Comment / Netanyahu Must Avert Turkey's Slide Toward Syria, Iran

The strained relations between Ankara and Jerusalem affect the balance of power in the entire region.

Now that the melodrama of insults and apologies has passed, the government of Israel should seriously tackle the challenge of its relations with Turkey - one of the most important elements of our national security. What's needed is a departure from routines, and primarily the engagement of the prime minister in managing the crisis.

The strained relations between Ankara and Jerusalem affect the balance of power in the entire region. A decade ago, Turkey was an ally of the United States and maintained varied and extensive relations with Israel. In recent years, it has been sliding toward Syria and Iran and away from America, and has become a venomous critic of Israel. If it slides any further, Turkey could become part of an Iranian-Syrian-Turkish triangle that would be a key element in Middle Eastern politics - to the detriment of Washington, Israel and the moderate Arab states.

Turkey's foreign and domestic policies have undergone a transformation in the wake of developments upon which outside forces, including Israel, have no influence. The end of the Cold War eliminated Ankara's dependence on Washington as a shield against the Soviet Union, and the European Union's de facto refusal to take Turkey in has weakened the part of the country that advocate a secular, modernist and pro-Western orientation. Most importantly, the Islamist party, which has gradually shed the moderate cloak it started out with, has been taking over the country's power centers.

The secular parties are weak, while the military is paralyzed by a dilemma: Grabbing power in a military coup, as has occurred in the past, would finally slam the door on the European dreams harbored by the secular modernist camp the army represents. Meanwhile, the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been systematically wiping out the opposition's remaining power centers. A similar pattern has emerged in relations with Israel: estrangement accompanied by calming rhetoric, followed by hostile rhetoric and actions. Turkey's role as mediator between Israel and Syria served to cover up the course of these developments, but it has ended in a breakdown.

There is not much Israel can do under these circumstances. The sources that yielded the collaboration have for the most part dried up. The Soviet Union is no more and Turkey has joined the radical camp in the Arab world. The influence held by Washington and Europe has diminished. The main assets Israel still wields in its ties with Turkey are mutual economic and security interests, the need of the Turkish ruling party to take into account the opinion of the army and pro-Israeli elements, and the country's goal of playing a central role in regional politics. The Turkish leadership realizes that to mediate between Syria and Israel, or to help the Palestinians, it must maintain a dialogue with Israel.

To take advantage of its assets, Israel has to make a concerted effort, managed by the top governmental echelon. A considerable part of the damage caused last week would have been averted if the prime minister had intervened earlier. He must ensure coordinated action and division of responsibilities. The embassy and consulates in Turkey must also be strengthened. Turkey is still a democratic country with a developed economy and infrastructure, and with which Israel should engage. Moreover, "Jewish diplomacy" - to which the Turks tend to ascribe great importance - should be put into effect. Having already made bitter enemies of the Greeks and the Armenians, they certainly don't want to do the same with the Jewish people.

It is a difficult and complex task, whose fruits will not be immediately evident. The prime minister must place it high on his agenda.