Nearly two weeks later, with peace talks still tentatively on track and the future status of the Gaza blockade still up in the air, the most significant consequence of the flotillia incident is the major rifts that have occurred between Turkey and Israel and between Turkey and much of the West, most of all the United States.
Turkey has been Israel’s strongest ally in the Muslim world for awhile now. And as for the West—well, Turkey is a member of NATO. For the United States to be experiencing a serious rift with a country to which it is bound by a collective defense treaty is no small thing.
And here’s the thing: It seems very likely that this is Turkey’s plan, or at least of its prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Take the flotilla. While it is not clear just how active and explicit a hand Turkey’s government had in planning the flotilla, at the very least it tacitly encouraged the activists and has subsequently held them up as unadulterated victims; some have argued that Turkey played an even more direct role.
Turkey’s foundering on the shoals of European Union membership have pushed it eastward; and Turkey’s domestic political situation have made it be in Erdogan’s interest to play up the Palestinian cause. Given Turkey’s cultural, strategic, and even geographic centrality to maybe the world’s number-one hotspot—the greater Middle East/Central Asia region, from the Holy Land’s emotional landmine to the steppe’s natural gas fields, from Iraq to Iran to Afghanistan—the consequences of Turkey’s move away from the Western coalition and toward some sort of third-way scenario could totally shift the geopolitical situation in a way that is not likely to be to Israel’s benefit.
We should have seen this coming. It was three weeks ago, well before the flotilla, that, in defiance of Western plans for U.N. sanctions, Turkey and Brazil reached an alternate nuclear fuel swap deal with Iran. Events have almost come full circle: Yesterday, Erdogan received rave reviews from Arab leaders gathered in Istanbul for an economic summit (at which Turkey established a free trade zone with Arab neighbors Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan). Why? Because Turkey and Brazil were the only two Security Council members to vote against the sanctions that were passed earlier this week: An act that Obama administration officials are describing as a “slap in the face.” (Incidentally, the Arab League’s only member of the Security Council, Lebanon, provided the Security Council’s only abstention.)
Yet Erdogan was not interested in talking about Iran yesterday. “Are we going to remain silent over the murder of nine people?” he told the gathering. “We can’t turn a blind eye to this banditry in international waters.” (By the way, there is a really interesting Forward article on how Israeli Turks are dealing with all of this.)
The thesis that Turkey is turning toward allies in the Arab world, along with Iran, and away from Western allies such as the United States and Israel, because it was refused EU membership was articulated earlier this week by U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates. “”I personally think,” he said, “that if there is anything to the notion that Turkey is, if you will, moving eastward, it is, in my view, in no small part because it was pushed, and pushed by some in Europe refusing to give Turkey the kind of organic link to the West that Turkey sought.”
Domestically, meanwhile, Erdogan and his AKP party—the first explicitly Islamic party ever to govern the republic that was founded, several decades ago, on a resolutely secular foundation—have been using the Palestinian issue as a way to shore up their support against the Republican People’s Party. The opposition leader, in turned, has criticized Erdogan for unduly ruffling feathers.
And as for America? Turkey has already lost one of its biggest allies stateside: AIPAC.