Israel, Turkey and Low Seats
By George Friedman
Last week a small crisis with potentially serious implications blew up between Israel and Turkey. Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon summoned Turkish Ambassador to Israel Ahmet Oguz Celikkol to a meeting Jan. 11 to protest a Turkish soap opera that depicted Israeli agents kidnapping Palestinian children. When the ambassador arrived, he received a lower seat than Ayalon — and was photographed in that position, making it appear that Ayalon was speaking to an inferior. Ayalon wouldn’t shake hands with him during the televised parts of the meeting, and had an Israeli flag visible on the table. Topping it all off, Ayalon told an Israeli cameraman in Hebrew that the important thing was that people see Celikkol sitting down low "while we're up high."
Turks saw the images as a deliberate Israeli insult, though Ayalon argued that the episode was not meant as an insult but as a reminder that Israel does not take criticism lightly. While it is difficult to see the relative height of seats as an international incident, Ayalon clearly intended to send a significant statement to Turkey. The Turks took that statement to heart, so symbolism clearly matters. Israel's intent is not so clear, however.
Turkey and Israeli National Security
Over the past year, Turkey has become increasingly critical of Israel's relations with the Arab world. Turkey has tried to mediate, for example, between Syria and Israel. Now, Turkey has made it known that it holds Israel responsible for these failures. Even so, Turkey remains Israel's major ally, albeit informally, in the Muslim world. Turkey is also a growing power. Uniquely in the region, it provides Israel with a dynamic economy to collaborate with. Turkey also has the most substantial and capable military force in the region. Should Turkey shift its stance to a pro-Arab, anti-Israel position, the consequences for Israel's long-term national security would not be trivial.
Also last week, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman introduced a new concept to Israeli diplomacy, and Israel's treatment of the Turkish ambassador must be understood in this light. According to Lieberman, Israel will expel ambassadors from countries that it feels have criticized Israel unfairly. The presence of ambassadors does not mean as much today as it did in the 18th century, but the image of Israel responding to criticism — which, fair or not, is widespread — by reducing relations seems self-defeating. For many governments, having Israel reduce diplomatic status causes no harm, and might even be a political plus domestically. Obviously, Lieberman's statement was meant to generate support among the Israeli public, and it well might. But consider the strategic consequences to Israel.
Turkey has been shifting its position on its role in the Islamic world in recent years under the Islamist-rooted government of President Abdullah Gul and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. While increasingly critical of Israel, the Turkish government also has tried to bridge the gap between the Arabs and Israelis, albeit to promote Turkey's position in the Muslim world. Thus, Turkey is far from being confrontational with Israel. Moreover, tensions in Turkey between secularists in the military and the civilian Islamist-rooted government are substantial. Turkish internal politics are complicated, and therefore politics between Turkey and Israel are complicated.
Ever since its peace treaty with Egypt, Israel's grand strategy has been to divide Muslim nations in the region, finding common interests with some to make certain no common front against Israel arises. To this end, Israel has formal treaties with Jordan and Egypt both based on common enemies. The Jordanian government — Hashemites ruling a country with a substantial Palestinian population — fears the Palestinians at least as much as Israel. Egypt, which suppressed the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1980s, opposes Hamas, which is an outgrowth of the Muslim Brotherhood. Israel accordingly uses mutual hostility toward the Palestinians to create a balance of power on its border.
Still, both Egypt and Jordan have said — and will continue to say — many critical things about Israel. They need to speak to their respective domestic audiences, and Israel understands that what is said to satisfy that audience is not necessarily connected to their foreign and security policies. Some Israelis condemn both Egypt and Jordan for such criticisms. But from a larger perspective, if Egypt were to repudiate its peace treaty with Israel and begin refurbishing its military, and Jordan were to shift to an anti-Israeli policy and allow third parties to use its territory and the long and difficult-to-defend Jordan River as a base of operations, Israel would face a fundamental strategic threat.
So Israel has adopted a very simple policy: Egypt and Jordan may say what they want so long as Egypt does not abandon its neutrality and beef up its military and Jordan does not let a foreign force into the Jordan Valley. And given that the Israelis want to ensure that the Egyptian and Jordanian regimes survive, the Israelis tolerate periodic outbursts against Israel. Rhetoric is rhetoric and geopolitics is geopolitics, and the Israelis understand the distinction.
