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Another potential foreign policy headache popped up late last month when a Turkish court formally pressed criminal charges against four Israeli generals for their alleged involvement in the deaths of nine activists aboard a Turkish ship, the Mavi Marmara, that tried to break Israel’s blockade of Gaza in 2010. Eight of the activists were Turkish nationals and one was an American of Turkish ancestry.
Israel began the blockade in 2007, after Hamas took power in Gaza, in an effort to restrict the flow of weapons to Islamist militants there. Israel has the right to defend itself and that includes stopping vessels attempting to run the blockade, by force if necessary. That’s why Israeli commandos boarded the Mavi Mamara after it refused orders to turn back. Even a United Nations panel looking into the incident agreed that Israel is justified in imposing the blockade, although it claimed the commandos used excessive force when they encountered violent resistance.
Since the 2010 incident, Turkey has insisted that Israel apologize for its action and pay compensation to the victims. Israel isn’t about to back down as Islamic militants pose a constant military threat. Actually, I don’t expect the Israelis to do anything in reaction to this latest Turkish provocation as I don’t think they want to escalate tensions.
All of this, however, presents a problem for the United States. Both countries are old American allies and Turkey hosts an American Air Force base. During the Cold War Turkey was on NATO’s front line with the Soviet Union.
The Cold War is long over and the Soviet Union is gone, but an escalating spat between two old and valuable allies puts us in an awkward situation. Oh, and let’s not forget that both are democracies in a part of the world where monarchs and despots have been the rule.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s prime minister, seems to have decided in the last few years to make efforts to enhance Turkey’s clout and prestige in the region. One of the ways he appears to have chosen is to confront Israel over Gaza. It’s a good way to score points with his Arab neighbors and nothing that he’s done, so far, has threatened to escalate into something dangerous. He’s still on very safe ground.
Will it stay that way? The Obama Administration needs to take this situation very seriously. We really don’t want to see a confrontation between two valuable allies escalate. However, Israel has a right to defend itself and we can’t insist that an ally compromise its security. Turkey’s security is not being threatened by what Israel does in Gaza, so Turkey and its new neighborhood foreign policy is the problem.
At this point, I don’t know what our government can do about this situation. Perhaps the only thing President Obama can do is hope for the best, or at least hope that it doesn’t turn into a crisis before he gets voted out of office in November, leaving President Romney to figure out how to deal with it.
Nevertheless, President Obama needs to give a lot of thought toward how we can convince Prime Minister Erdogan that it would be a good idea for him to find other ways to enhance Turkey’s regional influence. While his policy has not come anywhere near to putting Turkey on thin ice, no leader is infallible and there is always a risk that he could make a mistake and put himself into a situation that he won’t be able to climb down from and Israel won’t be able to tolerate.
I don’t know what sort of leverage we have with the Turkish government. The Obama Administration certainly needs to consider how best to apply whatever we have to convince Turkey to go no further in its confrontation with Israel. I doubt that getting them to back down is realistic, but a crisis can be averted if the Turks don’t push the situation further.
Let’s hope the Obama Administration’s foreign policy geniuses can come up with something that works.