Monday morning, Turkey took its anti-Israel campaign to a new level. Beyond downgrading diplomatic relations with Israel; beyond suspending military agreements; beyond threatening naval war; beyond threatening to foment an irredentist insurrection of Israeli Arabs; the Turks decided to terrorize Israeli tourists landing in Istanbul airport.
Forty Israeli passengers, mainly businessmen who had landed in Istanbul on a Turkish Airlines flight from Tel Aviv, were separated from the rest of the flight passengers. Their passports were confiscated.
They were placed in interrogation rooms and stripped down to their underwear. Their carry-on bags were checked. And then they were lined up against a wall, forbidden to sit down or use the washroom.
Passengers who contacted the Foreign Ministry said they felt frightened and intimidated.
The ordeal went on for 90 minutes, until Turkish authorities returned
their Israeli passports and permitted them to pick up their suitcases
and exit the airport.
What were the Turks trying to accomplish by terrifying the Israeli
tourists? They didn’t need to threaten trade ties. Their Foreign
Minister Ahmet Davutoglu already took care of that over the weekend.
The victimized Israelis said the Turkish airport authorities wouldn’t even answer their questions.
Any time we asked them a question, the tourists said, the Turks ignored us.
It was as if they weren’t even there.
And that’s the thing of it. The Turks didn’t harass the Israeli tourists
in order to send a message to Israel. They have nothing more to say to
us. We are non-entities to them. We’re only good for attacking.
No, Israel wasn’t the target audience the Turks were playing to on
Monday. Their target audience was the Islamic world generally and the
Arab world specifically. Turkey’s influence in these arenas skyrocketed
in January 2009 after Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan
accused President Shimon Peres and Israel of mass murder as the leaders
shared a stage at the Davos Conference.
Similarly Erdogan’s domestic and pan-Islamic support levels increased
steeply in the aftermath of the Turkish-supported pro-Hamas flotilla to
Gaza in 2010. After nine Turkish government-supported IHH terrorists
were killed aboard the Mavi Marmara when they tried to murder IDF naval
commandos who had lawfully boarded the ship, the Arabs hailed Erdogan as
a hero for bravely attacking Israel.
Given how well scapegoating Israel has served him, Erdogan clearly
believes it is a no-risk strategy for raising his star from Cairo to
Leftist Israeli commentators refuse to accept what is happening. Writing
in Haaretz on Sunday, Shlomo Avineri recommended that Israel compensate
the nine IHH members whom IDF commandos killed in self-defense on the
Mavi Marmara. Avineri argued that by refusing to do so, Israel was
playing into the hands of hardliners. True, “it won’t be easy, but we
need to grit our teeth and do the right thing,” he wrote.
Others have argued that Israel may be able to rebuild its strategic
relations with Turkey by selling Ankara more drones with which to kill
Iraqi and Turkish Kurds. The Turkish military claimed it killed 100
Kurdish fighters in its attacks last month in Iraq and along the
Turkish-Iraqi border. Israeli UAVs reportedly played a key role in the
bombing. But Turkey needs more. If we sell them more, the argument goes,
maybe they will see how useful we are and stop attacking us.
Aside from being morally reprehensible, these arguments fail to
recognize the basic reality that Turkey has no interest whatsoever in
rebuilding its ties with Israel. The once-important strategic alliance
is over and gone, and Israel cannot do anything about it. All Turkey
sees us as today is a scapegoat.
It has been argued by commentators on the Right that Turkey’s
abandonment of Israel is part and parcel of its abandonment of the US.
But this is a mischaracterization of Turkey’s policy toward the US.
Since 2003, Turkey has undertaken a series of actions that have harmed
US strategic interests. The first, of course, was Erdogan’s decision on
the eve of the Iraq War to deny the US military the right to invade
northern Iraq from Turkey.
The latest action was arguably Turkey’s joint air exercises with the Chinese Air Force last September.
Chinese jets en route to Turkey refueled in Iran. The exercise was a
clear signal that NATO member Turkey intends to exploit its alliance
with the US to build ties with the US’s chief geostrategic competitor.
Yet at the same time that Turkey has harmed the US, it has also taken
steps to assist it. Most recently, last week, Erdogan belatedly agreed
to station the high-powered US X-Band radar on its territory as part of a
missile defense system to protect NATO allies against the threat of
Iranian long-range missiles.
Turkey’s mixed policies toward the US reveal that unlike its position on
Israel, Turkey believes that it has an interest in maintaining its
alliance with the US. Its hostile behavior is more a function of
perceived US weakness than anything else. That is, Turkey is willing to
risk angering the US by undercutting it because it does not fear US
Turkey’s aggressive behavior might end if the US made Turkey pay a price for it.
To its credit, the Netanyahu government has not accepted the advice of
the Left and has refused to apologize to Turkey or pay compensation to
the families of those killed aboard the Marmara. Moreover, the
government has wisely used Turkey’s behavior as a means of building
strong bilateral ties with other victims of Turkish aggression. Over the
past two years, Israel has strongly upgraded is strategic ties with
Greece, Cyprus, Bulgaria and Romania. Israel should add to these
accomplishments by strengthening its ties to Armenia and to the Kurds of
Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran.
With newspapers running groundless stories about prospects for
reconstituting relations with Turkey, we need to recognize that what we
are experiencing now is the beginning, not the end, of Turkey’s slide
into the enemy camp. Erdogan is openly taking steps to transform Turkey
into an Islamic state along the lines of Iran. And the further he goes
down his chosen path, the more harshly and aggressively he will lash out
Given that scapegoating Israel is not a momentary lapse of reason on
Turkey’s part but a central aspect of a long-term regional strategy, it
is clear that Israel needs to meet Turkish aggression with more than
momentary courage in the face of intimidation and threats. Israel needs
to build on its already successful policy of forming a ring of alliances
around Turkey and develop a long-term military and diplomatic strategy
for containing and weakening it.