This commentary was published by Foreign Policy’s Middle East Channel on May 31, 2010
“All options are on the table” is the best phrase to describe how Turkey feels about Israel’s attack on humanitarian aid flotilla carrying more than 600 activists from 32 countries. What happened on Sunday night is a real game changer. Israel will, most likely, no longer be seen as a friendly state nor an ally, but will be treated as a rogue state by Turkey.
Hints of this change are clear in Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan’s words describing the attack, “state terrorism”, and from Turkish Foreign Minister Davutoglu’s speech at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) declaring that “the difference between a state and terrorists is blurred.” These two examples, along with the public outrage expressed through day-long-street protests all around Turkey, testify to the fact that relations between Turkey and Israel will be different from now on. The Turkish side considers Israel as a real threat to regional peace. As a state that commits what Turkish officials call terrorist attacks, attacks civilians indiscriminately, lies openly, and sees itself above the law, Israel has exhausted its legitimacy in Turkey. Under these circumstances, it will be virtually impossible to discuss the Iranian nuclear program without discussing the road map of how to dismantle Israel’s nuclear weapons. Any issue in the region will be discussed through the assessment of Israel as a threat to regional security and peace.
When I say Turkey will imply that “all options are on the table,” I do not mean that Turkey will wage a war against Israel. However, more dangerously, Israel will be seen as a state against which one should protect itself and should consider any possible action because of its unlawful and rogue character. This will have an immense effect on the security architecture of the region unless Israel reconsiders its own security perspective and starts dealing with its neighbors in a manner in line with the international law. It is, however, sad to see the initiatives and perspective of Turkish foreign policy sabotaged by the consequences of the Israeli aggression.
Turkey has long suffered from the paranoia of being attacked by her neighbors. This paranoia has been hurting Turkey at least for more than a century. The guiding principle of the recently renewed Turkish foreign policy activism, “zero problems with neighbors,” was a remedy to this illness aiming to heal the paranoia that used to determine Turkey’s bilateral relations in the region. It is clear that Israel is ailing from this paranoia that Turkey just healed from. Israel’s paranoia not only poisons all peace initiatives in the region, but also harms the already-not-very-pure souls of the neighboring countries. Unfortunately for the sake of comprehensive regional peace, Turkey will most likely define its position as “all options are on the table.” This phrase would not be used openly, but it will surely haunt every statesman in Turkey.
At the policy level, Turkey already started playing its hand and this will continue. By forgoing its right to veto Israel’s membership to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which would be considered completely legitimate under any objective criteria, Turkey wanted to send a goodwill message to Israel and to the Israeli public. The message was “Turkey does not have any problems with either Israelis or with all Israeli politicians. Turkey is simply against certain policies of Israel that hurt innocent people and it will not shy away from criticizing Israel for its actions against civilians.” Evidently the message somehow was not conveyed to the Israeli politicians correctly.
If this is the case, then Turkey will play another game by replacing its friendly vocabulary with one that is more proper in describing rogue states: vetoes, embargoes, sanctions, resolutions, terrorism, etc. New vocabulary has already been used by Turkish Foreign Minister Davutoglu in his speech at the UNSC emergency meeting on Monday. The message is clear, “Turkey sees Israel as a terrorist state and will behave accordingly.” This new vocabulary is likely to be used in Erdogan’s speech on Tuesday–probably in even stronger terms. As part of the new strategy, Turkey will bring the aggression to the multilateral institutions and international organizations, among which the UN Security Council, NATO, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and the Arab League can be named. New language will be used to describe Israeli aggression again and again. Turkey will do everything to hold Israel accountable for their actions in all international forums including the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC).
At the level of diplomacy, Turkey does not have the luxury to continue business as usual. It will most likely set up a road-map giving Israel a “to do list,” will benchmark the issues, and follow up until the problem is resolved. To speak concretely, Turkey will ask for an official apology as well as for an international investigation of the disproportionate response by the Israeli military forces against the humanitarian relief attempt to break the Gaza blockade. Turkey will also try to demonstrate the illegitimacy of the aggression, ask to free the ships being held by the Israeli security forces unconditionally, and end the blockade of Gaza. Turkey will go as far as to try to force Israel to answer to the international courts and pay retribution to the relatives of the dead and the wounded. This list is not exhaustive.
At the level of bilateral relations, Turkey will take additional measures demonstrating its decisiveness. Today’s announcement of cancellation of three joint military exercises with Israel is a clear indication of the steps Turkey is willing to take. This can be compared to what happened when the first Turkish-Israeli joint military exercise was cancelled last year and should be read as a sign of Turkey’s changing regional security perception.
This last aggression will be remembered as a turning point in Turkish-Israeli relations, creating a new security dynamic in the region. This new direction will prompt Turkey to look to the White House to shoulder some of the burden in creating lasting peace in the region. However, this time, if the White House continues to drag its feet and rejects taking any responsibility over this latest Israeli aggression, it will trigger a ripple effect, further reducing the legitimacy of the US in the Middle East.