The Netanyahu government has all but declared war on the Obama administration and then openly disses a vital ally, Turkey.
The Netanyahu government certainly shares in the blame for the deterioration in relations with both Washington and Ankara, but there are several factors here that this statement obscures. First of all, the Netanyahu government is not Israel, and it does not represent all of Israel, so the attitude problem Andrew identifies is not “Israel’s attitude,” but the attitude of a government whose largest two parties received a distinct minority of the vote at the last election. After Lieberman was given the foreign affairs portfolio, we had to expect that the conduct of Israeli foreign policy was going to become more combative, short-sighted and reckless. Lieberman is proving to be a perfect foil for Erdogan’s demagogic posturing on foreign policy and the growing anti-Israel sentiment in the Turkish public. Israelis can see the results of this kind of foreign policy, and it seems unlikely that they are going to reward it. Already the government is being excoriated for its incompetence:
The Israeli media on Thursday slammed the government’s handling of a diplomatic row with Turkey in which it humiliated Ankara’s ambassador and then retreated with public apologies.
Incredibly, the one Israeli paper that has come to the defense of Ayalon and Lieberman has been Ha’aretz on the grounds that the pair were defending national honor!
Turkish-Israeli relations have been in decline since at least 2006. That increasingly negative sentiment in Turkey did not come out of nowhere, nor is it simply the product of AKP propaganda or of the “eastern” or “Islamic” tilt of Turkish policy. Prior to the war in Lebanon, which was extremely unpopular in Turkey, Erdogan’s government enjoyed reasonably good relations with Israel. Even before the Gaza operation, Erdogan was operating as a trusted go-between with Syria. Gaza was really the turning point, when Erdogan felt that he had been deceived by Olmert during the days leading up to Cast Lead. The Turkish PM saw the Gaza operation as being partly timed to sabotage his efforts as a mediator with Syria. The operation itsef incensed Turkish opinion, and Erdogan played to the crowd as he always does.
Things continued to spiral downwards with the confronation at Davos, and relations worsened even more after the provocative decision to exclude Israel from joint military exercises. Even if we want to say that this decision was as much a part of Erdogan’s jockeying for position against the military at home as it was an insult to Israel, the effect was the same. It is not as if the “dissing” has been all in one direction. Naturally, most “pro-Israel” commentators are going to view the last few years as an uninterrupted string of Turkish attacks on a blameless Israel, which is absurd, but that doesn’t mean that the opposite view of a blameless Turkey is correct. A major part of the problem is that Israel is acting as if it has all the advantages in the relationship and as if Turkey needs Israel more than Israel needs Turkey. This is a horrible misreading of the situation in the region. Turkey has been improving its relations and deepening commercial ties with all of its neighbors, and Israel has been doing almost the exact opposite. Minor disputes and diplomatic rows happen even between allies, but Israel does not have the same luxury of damaging its relationship with Turkey that Turkey has in poking fingers in Israel’s eye.
The television series that sparked the row in question, Valley of the Wolves, contained elements that would understandably offend Israelis. By itself, the issue seems a trivial one as a matter of international relations, but when viewed against this background of deepening mistrust and anger it is easier to see why the Israeli government wanted to slight the Turkish ambassador. With someone such as Lieberman in charge of the Israeli foreign ministry, the television show served as the perfect sort of symbolic problem nationalists love to exploit for their own purposes. The purpose of such exercises is not to accomplish anything valuable, but to engage in public theatrics of outrage to demonstrate to one’s core supporters that you are defending national honor. Of couse, in this case it backfired when Ankara escalated the row. If our State Department were run by similarly incompetent, boorish types, our government might have engaged in the same kind of pettiness over the content of Metal Storm. The problem is that Turkey might have to put up with such behavior from Washington, but increasingly it does not have to endure even minor mistreatment from Israel.
As for U.S.-Israel relations, yes, the Netanyahu government has resisted the administration on settlement policy, but the administration deserves some criticism for how it handled all of this. If the administration had been serious in its desire to pressure Israel on this point, it would have been willing to take the necessary steps to apply pressure to Israel’s government. It should at least have been willing to say that it might take such steps, but that was a confrontation Obama evidently did not want to have. As it turned out, the administration was not willing to take the political risks to follow through, Netanyahu called his bluff, and the settlement freeze proposal died. Netanyahu leads a coalition of mostly nationalist parties, and parties of all governments have supported settlement expansion in defiance of all agreements, so the Israeli response was not only predictable but virtually inevitable. Obama gave the impression he wanted to take on Netanyahu, which was surprising, and Netanyahu made just enough of a concession to appear cooperative without having given up anything. Having met resistance, Obama stopped, and meanwhile Netanyahu has consolidated public support at home.
If Netanyahu and his government have a bad attitude, Obama has shown no desire to do what would be required to change it. Meanwhile, this attitude is a gift to Erdogan, whose demagoguery will continue to yield political benefits for him and his party at home.