Turkey stands out as an island of stability in the Middle East
Turkey is not yet lost. It can still be buttonholed and offered renewed friendship.
ANKARA - In the midst of the diplomatic wasteland, when hundreds of Libyans are being buried, the Egyptian revolution doesn't know where to turn, Tunisia has been forgotten and the news out of Yemen is well inside the newspaper, one island of stability stands out: Turkey. It's true that from Israel's perspective that's a shoal in a stormy sea, but when a Turkish research institute, whose directors are very close to the prime minister, convenes a conference with Israelis to examine the future of relations between the two countries, you have to check whether the rocky soil may yet yield grass.
Indeed, for a minute it seemed that the gathering was a wake for a wonderfully loving relationship that's over, but it slowly became clear that the quarrel and rift are accepted as a normal and not particularly upsetting situation. While Israel is still stuck with the concept that Turkey needs Israel more than Israel needs Turkey, and when one-upmanship replaces policy and damage control, Turkey is already in a far better place.
Turkey has replaced its array of enemies. If in the 1990s they were Syria and Iran, as well as a grudging Iraq, today Turkey is virtually in charge of the Mediterranean's eastern flank. It's a key link in the Iran-Iraq-Syria axis, a vital country for U.S. strategy. It has unlimited access to Arab states that until three years ago saw Turkey as suspect because of its ties with Israel.
"Israel and Turkey no longer have common enemies, so the shared strategic interest is disappearing," Prof. Meliha Altunisik of Middle East Technical University in Ankara says with merciless bluntness. Without common enemies, without an updated map of interests, the question Turks are asking themselves is what does the friendship with Israel really give them.
"Turkey no longer owes Israel anything," says Dr. Sedat Laciner, the director of an institute for strategic studies who is very close to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. According to Kadri Gursel, an analyst for the newspaper Milliyet who opposes Erdogan's policy, "Israel is an isolated country in the region, and the more isolated it is, the more dangerous it is. It could drag the entire region into a war if, for example, it attacks Iran alone."
Less blunt, but no less firm, is the diplomat Ozdem Sanberk, Turkey's representative on the UN committee examining the Turkish flotilla episode. He's also on the Israeli-Turkish committee that tried to forge an agreement on the compensation and apology that Turkey demands of Israel. He says that "the committee had reached an agreement and the Israeli prime minister accepted the solution," but Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman categorically rejected the possibility that Israel would apologize. The real concern of Sanberk, a determined supporter of rebuilding relations between the two countries, is that the current situation will become entrenched as normal and be impossible to change.
The pressing question now is not how the UN Secretary General will phrase the the investigative committee's report on the flotilla episode, or whether Israel will come out better or worse off. Israel has already taken a beating by the whole affair anyway. After Turks fell victim in the attack, the blockade on Gaza was lifted, for the most part. Internationally, Israel became a transparent country at best and an unpredictable one at worst, and it could be that Gaza will soon no longer need favors from Israel if the military council that rules Egypt decides to open the Rafah crossing.
The more important question is what kind of Middle East Israel will have to deal with when its only remaining friend is Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. He's a nice, soft-spoken man, but he too has plenty of international support, and his dependence on Israel is shrinking. Turkey is not yet lost. It can still be buttonholed and offered renewed friendship. That will require an apology and a compensation payment. We'll have to acknowledge the mistake and the folly, but at least we'll be left with a strategic partner.