Monday, September 12, 2011

the cost of refusing to apologize

though i have never thought very highly of binyamin netanyahu, i am surprised by how badly the israeli prime minister has botched relations with turkey. turkey used to be israel's only real ally in the region. the countries had extensive trade and held joint military exercises. turkey was also israel's back door to portions of the arab world. israel often used turkey as a go-between to communicate with arab regimes that would not directly communicate with israel. using turkey as an intermediary, israel and syria conducted secret peace talks that not too long ago seemed to be the only promising development in the arab-israeli conflict.

in short, the israeli-turkish relationship was really important. nevertheless, relations between the countries have been steadily sliding downhill since israel launched its attack on gaza in operation cast lead, leading to pointed criticism by the turkish government. last year turkey suspended military cooperation with israel after israel attacked the gaza flotilla and killed 9 turkish citizens and since then the countries have been in an extended spat over whether israel should apologize for the incident. israel keeps refusing to do so, and relations just get worse and worse. ten days ago, turkey expelled israel's ambassador to ankara. then israel and turkey each harassed and detained the other's citizens when they arrived at the countries' respective major international airports. turkish officials are now promising to send turkish warships to guard future flotillas traveling to gaza and have promised to disable israeli weapon systems, which turkish newspaper hypothesizes "that such a confrontation would resemble dogfights in the Aegean Sea with Greek jet fighters."

meanwhile, turkey is signaling that it may side with lebanon in its dispute with israel over exploitation of the tamar gas field off the northern israeli coast. developing the field has become a major strategic issue for israel since the future of its current source of natural gas, the arish-ashkelon pipeline, is uncertain under the post-mubarak government. turkish threats against development of tamar could essentially shut down the project, as hostile warships prowling the waters around the gas field would scare off the energy companies that might otherwise allow israel to extract the gas.

it's also worth noting that turkey is a member of NATO. under the NATO treaty, an attack against any member is viewed as an attack against all members, obligating those other members to assist in the attacked member's defense. which means that israel cannot fall back on its usual method of dealing with disputes in its neighborhood by relying on its military superiority to threaten or force an outcome in israel's favor. in theory if israel attacks turkey, the u.s. (as well as canada and most of europe) would be obligated to side with turkey. i don't think the u.s. would actually go to war with israel, but if turkey evoked the NATO treaty during a conflict with israel, it could seriously jeopardize the existence of NATO and cause a cascade of negative fallout for israel and its relations with the western world.

the bizarre thing is that the current spat is just over whether israel should apologize for killing those nine turkish citizens last year, something that any other country would readily do if it killed the citizens of a major ally, even if convinced that the raid was justified. but instead of doing that, netanyahu has chosen to follow his foreign minister avigdor lieberman, who claims that any apology would broadcast israeli weakness. but if you look at the turkish press (at least the pieces available online in english), the turks seem to view the refusal to issue an apology as a sign that israel and its government is " extremely weak, unstable and... short-sighted."

as others have noted, september has been a bad month for israel (and we are only 12 days in!). considering that israel's number one priority is to head off the palestinian bid for statehood at the UN, you would think netanyahu would be doing whatever possible to shore up its alliances and drum up support with what few friends it has in the world. instead, bibi is sticking with israel's traditionally belligerent "porcupine policy." i don't see how it can do anything but make matters worse.