Turkey charting new course; Ankara asserting itself in challenges to Israel

On May 31, 2010, the Blue Marmara, lead ship in a flotilla stormed by Israeli commandos, sailed into Ashdod, Israel.
On May 31, 2010, the Blue Marmara, lead ship in a flotilla stormed by Israeli commandos, sailed into Ashdod, Israel. AP

There is no more poignant example of the challenges to United States' strategy in the Middle East than its deteriorating policies toward Turkey and that country's relations with Israel.

The escalation of tensions between Ankara and Tel Aviv was made clear Sept. 1 when The New York Times published a United Nations report of the Blue Marmara affair. The incident occurred May 31, 2010, when a flotilla of boats, led by the Blue Marmara — a ship owned and operated by a Turkish human rights organization — was boarded by Israeli commandos in international waters. The flotilla intended to bring aid supplies to Palestinians in Gaza, which Israel was blockading to prevent arms from reaching Hamas.

Israeli commandos attacked the Blue Marmara and killed nine people: eight Turks and one American-Turkish citizen. The resulting brouhaha affected the two countries' formerly strong relations — especially military, defense and intelligence agreements — although diplomatic relations were not broken.

But in wake of the U.N. report, relations have become more strained than at any time since Turkey's recognition of Israel in 1948.

Essentially, the report came down on the side of Israel by acknowledging that, according to international maritime law, Israel had the right to blockade Gaza to prevent infiltration of arms. The report does criticize Israel for using excess force in killing nine people, many of whom were shot multiple times.

The authors of the report, former New Zealand Prime Minister Geoffrey Palmer and former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, recommended that Israel pay compensation to the families of those killed and apologize to Turkey for the assault.

But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Leiberman, made it clear that Israel would pay no compensation to Turkey nor would it apologize for the attack, carried out, they insisted, for Israel's security.

As a result of the report, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu immediately took several actions:

■ Reduced Turkey's diplomatic representation to Israel to the level of chargé d'affairs.

■ Canceled existing military and defense agreements with Israel.

■ Stated that Turkey would defend vigorously its maritime and naval presence in the eastern Mediterranean and would contest the legitimacy of Israel's blockade of Gaza in international forums.

■ Announced that Turkey would expend every effort to enable the victims' families to obtain compensation from Israel for the killing of their family members.

There are, however, other reasons for the increasing hostilities between Ankara and Tel Aviv.

Turkey thinks Israel's treatment of the Palestinians and the resulting wars have seriously hindered Turkey from developing stronger economic and trading relations with Syria, Jordan and Lebanon.

Also, Turkey, an energy-hungry country, is opposed to agreement between Cyprus and Israel to drill for gas in waters off Cyprus. And Ankara is opposed to Israel's drilling for oil and gas in Israeli-claimed waters until a final agreement regarding the extent of the oil and gas fields is reached with Lebanon.

In asserting its greater presence in the Middle East, Turkey's government also strongly supports Palestinians rights to have East Jerusalem as the capital of an established Palestinian state.

In short, Turkey is contesting Israel's dominance, in conjunction with the United States, in the Middle East and now in the eastern Mediterranean. Both countries are strong U.S. allies. Turkey is a member of NATO and an applicant for full membership in the European Union. It is also a strong ally of Washington in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

On the other hand, Israel is the strongest and more important U.S. ally, especially as far as domestic politics are concerned.

As the presidential campaigns heat up, the oft-repeated dictum that U.S. relations with Israel are "solid, enduring and unshakable" will be tested further, as will America's failing unilateralism in the Middle East.