President Obama can claim one immediate result from his Middle East tour. President Obama figuratively dialed Turkish PM Erdogan's phone and pressed Israeli PM Netanyahu to apologize for the killings of Turkish activists on board a "peace flotilla" headed to Gaza. Perhaps the relationship has been permanently altered over the last few years, but it may be the fulcrum for resolution of Syria and a broader Israeli/Palestinian peace.
A Resurgent Regional/Global Role?
In a recent conversation with a senior Israeli foreign policy adviser/diplomat, he spoke of Erdogan's Turkey with both new respect and concern. This Turkey is more independent of Washington and promulgating influence in lands from southeastern Europe, to Central Asia, to the Middle East and Africa. Some perceive it as an effort to reassert broad Ottoman preeminence. The Turkish government parses down such claims, but it is undeniable that things have changed in Ankara and its own perception of its regional and global impact. Ankara perceives a role not only in resolving the Syrian crisis but also in addressing Iran's nuclear program, the peace process in Somalia, to the human rights of Muslim minorities in China. In southeastern Europe, Turkey's government has as much sought to gain influence in Belgrade as it has to advance the cause of Bosnian Muslims. However, the change in Turkey from observer to activist is nowhere more evident than in the relationship between Israel and its neighbors. Israel used to count on leverage in the form of support for Turkey of its effective lobby in Washington in also keeping the allegations of the Ottoman "Armenian genocide" off the legislative agenda of the U.S. Congress. However, as evidenced in the recent vote in France's parliament, the equation has changed.
Cred in the Arab Street:
Turkey, as non-Arab dominant imperial power in region till a century earlier, had been viewed with suspicion by Arab nationalist regimes. More recently, though, as a more moderate Islamist-dominated government willing to also publicly confront Israeli leaders, it has garnered credit in the Arab street. More conservative Arab leaders perceive the current Turkey as potential rival as well as cohort. Similarly, willing to fight/confront radicals in places like Afghanistan and Somalia, Turkey's current leadership, perhaps grudgingly, is viewed more as partner in Western capitals. However, in the case of Israel, the relationship has been retarded since the flotilla incident and the Turkish government's demand for a full investigation and apology. When Israel refused, Ankara froze military cooperation and particularly the very valuable use of Turkey's air bases by the Israeli air force for training.
Key to Syria Resolution?
Turkey's initial engagement with Syria was to offer itself as catalyst and mediator for talks between the Damascus government and Israeli leaders in resolving the Golan Heights but also pressing for a more comprehensive peace. The slide of Syria into civil war rapidly altered the priorities and dynamics. Ankara became ever more annoyed with the Assad regime as it saw Damascus' failure to opt for talks with the opposition in favor of brutal crackdown as also betrayal. Now Turkey and Israel seek common ground in moving the chaotic Syrian civil war toward resolution before it perhaps explodes across their borders (as is already occurring in Lebanon).
Guarantor of Peace & Security-History of Welcoming Jewish Refugees:
The Israeli/Palestinian impasse is the most persistent thorn and hurdle for the region. Ankara seeks to even out the negotiating leverage of the Palestinians with respect to a dominant Israel. However, Turkey would also be called upon to be a guarantor of any peace agreement and effectively Israel's security. As leading member of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), Turkey can shape broader policy. Further, this Turkey has credibility with the new political leaderships rising out of the Arab Spring including Egypt and the Syrian opposition, all of which will be critical to the future of Israel. Similarly, Turkey has historical credibility as both haven for Jews escaping the Inquisition in Spain and much of Europe. It was also during the rule of the Ottoman Empire that the first Jews made a re-appearance to the Holy Land after being largely wiped out by the Crusades.
Time Running out for "Two-State Solution" & Israel?
The current Netanyahu government may not be particularly committed to a "two-state solution" or, for that matter, any new compromise. However, as time is running out for a new Palestinian state, so is it closing in on Israel's current policies. Israel is facing greater skepticism with respect to its intentions as well as settlements policy. The U.S. may not be in position to block non-favored diplomatic initiatives at the UN, and increasingly it is possible/probable that Israel's political and military leadership may be confronted by investigations and potential prosecutions by the International Criminal Court. Thus, Israel may need Turkey as much as fear its growing role.