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Turkey, Israel, USA: A careful balancing act

As the United States withdraws its forces from Iraq, it is expecting a re-emerging Turkey to be a force of stability in the region. This U.S. interest in a stable Turkish power fits well with Ankara’s own ambitions to become a major global player. Turkish goals, however, require that it move away from its decades-old relationship with Israel and take a much tougher stance against its traditional ally. And this makes the U.S. challenge in the region even more daunting as it tries to engage in a careful balancing act between the two.

Analysis

Following a meeting with British Foreign Secretary William Hague in London on July 8, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu renewed Turkish demands for Israel to either apologize or accept an international investigation over the May 31 Israeli commando raid on a Turkish aid flotilla heading to the Gaza Strip that left nine Turkish nationals dead. Davutoglu said that if Israel failed to take either step, it would cause a severe deterioration of already-strained relations. The statement comes after Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman ruled out any chance of an official apology.

The poor state of affairs between Turkey and Israel is complicating the U.S. calculus for the region. As the United States withdraws its forces from Iraq, it is expecting a re-emerging Turkey to be a force of stability in the region, which is facing fragmentation because of the U.S.-jihadist war. And the U.S. interest in a stable Turkish power fits well with Ankara’s own ambitions of becoming a major global player.

Turkish goals, however, require that it move away from its decades-old relationship with Israel and take a much tougher stance against its erstwhile ally in order to emerge as the main player in the largely Arab Middle East and the wider Islamic world. It is for this reason that the Turks have adopted an increasingly critical stance against Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians, culminating in a Turkish-Israeli quarrel in the wake of the flotilla crisis. Since then, Turkey has been calling on the United States to pressure Israel into heeding its demands.

Turkey has been unsuccessful at getting what it wants because the Americans are not willing to engage in a relationship with the Turks at the expense of the Israelis. From Washington’s point of view, while it needs Ankara more than Jerusalem at this time, it is not interested in taking sides. Both Turkey and Israel are American allies, and at a time when it has no shortage of issues to deal with in the region and beyond, Washington does not want the bilateral quarrel between the two to further complicate matters.

As it is, the United States must deal with Turkey’s push toward independent-player status, which means that Ankara will not always behave as a quintessential ally of Washington. For Turkey to act as a force of stability in the Middle East, it needs to balance itself between the West and the Islamic world in order to secure its influence on both sides. It cannot be a regional leader if it is being seen as simply toeing the U.S./Western line. For this reason, Turkey opposed the U.S.-led move to impose fresh sanctions on Iran. And on the Palestinian issue, Ankara’s policy is focused on Gaza and calls for engaging the radical Islamist movement Hamas, while the United States and Israel want to deal with West Bank-based secular movement Fatah.

The United States also has had problems with Israel. There is a divergence of interests regarding Iran, with whom the United States has to do business but who remains a major security threat to Israel. On the Palestinian issue, the Obama administration has only recently gotten the Netanyahu government to offer concessions to move forward with peace negotiations.

Then there are concerns within Israel that the Obama administration is not as committed to Israel’s national security as previous U.S. administrations have been. In a July 8 interview with Israel’s Channel 2, U.S. President Barack Obama acknowledged such concerns and said they likely stem from his outreach policy toward the Muslim world. With Turkey shifting its posture toward Israel, the Israelis expect the United States to help them deal with the emerging regional situation.

The United States has, in fact, not supported the Turkish position in the flotilla incident, which has angered Turkey. The Obama administration is reportedly looking into the Turkish non-governmental organization IHH, which organized the aid flotilla that tried to break the Gaza blockade on May 31, after being asked by Israel to add the organization to its official list of terrorist organizations, which would further raise tensions with Turkey.

But Washington can’t go too far in supporting Jerusalem in its feud with Ankara, given the U.S. need for Turkish assistance on a host of critical regional issues. So the United States will have to engage in a careful balancing act between Turkey and Israel to prevent their quarrel from making an already shaky region even less stable.

STRATFOR

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Posted by on Jul 10 2010 Filed under Security & Geopolitics. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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