Connect to share and comment

Analysis: When US and Israeli interests diverge

Israeli attack on aid convoy to Gaza puts US-Turkey relations in jeopardy.

Israel Attack Gaza Flotilla
An Israeli flag flutters in the wind as a naval vessel (not seen) escorts the Mavi Marmara, a Gaza-bound ship that was raided by Israeli marines, to the Ashdod port on May 31, 2010. (Amir Cohen/Reuters)

LONDON, United Kingdom — The Turkish ambassador to Israel has been recalled. Three long-planned joint military exercises between Israel and Turkey have been canceled. And that's just the beginning of the fallout caused by Israel's attack Monday on a flotilla of ships that set sail from Istanbul hoping to break Israel's blockade of Gaza.

There will be more repercussions in the days to come. The theme of the commentary in Turkish papers today is that the attack on the Mavi Marmara, which left nine people confirmed dead, is a turning point in Turkish-Israeli relations — a bad turning point. The convoy was organized in Turkey and two-thirds of those who sailed in the six ships were from Turkey. Most of the dead are Turkish.

The government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan faces important elections in the autumn and must be sensitive to public opinion, which is outraged by Israel's actions. Stronger actions are sure to follow. That much was implied when an angry Erdogan told his AK Party at its weekly meeting that Israel's “irresponsible, heedless, unlawful attitude that defies any human virtue should definitely, but definitely, be punished.” But the biggest casualty of all will be American policy in the Middle East, much of which is predicated on strong ties between Turkey and Israel.

The linkage is obvious: Turkey is populated by Muslims, is a NATO member and a democracy. Israel is a Jewish state, America's closest military ally in the Arab part of the Middle East and a democracy. Close cooperation between the two countries has been fostered over decades. Trade alone between Israel and Turkey is worth a reported $2.5 billion a year. A fair amount of that trade is in military equipment. For example, after the United States declined to sell Turkey drone aircraft, Israel stepped in and has been manufacturing drones for the Turkish military. This closeness has provided a foundation for successive American presidents to pursue diplomatic initiatives aimed at peace between Israel and its neighbors. The best recent example is the attempt to bring Syria in from the cold.

Toward the end of his presidency, George W. Bush pushed Israel and Syria to begin negotiations on their disputes going back to the Israeli capture of the Golan Heights during the Six-Day War in 1967. Israel had big potential upsides in reaching an accord to return the Golan: recognition and security guarantees from Syria that would have ended Bashir al-Assad's support for Hezbollah on the Israeli border with Lebanon. The big positive for the U.S. in the talks was the prospect of prying apart Syria's alliance with Iran and re-orienting the country westward.

These talks, secret at first, were held under Turkish auspices. Muslim country, honest broker. As recently as a year ago, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, at an Ankara press conference, said the importance of an agreement between Israel and Syria "cannot be overstated."

The Syrian diplomatic track had been quiet for a while but Monday's events have effectively killed it off for the foreseeable future.