Commentary | September 13, 2011

Turkey's Gambit to Israel

Turkey has offered a “gambit” to Israel. This term from the game of chess, often used in diplomacy, implies a possible loss for the offering side, with the aim of securing a greater gain or a concession from the other side. Prime Minister Erdogan, in expelling Israel’s senior diplomats, is trying to convince his counterpart Binyamin Netanyahu to apologize for the attack on the Gaza flotilla and pay compensation to the families of those killed. For the current Israeli government, this trade-off carries too high a cost. The game may be heading for stalemate, as long as these two Prime Ministers are the players.

It seems therefore, if we are to credit Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey’s foreign minister, with the diplomatic talent so often ascribed to him, that there are now ambitions in play beyond the current game -- that is, outside the frame of the bilateral relationship. Turkey is now playing for a different Israel. This is not good news for Netanyahu.

Israel’s diplomatic environment may be at its most turbulent and uncertain for almost thirty years, even worse than during the two wars in Iraq in 1991 and 2003. The United States President has gone public on his insistence that Israel return to 1967 borders (with some land swaps), the United Nations General Assembly may recognize Palestine as a non-member state, and the Arab spring is playing itself out with profound effects in Syria, Egypt, Jordan and the Arabian peninsula. Turkey, which has powerful military forces, is downgrading its relations with Israel and challenging the legality of its blockade of Gaza. Disputes over Israel’s maritime resource boundaries have re-emerged in recent months. This all comes at a time of a persistent protest movement inside Israel against economic and social conditions, a movement inspired in part by the Arab spring. Terrorist attacks inside Israel continue and its government reports a reconstitution by Hamas of its military capabilities. Netanyahu’s promotion of his ambition for Israel to be recognized as a Jewish state as part of peace settlements runs against the demographic trends inside Israel, which will see the Arab share  of the population rise from its current 20 per cent to 25 per cent several decades hence.  However, it also offends the moral sensibility of Israel’s neighbors. 

What does Turkey want? It wants nothing more than a normalization of its regional environment. Since the uprising and associated violence in Syria, that ambition seems shattered and stability seems to have disappeared. Turkey has had a rather public spat with Iran over how to respond to events in Syria, even as Erdogan announced plans for a visit to Egypt this week. There is talk of a new security agreement of some sort between the two countries, and Turkey has been campaigning in support of the UN General Assembly resolution to recognize Palestine as a state.

In short, Turkey has laid down the gauntlet. It seems that Turkey refuses to return to the status quo where Israel was conducting its Palestine policy with no significant interference from Turkey. Turkey at government level is now threatening to take on the role of spoiler against Israel. The moral and legal challenge that the government of Turkey has now taken to the international stage against Israel is unambiguously a sharp turn in policy. It was a decision not taken lightly, yet Turkish citizens were killed in a manner that made any other policy path for Erdogan impossible.

Only time will tell, but we may come to remember the Erdogan/Davutoglu gambit to Israel in September 2011 as a major departure point for a new reckoning in regional affairs. We will probably have to wait for Netanyahu to leave office before that new reckoning can begin to take shape. 

Click here to read Austin's piece in New Europe