Turkey all but broke off diplomatic relations with its one-time ally Israel Friday after Jerusalem refused to apologize for the killing of eight Turkish protesters and one Turkish American by Israeli commandos last May. The break marks a dramatic deterioration in a relationship which just 10 years ago was one of Israel’s closest strategic partnerships—and certainly its closest alliance in the Muslim world.
The proximate cause of the row was Israel’s refusal to apologize to Turkey after a United Nations report on the storming of the Mavi Marmara flotilla as it attempted to break an Israeli blockade of Gaza, called Israel’s use of “substantial force… excessive and unreasonable.”
But the root causes of the rift between Ankara and Jerusalem go back to 2002 when the Israeli Defense Force went into the West Bank towns of Jenin and Nablus and Turkey’s then-newly elected prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, protested strongly. Ever since, Turkey’s Islamist-rooted AK Party government has been vocal in its condemnation of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians—most famously in 2009 when Erdogan stormed out of panel discussions in Davos after accusing Israeli President Shimon Peres of “knowing very well how to kill.” At the same time the Turkish Army, the Turkish institution traditionally closest to Israel, has also seen its once-dominant political influence slip away.
In truth, by this past week there was already little left to suspend by way of ties between Israel and Turkey. Turkey had already recalled its own ambassador to Israel last June “for consultations”—a step down, in the language of diplomatic conflict, from formally recalling him—in the aftermath of the flotilla attack. Joint training exercises between the Turkish and Israeli Air Force were also cancelled at the same time. That was a serious blow to the Israeli military’s pilot-training program because there’s not much airspace at home—an F-16 fighter can fly the 470-kilometer (293-mile) length of Israel in just 16 minutes.
With public feeling running strong in both Israel and Turkey, Erdogan and Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had little possibility of backing down over the Mavi Marmara raid even if they’d wished to do so. According to a February poll by the Ankara-based MetroPOLL Strategic and Social Research Center, 23 percent of Turks singled out Israel as Turkey’s No. 1 enemy (42 percent said the U.S. was). A major rupture has been all but inevitable ever since it became clear as early as June that the U.N. report on the Mavi Marmara—leaked to The New York Times this week—would blame Israel for using “unreasonable force.” U.S. diplomats have been shuttling between Ankara and Jerusalem trying to come up with a form of words that would allow Turkey to claim that an apology had been made while allowing Israel to claim that it hadn’t. Unsurprisingly, no such face-saving solution was found.
Instead, Turkey chose to sever diplomatic ties in all but name. The Turkish Embassy in Tel Aviv will remain open, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu announced Friday, but all staff over the rank of second secretary will be recalled, leaving only junior diplomats to maintain a token presence. Ankara has said that it will not approve a replacement for Israel’s Ambassador Gabby Levy, currently in Israel and whose accreditation is due to expire next week.
Levy’s own remarks, as reported earlier this week by WikiLeaks, may have played a role in the exact form of retaliation Turkey chose to take. In a confidential October 2009 cable sent by the U.S. Embassy in Ankara, Levy is quoted as calling Erdogan a “fundamentalist” who hates the Jewish state for personal and religious reasons. “Levy dismissed political calculation as a motivator for Erdogan’s hostility, arguing the prime minister’s party had not gained a single point in the polls from his bashing of Israel,” says the cable. “Instead, Levy attributed Erdogan’s harshness to deep-seated emotion: ‘He’s a fundamentalist. He hates us religiously’ and his hatred is spreading.”
It’s not clear how Israel will react. But the Israeli blogosphere erupted with calls for Israel to pressure the U.S. to take draconian steps, from blocking the sale of F-35 stealth aircraft to Ankara to kicking Turkey out of NATO. “It’s also unthinkable that Turkey shall remain a member of NATO, as it engages in military cooperation with Iran and China, two states considered NATO enemies,” wrote one Guy Bechor on the Israeli Ynet portal. Washington, for its part, is in a quandary. With the Assad regime in Syria tottering under continued onslaughts from protesters, the U.S. badly needs Ankara’s help to manage the fallout from a possible civil war. And, damaged as the U.S.’s own relations are with Turkey, Ankara is emerging as the true regional victor of the Iraq War, becoming not only the economic power house but also a diplomatic power broker in the region. Washington still badly needs Turkey’s goodwill—and Davutoglu, too, still insisted in an interview with Newsweek earlier this year that NATO and the West is its “No. 1 strategic priority.” As if to prove the point, this week Turkey announced that it would agree to host a U.S.-proposed missile defense system to warn NATO of missiles launched from Iran making the Turkish provinces of Adana and Mersin the west's front line of defense against possible attack by Tehran. Israel and Turkey, then, still seek to be friends with Washington even as they become enemies of each other.