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.
There is more to the story, of course. Turkish relations with the U.S. have been changing perceptibly since the run-up to the Iraq War. The then-newly elected government of Prime Minister Erdogan took the significant step of denying the American military the right to invade Iraq through Turkey. Since then, Erdogan has consolidated his authority and Turkey has been more willing to create its own diplomatic initiatives including last month's agreement — negotiated with Brazil — to process Iranian-enriched uranium. The agreement threw a wrench into the U.S.'s half-decade-long attempt to force Iran to disband its nuclear program or at least open it to greater scrutiny.
The deeper question for policymakers in Washington as they rethink their strategy following Israel's actions Monday is whether they can understand what is happening in Turkey. Too much commentary emanating from the Potomac indicates they do not. The conservative think tanks that shape so much of the foreign policy discourse in America have decided that Erdogan is an Islamist — a wholly pejorative term. He is not, of course. He is a religious nationalist, in the way so many members of the Republican Party are religious nationalists, although Erdogan's piety seems to be for real, as opposed to those Christian Republicans who seem to think that the Seventh Commandment against committing adultery is optional.
Turkey is not, as predicted by Ayaan Hirsi Ali and others, being overrun by Islamist hordes. The commentary from Turkey today demonstrates that the country is still a fairly firm, rational democracy as this editorial more in sorrow than anger from the newspaper Hurriyet (Liberty) demonstrates: "It [the Israeli assault] is a tragedy for those activists who have lost their lives. It is a tragedy for the Palestinians of Gaza. Above all it is a tragedy for the people of Israel, victims too of a vain and foolish government." Would the commentary in America be as measured if a group of American Christian activists on a mercy mission to another country where they felt that fellow Christians were being oppressed were interdicted on the high seas and nine of them slain?
In seeking to save what can be saved after Israel's actions, the Obama administration needs to accept a fact of the contemporary world. One of the things overestimated too often by the policymakers and diplomats in Washington, London and other democratic capitals like Ankara is their ability to shape opinion. They can't. Public opinion is shaped elsewhere: online or in the bazaar or at church or the mosque. Politicians must understand that the public votes you into government and your diplomacy must be as sensitive to the public will as your domestic policies.
Public opinion in Turkey has been turning against Israel for most of the last decade. It has also been turning against America, both for its unquestioning support of Israel and the war in Iraq. Popular culture reflects this in hideous pieces of agitprop like "Valley of the Wolves," the most expensive film in Turkish history. The smoldering resentment against Israel burst into flame yesterday. No government that wants to stay in office will operate a diplomatic policy that runs counter to it.
The Obama administration's diplomacy must address that public opinion if it hopes to have a chance of achieving even the smallest policy objectives during its remaining time in office.