Turkey's expulsion of the Israeli ambassador, the downgrading of its diplomatic relations with Israel, and the Erdogan government's increasingly firm position on the Israeli attack on the Mavi Marmara signify more than a temporary hiccup in Turkish-Israeli relations. It is a clear signal that Ankara is fed up with Israel's foot-dragging on the apology and compensation that Turkey has demanded as a precondition for the normalisation of Turkish-Israeli relations. The UN's Palmer Commission report, which justified the Israeli blockade of Gaza but accused Israel of using "excessive force" against the flotilla, has been rejected by Turkey. Ankara now plans to take the case against the blockade to the international court of justice (ICJ).
Meanwhile, Monday's visit to Egypt by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's prime minister, can be interpreted as an indication both of his support for the emerging democratic process in Egypt (where public anger at Israel runs high) and his solidarity with Cairo over the killing of five Egyptian security personnel by the Israelis in Sinai. His announcement that he intends to visit Gaza is further indication that Turkey is ratcheting up its support for the Palestinian cause, especially in the run-up to the UN vote on Palestinian statehood. What Erdogan does in Egypt will be keenly watched throughout the region.
The Turkish mood was summed up by the foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, who stated: "The time has come for Israel to pay a price for its illegal action. The price, first of all, is being deprived of Turkey's friendship." While Davutoglu has indicated that an Israeli apology for the flotilla attack and compensation for the dead and wounded could restore normal diplomatic ties, Erdogan has made clear that Israel must end its naval blockade of Gaza for this to happen.
The Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, has declared emphatically that Israel will not tender an apology. While his stance may be dictated by coalition politics, it has created a diplomatic impasse. The Obama administration – worried about the ramifications of a major rift between Israel and Turkey for US strategic interests but afraid of taking on the Netanyahu government for domestic reasons – has not put any pressure on Israel. It thus risks alienating Turkey, a crucial Nato member.
This diplomatic episode has important implications for the future of the Middle East. First, it demonstrates that Israeli dominance of the eastern Mediterranean will no longer go unchallenged. Erdogan has made clear that the Turkish navy will play a more active role in the area, and Turkish sources have indicated that it may even escort flotillas carrying humanitarian aid to Gaza. Any future attempt by Israel to prevent aid from reaching Gaza could spark a military confrontation.
Second, it demonstrates that Israel's defiance of international law, especially regarding its treatment of the occupied territories, will face increasing challenges in international forums. A referral to the ICJ will bring to the fore Israel's violation of provisions of the fourth Geneva convention that prohibit the demographic transformation of occupied lands, as well as its responsibility regarding the welfare of the occupied population. The issue of West Bank settlements will again become a topic of heated debate.
Such debate will emphasise that the Obama formula of "land swaps", in which Israel would keep major Jewish settlements even if a two-state solution were reached, contravenes international law. This, combined with Palestinian efforts to have the state of Palestine recognised by the UN, will add to an already volatile situation in the region.
Third, the Turkish stance, coming in the wake of democratic uprisings in the region, will further align Turkey with mainstream Arab opinion on Palestine and Israeli occupation. This will boost Turkish standing in the Arab world and put increasing pressure upon Arab governments to take a more active role on Palestine. Countries in democratic transition are already under domestic pressure to take a harder line with Israel, and there is talk of Egypt and Jordan withdrawing their ambassadors, following Turkey's example.
Fourth, it is clear that the current Turkish position would have not been possible without the consolidation of Turkish democracy. Not only must foreign policy now respond more directly to pressure from the electorate, but the elected government can finally pursue its policies without fear of military intervention. The recent resignation of four leading generals and their replacement by officers acceptable to the civilian government is testimony to this fact. Military top brass, who have close relations with Israeli counterparts, have long been Turkey's primary pro-Israel constituency. Given the historic importance of the military to Turkish politics, a hard line against Israel would have been unthinkable even a few years ago.
Finally, this episode signifies the coming of age of Turkey as a strategic power connecting the Middle East with Europe; it is Ankara's declaration of independence in terms of its foreign policy. The Middle East will never be the same again.
This calls for a major revamp of America's policy. A just and speedy solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict is essential if the US is to preserve its strategic interests in the Middle East. Washington must reassess its unconditional support for Israel and adopt a visibly even-handed policy, including a softening of its position on the Palestine resolution in the UN general assembly. Above all, the US must not underrate Turkey's strategic importance as the emerging pre-eminent power in the region, and as the bridge between the west and the Muslim world.This article was first published by the Guardian on September 12, 2011.
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