The U.S. Role in Warming Israeli-Turkish Relations

8 MINS READMar 28, 2013 | 10:45 GMT
The U.S. Role in Warming Israeli-Turkish Relations
Israeli President Shimon Peres (L) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) walk with U.S. President Barack Obama on March 22
Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images

The recent thaw in tensions between Israel and Turkey will have little impact on the countries' long-term relationship. Though Israel and Turkey have certain common interests, the Turkish government in Ankara can be expected to maintain distance from Israel while attempting to exert influence in the surrounding region. Turkey will use its acceptance of the U.S.-brokered apology by Israel on March 22 over the Mavi Marmara flotilla incident in 2010 to try to secure stronger U.S. backing for its policies in the region. The United States, meanwhile, will continue to be selective in its involvement in the Middle East. Washington's recent diplomatic feat in Israel was intended to expand U.S. options, both by opening a door for greater coordination with Turkey and by reasserting U.S. primacy in its relationship with Israel.

U.S. President Barack Obama's success in pressuring Israel to apologize may have appeared rushed and lacking in diplomatic fanfare, but it illustrated how the United States intends to manage the increasingly volatile region. For example, U.S. restraint in Syria has shown that Washington intends to involve itself less directly in the Middle East, to whatever extent this is possible, in order to focus more on other parts of the world. This strategy requires the United States to strengthen like-minded countries such as Turkey to maintain a balance of power in the region and reduce the need for a costly intervention.

The openly hostile relationship between Turkey and Israel has made it difficult politically for the White House to advance its relationship with Ankara without appearing to sacrifice the interests of its long-time ally. But Obama also needed to assert control over the U.S. relationship with Israel, which tried to force the United States into action on Iran by threatening to unilaterally strike the country and by using its relationships in the U.S. Congress to pressure the president. Any attempt by Israel to act unilaterally against Iran would face severe constraints, but the United States still needs to limit the possibility of getting pulled into a conflict it would rather avoid. Obama carefully appealed to Israeli concerns while in the country, but his ability to push Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu into issuing an apology toward the end of the visit offered a tangible demonstration of U.S. dominance over Israeli foreign policy. 

Turkey's Interests

Ever since Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan harshly criticized Israel at the World Economic Forum in 2009, Ankara has tried to use its confrontational stance toward Israel to build credibility in the Muslim world. But this strategy has limits: While Turkey may have gained favor among its neighbors, Ankara's ability to affect Israeli action has diminished. This reality was starkly on display during Israel's Pillar of Cloud operation in the Gaza Strip in late 2012. While Egypt demonstrated its ability to influence the behavior of both Israel and Hamas by negotiating and enforcing a cease-fire, Turkey appeared powerless to do much in spite of its mediation efforts.

Turkey quibbled over the exact phrasing of the March 22 Israeli concession to ensure it was termed an "apology" rather than an "expression of regret." It did this because eliciting an apology from Israel, whose willingness to take unilateral action is strongly resented across the region, carries enormous symbolic value. The diplomatic victory came at a critical political juncture for Erdogan: The Turkish prime minister is trying to combat the growing perception that Ankara is impotent in foreign affairs while also attempting to negotiate a cease-fire with Kurdish militants and rewrite Turkey's constitution. Factions from across the Turkish political spectrum have praised the ruling party for securing the Israeli apology, eagerly heralding the move as a restoration of Turkish confidence in the region. Erdogan will use this newfound political capital as he pursues thornier domestic issues in the months ahead.

Turkey also hopes to use warmer relations with Israel to strengthen ties with the United States. Without U.S. backing, Turkey — still early in its resurgence as a regional power — has struggled to exert influence in the Middle East and achieve tangible results and is looking to Washington to reinforce its positions throughout the region. In Syria, Turkey has been pushing for stronger U.S. support for Sunni rebels. In Iraq, Turkey needs U.S. political backing to counter Iran more effectively and to strengthen energy ties with the Kurdistan Regional Government. In the Caucasus, Turkey wants greater U.S. involvement in Georgia and Azerbaijan to balance out Russia's growing influence. Though the United States is unlikely to become as involved in such areas as Turkey hopes, easing tensions with Israel could help facilitate a U.S.-Turkish strategic dialogue on many of these issues. 

