Renewed Israeli-Turkish ties in the new Middle East: American retreat offers Israel fresh choices

Prior to events on the Mavi Marmara four years ago, Jerusalem and Ankara had developed a political and military partnership.

By NEILL LOCHERY
May 25, 2014 22:22
4 minute read.
Marmara

Marmara. (photo credit: REUTERS/Osman Orsa)

 
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The rapprochement between Israel and Turkey will soon be formalized with an announcement of a $20 million compensation package for the families of the nine Turks who died aboard the Mavi Marmara during an Israeli commando raid to prevent the ship from breaching Israel’s blockade of Gaza. This will bring to an end a tense four-year stand-off that dented this once flourishing regional alliance. It also offers major opportunities for renewed future cooperation. While much of the potential for mutual gains will be at regional level, the Turkish government is also looking for Israel to knock open some doors for it on a global level.

Israel’s relationship with one of the two non-Arab countries in the Middle East (its relations with the other non-Arab country, Iran, remain more problematic) has been of vital importance to both parties.

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Prior to events on the Mavi Marmara four years ago, Jerusalem and Ankara had developed a political and military partnership. Israel sold huge amounts of its famed military hardware to the Turks who used it to help modernize Turkey’s aging military forces. On a political level both countries worked together to limit the spread of radical Islam in the region and to build bridges between Israel and the Gulf states.

Presently, there is a clear and pressing mutually beneficial agenda in limiting the potential of the Syrian civil war to ignite a wider conflict involving Lebanon, and potentially Jordan. On top of this, Ankara is seeking Israeli support in trying to minimize the increasing Kurdish involvement in the Syrian fighting. In return, the Israeli government hopes Turkey will use its close relationship with Palestinian leaders to help ensure that the recent breakdown in peace talks will not lead to an increase in violence against Israelis.

The widely held belief in the Turkish government that closer ties with Israel will help it gain more political support within the United States, however, might well prove to be misplaced, as American-Israeli relations are currently under great strain.

The effective American retreat from the Middle East has left a political vacuum in the region that both Moscow and Beijing have been quick to exploit. Several influential Israeli leaders, as a result, are looking to tilt Israel’s alliances away from the United States and toward Russia and China. The shift will not be dramatic, but has been softly underway for some time.

Americans are often quick to highlight the political and emotional links between Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and the United States, but the truth of the matter is that much of the rest of the Israeli government is increasingly less committed to the American camp. Recent events during the crisis in Ukraine, in which Israel refused to follow Washington’s tough response toward Russia, were a sure sign of things to come.

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All of this raises the important question – if Israel no longer feels obliged to follow President Obama’s lead in foreign policy, where does that leave the annual $3 billion of aid that Washington provides to Israel? Of this, around $1.8b. comes in the form of military aid – a credit note for Israel to spend in the American military industrial complex on hardware or joint research and development projects. This money is of vital importance to American jobs in the military industry, much of which is located in California – with all its electoral significance.

The remaining aid is of an economic nature, and there are already calls in Israel for the country to no longer accept this aid. With the Israeli economy looking in overall better shape than at any other point in its history, there is a strong case for Washington to negotiate a cut or termination of this part of its annual aid to Israel. From an Israeli perspective, it makes more sense to negotiate a potential reduction in aid at this time – from a position of relative economic strength.

Moreover, if Israel can free itself from American economic ties its room for maneuver in its trading ties with Russia and China will be all the greater.

China remains keen to buy Israel’s high-tech military hardware, particularly missile technology, though, to date, the United States has blocked most of the sales. Many of the younger generation of Israeli leaders who are waiting in the wings to take over from Netanyahu perceive Israel’s future as lying more in the economic orbit of Russia, China and Europe than in that of the United States.

It is with these trading partners that Turkey will likely prosper on Israeli coattails. The irony of this situation is not lost on Israeli leaders. Close ties to Israel once led to regional isolation, but not any more. All of this says a lot about Israel’s position in the new Middle East.

The writer is the Catherine Lewis Professor of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean Studies at University College London.

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