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The Turkish Rivalry Heats Up

Does this mean Israel should apologize?

Marc Tracy
September 07, 2011
Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan yesterday.(Adem Altan/AFP/Getty Images)
Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan yesterday.(Adem Altan/AFP/Getty Images)

Among the actions the Turkish government has taken following last week’s leak of the U.N. report on the 2010 flotilla, which was more favorable to Israel than to Turkey: it has fortified its naval presence in the Mediterranean, and made plans to potentially chaperone civilian ships carrying aid to Gaza; recalled its ambassador; cancelled all defense-related trade agreements, as well as some other ones; and pledged to refer Israel’s blockade of Gaza—which the U.N. probe deemed legal—to the Hague. Prime Minister Erdogan called Israel “a spoiled child” in a speech and planned a trip to Egypt, Israel’s other friend-turned-semi-foe, next week, which could include an attempted crossing into Gaza (which would be a huge deal) and a speech in Tahrir Square. Turks have been harassed at Israeli airports, and vice-versa.

Nobody could argue this is Israel’s ideal state of affairs. The country’s extremely respected central banker, Stanley Fischer, warned of the dire economic impact of restricted trade with Turkey, which in normal years is worth billions of dollars. And the United States, of course, is not at all pleased.

And yet analyses, like that of columnist Roger Cohen, that pin most if not all of the blame on Israel for the diplomatic fallout (“Israel Isolates Itself” is the headline) are missing that this is almost entirely a Turkey-created crisis.

Cohen summarizes the U.N. conclusion on the flotilla deaths accurately, addressing Israel: “You had the right to do it but what you did was way over the top and just plain dumb.” He doesn’t note that Israel essentially agrees with that, while Turkey vehemently disputes it. Then, he confuses a crucial, diplospeak nuance: He notes that the U.N. recommended a statement of regret and compensation in exchange for the resumption of full diplomatic relations, and concludes, “An apology is the right course and the smart course.” But an apology is actually not the same as a statement of regret; and indeed Israel has offered a statement of regret, and it is a statement of regret that the U.N. recommends. Turkey, however, insists on an apology, as well as on Israel’s lifting the blockade.

So for Israel, the decision is no longer primarily about diplomatic isolation, or the economy, or even the morality of what happened onboard the Mavi Marmara and how to atone for it. At this point, it comes down to the crucial question of whether Israel will allow Turkey to force Israel to go beyond even a U.N. report with which it cooperated—of whether Israel will give in to blackmail. It can be very tempting, I know, to chalk Israeli stubbornness up to hawkish machismo or even to a lack of regret at the deaths of the nine flotilla members. But really, Israel is following a very standard realpolitik playbook; it is Turkey—hyper-ideological and flailing at the gap between the power it thinks it deserves and the power it has—that is acting recklessly.

And the pressure is not only on Prime Minister Netanyahu’s government. Germany has already called on Turkey to accept the U.N. report’s findings. And Turkey’s opposition leader, representing the secular old older that Erdogan’s Islamist AKP has supplanted, slammed Erdogan’s brinksmanship: “No good can come of it,” he said, “and there is no need for us to risk our interest with petty actions.”

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.