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Opinion: Israel’s search for regional allies

Following Israel's raid of Turkey's blockade-running ship, it will be a miracle if the relationship between the two can ever be fully repaired.

masked hamas member
A masked member of Hamas stands in front of a banner depicting Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan during a protest in Central Gaza Strip, June 4, 2010, against Israel's interception of Gaza-bound ships. Israeli marines stormed a Turkish aid ship bound for Gaza on Monday and at least nine pro-Palestinian activists were killed, triggering a diplomatic crisis and an emergency session of the U.N. Security Council. (Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters)

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.