Turkey ascendant, Palestine in tow. Whither Israel and the U.S.?
By Ian Bremmer
The opinions expressed are his own.
If President Obama thinks he’s having a tough month, he’s got nothing on Israel’s Bibi Netanyahu. In Tel Aviv, hundreds of thousands of Israelis are protesting the cost of living. In New York, the Palestinians are readying a statehood resolution at the United Nations. In Ankara, the Turkish government has expelled the Israeli ambassador from the country. And in Cairo, an Egyptian crowd is taking the job on themselves, attacking the Israeli embassy.
Of all of these events, though, Turkey is the biggest worry. Prime Minister Recep Erdogan has steadily escalated an anti-Israel tack for over a year now, most recently by accusing Israel of behaving like a “spoiled child.” More directly, Erdogan has also proclaimed that the Turkish navy will stop the planned start of gas drilling explorations off the Cyprus coast by an Israel-Cypriot consortium. That’s tantamount to threatening armed conflict. Why is Turkey so ascendant in Middle East politics, to Israel’s dismay? There are three very good reasons:
1. The U.S. is playing less of a role in the Middle East.
Under President Obama, the U.S. has become a “taker” not a “maker” of foreign policy there. Simply put, this Administration has spent less time on the Middle East peace question than any other since the creation of the Israeli state. With all the issues facing Obama at home — joblessness, a tanking economy and his own re-election, to name a few — and all the more pressing international issues, like winding down the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and dealing with the euro zone and China — Israel has taken a political backseat. As NATO allies like Turkey fill the void and create their own regional strategies, Israel, being in the most unnatural geopolitical position there, has had the hardest time establishing its own power center.
2. A newfound sense of Islamic populism.
It’s been almost a year since the first rumblings of the Arab spring. With the Middle East very much still unstable — albeit a different kind of instability than has usually been evident — it’s been necessary for governments of all stripes to start listening and acceding to the demands of their people. Turkey’s prime minister is far from clinging to power, but it’s safe to say that taking a hard line on Israel is low hanging fruit for any leader in the Islamic world, even in a country with a longstanding secular tradition.
3. A vacuum at the top of the developing world.
There’s a spot to fill in the ranks of emerging market world leaders, and it’s at the very head of the pack. Thanks to factors in and out of his control, no one looks more likely than Erdogan to become the dean of those ranks. Following in the footsteps of South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew and Brazil’s Lula, Erdogan is at the helm of a country that appears ready to step up onto the regional and global stage. Turkish leadership is about to get a new meaning — one that extends beyond a Turkish’s prime minister’s simple advocacy of Turkish interests around the globe. Erdogan has a chance to be out in front on issues important to emerging economies worldwide — and that could become an issue for Israel.
Even in the context of their own history, Israel is right now looking very short on friends. While the country is under little serious internal or external economic pressure, the political and security issues there are getting more and more troublesome. That may be why Israel has stayed very quiet on the diplomatic front as of late, with leaders hoping to keep their heads down and wait for a more propitious environment in which to stake out their political ground. But as the Palestinian recognition issue in the UN is likely to soon renders that stance untenable, Netanyahu will have to find another tack. All of this makes ominous the prospects of broader hostilities breaking out around Israel. And the military force best poised to create confrontation is none other than Turkey.
Though the Cypriot-Israeli gas drilling project (the one Turkey has threatened to blockade) is likely to be resolved with the help of some American intervention, it’s hard to ignore the weak signals emanating from the Middle East that make a conflict no longer unthinkable. Unlikely, absolutely, but an Israeli-Turkey naval confrontation would no longer be the most surprising headline to wake up to one morning.
If such an event came to pass, the U.S. would find itself in quite a pickle. Again, Turkey is a NATO ally — an attack on one is an attack on all — and yet Israel is, despite the recent cool feelings between Obama and Netanyahu, America’s strategic partner in the region. The U.S. would try to de-escalate any standoff, but it would be unable to take a strong stance in such a conflict. That would leave Germany, of all countries, as Israel’s best friend. What an unfortunate irony.
This essay is based on a transcribed interview with Bremmer.
Photo: Palestinian schoolboys hold a poster depicting Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a rally at Gaza Seaport calling on Erdogan to visit the Gaza Strip September 13, 2011. REUTERS/Ismail Zaydah