Turkey also had energy politics in mind when it considered restoring a working relationship with Israel. Over the past couple years, Ankara has watched in frustration as Israel and Cyprus attracted foreign investors to develop the countries' offshore natural gas reserves. To compensate for its soured ties with Turkey, Israel had aligned more closely with Greece and Cyprus, leaving Ankara on the sidelines of energy development in the eastern Mediterranean. Turkish officials have talked openly about Ankara's interest in developing an undersea pipeline with Israel to link the country to the European market — a project that would involve a multitude of political and technical complications. For its part, Israel wants to use its energy assets to reinforce strategic political relationships in the region. But part of what Turkey hopes to achieve by establishing a working relationship with Israel is to undermine the Israeli-Cypriot energy partnership and deter further cooperation between Israel and Greece in what Ankara considers its geopolitical domain. 

While Turkey may have mended ties with Israel, at least on the surface, Ankara will remain somewhat distant. For example, Turkey issued only a restrained response to Netanyahu's apology, and Erdogan said on March 25 that ties cannot be fully normalized until Israel lifts its blockade of Gaza. Turkey's goal is to reinforce its credibility as a regional alternative to the United States — one capable of dealing effectively with Israel while retaining popular support both at home and in the near abroad.

In light of the supposed Israeli-Turkish reconciliation, the United States may hope to elicit stronger cooperation from Turkey against Iran, but Ankara will still need to exercise caution in how it deals with Tehran. Turkey has carefully balanced its competition with Iran in Syria and Iraq by cooperating with Tehran in other areas, such as helping the Iranian regime circumvent U.S. sanctions. Iran remains a significant supplier of natural gas to Turkey, and the robust trade links between the two countries have helped keep the geopolitical rivalry from escalating. Moreover, the prospect of closer coordination among Turkey, Israel and the United States against Iran — while Ankara is trying to maintain a delicate truce with militants from the Kurdish Workers' Party — could spur threats or attempts by the Iranian and Syrian regimes to facilitate Kurdish attacks. Turkey's sensitivity to Kurdish militancy and Iran's ability to exploit this concern will affect the degree of Ankara's cooperation with Jerusalem and Washington against Tehran.

Israel's Lack of Options

Achieving National Security in the Periphery

Israel Periphery

Israel is facing the uncomfortable reality that the strategic foundation that has defined the U.S.-Israeli relationship since 1973 has weakened considerably. During the Cold War, Israel was an integral part of the U.S. strategy to balance Soviet-backed Egypt and Syria. Today, Israel can do little to substantially affect the conflicts happening near its borders. The violent fragmentation of Syria and Lebanon in the northern Levant is among the most urgent drivers of Israel's need to re-establish a working relationship with Turkey — an impetus expressed by Netanyahu himself in a statement on March 23. And while Israeli leaders also frequently emphasize the urgency of the Iranian nuclear situation, Israel's inability to carry out a unilateral military strike against Iran and handle the political and military consequences of such an operation without the United States means it cannot detach itself from U.S. policy in the region.

If Israel cannot afford to alienate the United States while the Middle East is destabilizing, then it also cannot avoid Turkey. Ankara still faces substantial barriers to its influence in the Arab world, but it has succeeded in cultivating ties throughout the region, particularly among Islamist groups whose relevance has been growing at the expense of regimes relied upon by Israel for decades to maintain a regional balance of power. Moreover, despite Turkey's limitations, Washington sees strengthening relations with Ankara as a strategic way to influence the region, while the U.S. relationship with Israel is a liability toward this end. Therefore, Israel needs Turkey far more than Turkey needs Israel in order to maintain its relationship with the United States.

The subordination of Israeli policy to U.S. interests is not easily acknowledged, but it was arguably the most important result of Obama's trip to the region. The United States now has a much lower tolerance for Israeli efforts to force policy preferences on Washington. And the more Israel's vulnerabilities grow, the more it will need to rely on the United States to help mitigate threats on its borders. The United States would like to rely more on Turkey to help manage the region, but Washington first needs a closer relationship with Ankara to shape areas of common interest. Though Turkey will place limits on how far it goes in working with Israel, even a diplomatic gesture between these two powers could facilitate the U.S. strategy to manage this volatile region from a distance.

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