it is in Ankara's best interest to cooperate.

To be sure, the importance of Turkish-Israeli relations cannot be overstated enough, as Turkey and Israel share not only critically important strategic relations but a deep affinity that goes back between the Jews and the Ottoman Empire. Although Turkish-Israeli military and trade relations remain uninterrupted, it is not a minute too early to end public condemnations and begin mending the relationship; any further deterioration will serve neither Turkish nor Israeli interests now or in the future. Israelis have good reason to feel indignant, but they should not allow a temporary political mishap to obscure Turkey's contribution to regional peace and prosperity. And likewise, Turkey must not allow the significant relations with Israel to be marred by unfortunate chain of political mishaps.

Ankara must demonstrate that on the occasion of its proud 86th anniversary it can rise to the occasion and stretch its hand to the Israelis in friendship and show publicly that it values and reciprocates its partnership with the Jewish state. The Israelis must now show magnanimity by accepting this invitation to join their Turkish friends and allies to celebrate the anniversary of the Turkish Republic on October 29 and use the occasion as a symbol of renewed partnership.