BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN — “Even despots, gangsters and pirates have specific sensitiveness, (and) follow some specific morals,” said Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in a recent speech following the deadly commando raid on the humanitarian aid flotilla to Gaza on May 31.
The statement alone indicates the momentous political shift that’s now under way in the Middle East. While the shift isn’t entirely new, one dares to claim it might now be a lasting one. To borrow from Erdogan’s own assessment of the political fallout that followed Israel’s raid, the damage is “irreparable.”
The long-planned and calculated Israeli attack on the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara claimed the lives of one American and eight Turkish peace activists.
In “Turkey’s Strategic U-turn, Israel’s Tactical Mistakes,” published in the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, Ofra Bengio chastises Israel for driving Turkey further and faster “toward the Arab and Muslim worlds.”
In “Today’s Zaman,” a Turkish publication, Bulent Kenes wrote, “As a result of Davos (where the Turkish prime minister stormed out of a televised discussion with Israeli President Shimon Peres after accusing him and Israel of murder), the myth that Israel is untouchable was destroyed by Erdogan, and because of that Israel nurses a hatred for Turkey.”
In fact, the Davos incident is significant not because it demonstrates that Israel can be criticized, but rather because it was Turkey that dared to voice such criticism.
Writing in the Financial Times under the headline, “Erdogan turns to face east in a delicate balancing act,” David Gardner places Turkey’s political turn within a European context. He sums up with a quote uttered by no other than U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates: “If there is anything to the notion that Turkey is moving eastward, it is in no small part because it was pushed, and pushed by some in Europe who have refused to give Turkey the kind of organic link to the West that Turkey sought.”
There is a larger political and historical context that not only pertains to Israel and Turkey, but also to the whole region and its players, including the United States. This context helps to explain the logic behind Israel’s seemingly erratic behavior.
In 1996, Israeli leaders appeared very confident after a group of neoconservative American politicians laid out a “road map” for Israel that ensured Israel’s complete dominance over the Middle East.
In the document titled “A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm,” Turkey was mentioned four times. Each reference envisaged the country as a tool to “contain, destabilize, and roll back some of . . . (the) most dangerous threats” to Israel. That very “vision” in fact served as the backbone of the larger strategy used by the U.S. in carrying out its military adventures in the Middle East.
Frustrated by the American failure to reshape the region and unquestioningly eliminate anything and everything that Israel might perceive as a threat, Israel took matters into its own hands. However, in 2006 and between 2008 and 2009, it was up for major surprises. While Israel had once more demonstrated its capacity to inflict untold damage on people and infrastructure, Israeli weapons no longer seemed strategically effective. Israel’s military advantage was no longer translating into political gains, and this was a game changer.
There are many issues the Israeli leadership has had to wrangle with in recent years. The U.S., Israel’s most faithful benefactor, is now in crisis management mode in Iraq and Afghanistan, struggling on political, military and economic fronts. The recoil from that struggle has emboldened Israel’s enemies, who no longer appear intimidated by the American bogeyman. Israel’s desperate attempt to use its military to achieve its grand objectives has also failed miserably.
As options grow even more limited, Israel understands that Gaza is its last card. Ending the siege of Gaza could be viewed as another indication of political weakness, a risk Israel is not ready to take.
Turkey, on the other hand, has been fighting — and mostly winning — its own battles. Democracy in Turkey has never been as healthy and meaningful as it is today. Turkey has also eased its chase of the dangling carrot of EU membership, after some EU members arrogantly expressed their perception of Turkey as too large and too Muslim to be trusted.
Turkey’s popular government has not entered the Middle East political foray to pick fights. On the contrary, the Turkish government has for years been trying to serve as a peacemaker, a mediator between various parties. Turkey’s political shift was largely strategic but not ill-intentioned.
The uninvited Turkish involvement, however, is highly irritating to Israel. Turkey’s role was supposed to be limited to hosting indirect talks between Syria and Israel, for example. Turkey began to take increasingly determined political stances leading up to the Davos episode.
By participating in such a high capacity in the Gaza Freedom Flotilla, with firm intentions of breaking the siege of Gaza, Turkey escalated its involvement well beyond Israel’s comfort zone. Therefore, Israel needed a decisive response that would send a message to Turkey — and to others so daring. It’s ironic how the neoconservatives’ “A Clean Break” envisaged an Israeli violation of the political and geographic boundaries of its neighbors with the help of Turkey. Fourteen years later, it is Turkey, with representatives from 32 other countries, that has come with a peaceful armada to breach what Israel perceived as its political domain.
Erdogan’s statements and the popular support his government enjoys show that Turkey has decided to take on the Israeli challenge. The U.S. government was exposed as ineffectual and hostage to the failing Israeli agenda in the region, thanks to the lobby. Ironically it is now the neoconservatives who are leading the charge against Turkey, the very country they had hoped would become Israel’s willing ally in its apocalyptic vision.
Ramzy Baroud (www.ramzybaroud.net) is an internationally syndicated columnist and the editor of PalestineChronicle.com. His latest book is “My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story.”