Opinion: Israel’s search for regional allies

BOSTON — Given the nature of Israel’s relations with its Arab neighbors during the last six decades, a north star of Israeli foreign policy has been to try to find a non-Arab power in the region with which to forge an alliance.

When I lived in Israel, nearly 35 years ago, that non-Arab power was Iran in the days of the Shah. You could fly non-stop from Tel Aviv to Tehran on El Al, the Israeli national airline. Israel didn’t have an actual embassy in Tehran, but it had a trade mission that served as an embassy, and there was cooperation between the two security services. Iran, a Muslim nation but not Arab, had plenty to fear from Iraq, and Israel was still technically at war with most of the Arab world.

Through no fault of Israel’s, that arrangement fell apart when the Shah was overthrown in 1979. The United States, too, had put a lot of chips on the Shah, with Nixon and Kissinger hoping to make Iran a surrogate policeman of the Persian Gulf.

Gradually, Israel’s eyes turned to Turkey — a Muslim, yet secular state and the next logical choice. The Ottoman empire had welcomed Jews when they were expelled from Spain in 1492, and in 1992 the Jewish community in Istanbul celebrated its 500th anniversary.

To have a military power as considerable as Turkey, and a NATO member as well, just a couple of Arab countries to the north was of great strategic and political value to Israel.

More recently that vital tie for Israel has begun to fray and fall apart. Some would have it that the Islamic-leaning government now in power was less inclined to be nice to Israel, but I think that would be a misreading of events. Recep Tayyip Erdogan took pride in trying to help Israel make a deal with Syria, and presided over indirect talks between the two.

I believe it was the Gaza war in the winter of 2008-2009 that pushed Turkish public opinion into the negative column as far as Israel was concerned.

The confrontation between Erdogan and Israeli president, Shimon Peres, at Davos in the winter of 2009, did not help. In one of my first dispatches to the brand new GlobalPost, I described how Peres lost his cool and began shouting at Erdogan and waiving his finger in the Turkish Prime Minister’s face. Erdogan had been criticizing Israel for excessive force in Gaza when Peres began to shout. When the World Economic Forum refused to give Erodgan what he considered sufficient time to respond he walked off the stage.

The antics of Israel’s deputy foreign minister, Danny Ayalon, when he publicly humiliated the Turkish ambassador to Israel was another blow to the relationship.

But the latest incident, which ended in Turkish citizens being shot to death by Israeli forces in international waters, was the most serious of all, and it will be something of a miracle if the relationship can ever be fully repaired.

The interception of the Gaza blockade-running ship was reminiscent of the famous “Exodus,” the beat-up tramp that tried to smuggle Holocaust survivors into Palestine in the days of the British Mandate. The British tried to board the ship, the passengers tried to resist, and the British opened fire, killing three. No matter whether the blockade was legal or not, the world was revolted and a new sympathy for the Zionist cause was born.

That sympathy is leaching away now, as the trust that Israel put in military force has backfired. The wanton destruction of Lebanon’s infrastructure — including bombing a lighthouse near Beirut — in the name of punishing Hezbollah, caused dismay even among Israel’s friends. Then came the more ferocious attack on Gaza.

Israel feels it needs to maintain a reputation for frightfulness in the Middle East to cow Arabs. As New York Times columnist Tom Friedman once wrote, Israel keeps two sets of books — one for the West, in which Israel is to be seen as a liberal democracy in the European tradition, the other for the Arabs in which Israel is brutal, taking two eyes and an ear for any one eye.

Since Lebanon ended up looking like a win for Hezbollah, Israel worried about its prestige and used rough tactics in Gaza to restore the terror it hoped to instill. In Turkey, however, this backfired and the Turks began to slip away from the Israeli alliance.

Now that America is fighting two wars against Muslim countries, the U.S. military recognizes that although they may be fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, the power of the Palestinian problem, and Israel’s continued occupation, is what a British Foreign Minister called extremism’s greatest “recruiting sergeant."

Already one can see Israel’s supporters in this country beginning to attack Turkey, whereas in the past the Israel lobby has been helpful to Turkey. That may change now that Turkey is denouncing Israel.

Some American foreign policy gurus have written that with our main problem in Afghanistan and Pakistan, maybe the Palestinian problem isn’t really so important. It is a short-sighted conception, for sooner or later the plight of the Palestinians comes back to kick us in the pants.

Some Israelis, too, are saying that with their economy doing well and no recent suicide bombers, maybe the status quo is acceptable and maybe peace with the Palestinians isn’t necessary.

That will all come tumbling down with the next Palestinian uprising which is as sure to come as night follows day, unless the curse of occupation can be lifted from Israel and the Palestinians alike.