The Price of Prestige / Sorry Is the Hardest Word

Apologizing to Turkey is not a capitulation or a payment on account; it's the closing of an account for the sake of resuming a vital relationship.

The United Nations has yet to publish its report on last year's botched raid on a Turkish-sponsored flotilla to Gaza, but Israel couldn't wait. In a panicked race to uphold the state's prestige, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hastened to inform the United States that he has no intention of apologizing for the raid.

This haste has Israeli politicians for parents: ministers Moshe Ya'alon and Avigdor Lieberman. Both hold that, regardless of the report, Israel does not and never did have any reason to apologize. "Prestige is a strategic asset," Ya'alon explained.

But prestige also has a strategic price. And in Israel's case, it is particularly high.

Israel doesn't have a surfeit of friends. It is suspicious of Egypt's temporary government; Jordan is going through a crisis; and Syria is thumbing its nose not only at its own citizens - whom it is systematically murdering - but also at Turkey, the U.S. and Europe. Israel, which has declared war on the Palestinians' bid to obtain international recognition as a state, conducts a daily tally of which countries support this bid and sees how support for its position is collapsing.

Meanwhile, Turkey has moved from being a state that, in Israel's view, needed the services of its Washington lobby and could thus be taken for granted, to a regional power. Yet Turkey and its prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, understand much better than Israel when prestige becomes a strategic burden.

Despite having forged deep strategic and personal ties with Syria and its president, Bashar Assad, when it became clear that these ties were endangering Turkey's position in the Middle East, Erdogan didn't hesitate to make clear that Syria can no longer view Turkey as a friend. He did this despite the countries' economic ties and the knowledge that conflict with Syria puts Turkey on a collision course with Iran.

In so doing, Turkey not only made itself an important U.S. ally, it positioned itself to play a leading role in the diplomatic axis to which Israel belongs. But the prime minister's hasty announcement put paid to this opportunity.

Israel insists on ignoring Turkey's strategic position. Instead, it clings to keeping score based on which country needs the other more. This system treats the loss of military contracts and joint military exercises as reasonable compared to the gain in prestige that refusing to apologize will bring.

Israel thereby seeks to rescue a worthless prestige from what remains of a once glorious relationship and present it as an achievement. But what prestige remains after Israel, due to its policies, has already swallowed every possible frog? Its relations with Europe were hurt by its blockade of Gaza, which it then largely removed following the raid; the soldiers who carried out the raid are threatened with international prosecution; and it also lost its relationship with Turkey.

The balance of dependency between Israel and Turkey is the wrong standard by which to judge the relationship's strategic value. Both countries can get along fine without the other. If Turkey doesn't send a new ambassador to Israel and refuses to accept a new Israeli ambassador, no disaster will occur. But the relationship with Turkey, unlike those with Egypt or Jordan, rests on popular support and strategic cooperation rather than solely on the elites. And that is where the real harm of the prestige stupidity lies: The government will be able to stand tall, but minus an important potential friend like Turkey.

Apologizing to Turkey is not a capitulation or a payment on account. It's the closing of an account for the sake of resuming a vital relationship.