As Israel-Turkey Alliance Disintegrates, Analysts Worry

The rapidly worsening fall-out between these two allies could have serious repercussions for an already fragile Middle East

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Employees from a Turkish-owned company in Israel protest against the recent tensions between the two countries outside the Turkish embassy in Tel Aviv / Reuters

After Turkey's decision to suspend military ties with Israel, expel the country's ambassador, and now possibly to apply to the International Court of Justice for an investigation into Israel's Gaza blockade -- on account of Israel's refusal to apologize for last year's lethal attack on the Mavi Marmara, a Gaza-bound Turkish aid ship -- it's difficult to decipher who, if anyone, might benefit from the current impasse. For Turkey, the breakup with Israel is another nail in the coffin of Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu's vaunted "zero problems" policy that, until recently, allowed the country to keep lines open with all sides of the Middle East's conflicts. For Israel, the potential loss of a crucial regional ally only deepens the country's isolation as it scrambles to come to terms with the Arab spring and its fallout. Among experts, there is some hope that the Turkey-Israel relationship could recover, if slowly. Yet there is also fear that it will deteriorate much further -- and quickly.

Not long ago, Turkey could rightfully claim to maintain open diplomatic relationships with practically everyone in the Middle East. But, as Soli Ozel, a professor of international relations at Istanbul's Bilgi University, told me, "those times are over." "Turkey is not going to have much of a role to play. It cannot replicate the Syrian-Israeli proximity talks, which it masterminded a few years ago." Same, he said, for the Israeli-Palestinian talks. "Turkey will probably be hailed by the Palestinians but it will isolate itself from the peace process, if the process ever comes back to life."

The souring of Turkey's relationship with Israel began with Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's furious reaction to the 2008 to 2009 Israeli invasion of Gaza, escalated after the 2010 flotilla incident -- which saw eight Turks and one Turkish-American killed by Israeli commandoes when violence erupted on board the Mavi Marmara -- and culminated in Friday's decision. The break-up bodes poorly for hopes that Ankara could help Israel cope with the turmoil in the Middle East, particularly given the resurgence of Islamist movements in Egypt and elsewhere. "There was some hope that Turkey could play a mediating role between Israel and the forces in Egypt," said Gerald Steinberg, who teaches politics at Bar Ilan University in Tel Aviv. "That hope is now badly dented, though not altogether gone."

By downgrading its relations with Israel, Turkey might also have increased pressure on Egypt -- whose relationship with Israel is under serious strain -- to do the same. According to Shlomo Avineri, a former director general at the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, given the disquiet over the direction of the Arab spring, particularly in Egypt, "Turkey's steps ... certainly put Israel in a difficult situation." Still, Avineri believes, the military regime in Egypt understands the strategic importance of its relationship with Israel. "I don't think Egypt will retreat from its peace with Israel. It's not going to be a consequence of what the Turks do." There is, as always, some hope that the erstwhile allies might reconcile. "Turkey and Israel still share many strategic interests in the region, particularly with regard to the instability in Syria and Iraq, the Kurdish issue, and threats from Iran," said Steinberg. "I could imagine that this current clash could run its course, and would not rule out a formula expressing mutual regret. In six months, or perhaps less, relations might quietly be restored. In the long run, perhaps under a different Turkish leadership, the relationship could get entirely back on track."

Avineri is less optimistic. Turkey's attitude towards Israel, he believes, is part of a gradual shift "away from a pro-Western orientation and towards a more open relationship with Muslim countries." Turkey, he feels, is deliberately distancing itself from Israel. "It has to do with ... the Islamic nature of the regime, where it has distanced itself from the U.S. on many issues, and also from Israel."

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Piotr Zalewski is an Istanbul-based freelance writer for Time, Foreign Policy, and Polityka.

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