The Israel factor in tense Turkey-US relations

Regardless of the consequences of the current tension between Turkey and the United States, and how the two sides will resolve the current dispute, it is considered to be the most severe crisis between them in a long time. The last occasion of such magnitude was probably the arms embargo imposed on Turkey by America in 1975 due to its military intervention in Cyprus the year before.

The Turks reflect now on how the dependency that characterised their country’s relationship with Washington during the Cold War did not protect it from US superiority on several occasions. The most notable examples of such treatment were the deployment of US ballistic missiles in Turkey during the Cuban missile crisis; President Johnson’s famous message to Prime Minister Ismet Inonu about Turkish designs on Cyprus; and the above-mentioned arms embargo. Other issues have included sanctions on ministers and the withdrawal of visas from citizens of both countries.

There are a number of reasons for the tense Turkey-US relations that occasionally blow-up in different ways. Washington’s support for the armed Kurdish factions in Syria, for example, and its protection of Fethullah Gülen; and Ankara’s rapprochement with Moscow (including the S400 air defence missile deal and energy projects) and Tehran. It is clear that the foreign policies of the two countries are more conflicting than ever before, with relations on a downward spiral and deteriorating over recent years.

Why has this happened in the Trump era? Are there other factors operating below the radar?

2017 was a year of chaos and instability under the Donald J. Trump doctrine - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

2017 was a year of chaos and instability under the Donald J. Trump doctrine – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

The truth is that Trump’s personality in itself serves as an explanation for the disruption of positive relations between Washington and Ankara. With no previous political experience, the US President has succeeded in ruining his country’s longstanding ties with a number of its allies, particularly the Europeans, in exchange for his cordial meetings with the Presidents of Russia and North Korea, as well as a generous invitation to the Iranian President to meet and talk. However, this does not seem to be enough to understand how the relationship between the United States and Turkey, tied by their NATO membership and strategic partnership since 1995, has sunk to the level of “sanctions” of a kind that Washington usually uses against the “axis of evil” or “rogue states”.

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We should not, therefore, rule out other factors related to the Trump administration and its policies, the most notable of which is Israel. It is a fact that the security of Israel and its military and security superiority in the Middle East are at the centre of US foreign policy in the region, and have been since the Cold War era. There is no sign of any change in this regard.

It is also useful to note that relations between Turkey and the US, especially under the government of the Justice and Development Party, was relatively warm and calm in 2010/11, since when waves of tension have been noticeable. While this is usually attributed to the tendency of Turkey’s foreign policy to veer towards independence from America’s and Europe’s, it does not negate the fact that these two periods coincide strikingly with Turkey’s periods of communication and estrangement with Israel.

The Justice and Development Party began with normal and sometimes good relations with Israel. The then Foreign Minister, Abdullah Gul and then Prime Minister (now President) Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Israel in 2005. Moreover, Turkey mediated between Israel and Syria in indirect negotiations in 2008. However, 2009 witnessed the Davos forum incident when Erdogan walked off the stage in protest at Israel’s military offensive against the Palestinians in Gaza in 2008/9. This was followed by diplomatic relations being cut when Israeli commandos hijacked the Turkish-registered Mavi Marmara, part of a humanitarian aid flotilla heading for the besieged Gaza Strip in 2010; nine Turkish citizens were killed in the raid, with a tenth dying later of his wounds.

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Although Turkey and Israel agreed to re-establish relations in 2016, this did not bridge the confidence and trust gap between them. Although fully restored, the diplomatic links did not match those of the 1990s, when each considered the other to be a strategic ally.

The key US foreign policy priority, of course, is that Israel must be protected and supported at any cost, allowing its colonisation of Palestine to continue unhindered, even to the extent of denouncing the long-accepted aim of a two-state solution. America’s ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, is strident in her protection of Israel at the international assembly; the US Ambassador to Israel lives in an illegal settlement; and Trump’s team is made up predominately of Republican eagle forum members and supporters of Israel, including his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who has strong links to Israeli settlements. There is no doubt whatsoever that putting Israel’s interests above all else is a cornerstone of America’s Middle East policy.

Hence, it is important to note the positions taken recently by Ankara in the face of both Washington and Tel Aviv regarding the Palestinian issue, not least the move of the US Embassy to Jerusalem. Turkey led an international and Muslim effort against the decision, and has had a growing role within Jerusalem itself, which has apparently troubled the Israelis and some other parties.

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It is true that trade between Turkey and Israel is growing, and that Turkish rhetoric isn’t always matched by actions, but it still clearly angers the Israeli leadership, not least when Erdogan described Israel as a terrorist state and likened Netanyahu to Hitler. It seems that Washington and Tel Aviv insist on full approval for Israel’s actions against the Palestinians, or silence; there is no room for anyone to make hostile statements in their world view.

In conclusion, therefore, despite several justified reasons linked directly to Turkey-US relations, we cannot overlook the Israel factor in the crisis between Ankara and Washington. The recent US escalation came after a relative breakthrough in relations in the form of agreement over the Syrian city of Manbij and the appointment of a US Ambassador in Ankara. We have also seen Washington deliver F35 fighter jets to Ankara, and the US pastor being held in Turkey since 2016 has been transferred from prison to house arrest. All of this is relatively positive, but we should still keep reminding ourselves to look to Tel Aviv. The Israel factor is key to the tension in Turkey-US relations.

This article first appeared in Arabic in Arabi21 on 6 August 2018