That they understand this difference makes Ayalon's behavior, let alone Lieberman's as-yet-unimplemented policy, difficult to follow. It is difficult to know whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sanctioned Ayalon's move. As has been the case in Israel for years, Netanyahu's coalition is weak and fragmented, enabling smaller parties to pursue their own policies. There is no question that embarrassing the Turkish ambassador pleased many Israelis, particularly those who already belong to Netanyahu's coalition. If the event was staged with an Israeli audience in mind, the episode might have made sense. But Ayalon also spoke to the Turkish public, and at the moment, the Turkish voters may well be more important to Israel than Israeli voters. Turkey is just too powerful a country for Israel to have as an enemy.
On Sunday, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak made an official visit to Turkey, and both sides went out of their way to put the Ayalon incident behind them. Clearly, there are members of the Turkish and Israeli cabinets who do not want a crisis between the two countries. And they probably will be able to contain the current situation.
Either way, Israel certainly knew how the seating episode would play in Turkey. Perhaps the Israelis felt that by showcasing their displeasure they might incite Turkish secularists against the Islamists. If so, this is a dangerous game, as insulting Turkey is apt to mobilize the secularists against Israel as much as the Islamists, leading to a Turkish consensus on the Israeli issue not in Israel's best interests.
The Turkish Re-Emergence
When we step back and look at the broader strategic picture, we see a Turkey slowly but systematically re-emerging as a regional power prepared to use its influence. Washington has observed this, too, and so regards Turkey as a key part of its strategy to draw down the U.S. presence in Iraq. Turkey does not want to see massive instability in Iraq any more than the Americans do. Similarly, in any confrontation with Iran, Turkey is both a communications channel and a potential ally. Further afield, Turkey is contributing to the Western war effort in Afghanistan, and has substantial influence in the Caucasus, the Balkans and Central Asia. The United States has no desire to move into confrontation with Turkey. Indeed, it sees Turkey not so much as a U.S. surrogate, which Turkey is not, but as the most significant regional power with interests aligned with the United States.
Israel is also an ally of the United States, but it cannot achieve the things Turkey might in Syria, Iraq and the rest of the region. The U.S. interest at present lies in stabilizing these countries and moving them away from Iran. The Turks could help this process. The Israelis can't. That means that in any breakdown of relations between Turkey and Israel, the United States will be hard-pressed to side with Israel. The United States shares fundamental interests with Turkey, so in breaking with Turkey, the Israelis are risking a breach with the United States.
U.S. relations aside, Israel needs its relationship with Turkey as well. The region as a whole has two major powers and one potential power. Turkey and Israel are the major powers, Egypt is the potential one. The ongoing Turkish economic surge of the past few years will generate economic activity throughout the region, particularly in Egypt, where wages are low and where the (albeit small) middle class can buy Turkish products. A Turkish-Egyptian economic relationship follows from the Turkish surge. Maintaining Egyptian neutrality is a foundation of Israeli national security, but souring Israeli-Turkish relations during a Turkish-sponsored economic revival in Egypt could threaten this. And Israel does not want to be caught between a hostile Egypt and Turkey.
Elsewhere in the region, Turkey is increasing its influence in Syria. It currently shares Israel's interests in curbing Hezbollah in Lebanon and redirecting Syrian relations away from Iran toward Turkey. Obviously, Israel wants to see this process continue, but Turkey could expand its influence in Syria without dealing with Hezbollah.
Turkey is a developing power with options, while Israel is a power that has developed to its limits. The Turkish re-emergence could well transform the region, and Turkey has a number of ways it could play this. By contrast, geopolitically and economically, Israel is committed in a certain direction. This is a moment during which Turkey has options, and more options than Israel.
Israel has relatively few tools available to shape Turkey's choices, though it does have several ways to close off some Turkish choices. One of Turkey's choices is to maintain its relationship with Israel. If the Turks choose not to maintain this relationship, Israel's strategic position will suffer a severe blow. Logic would therefore have it that Israel would try to avoid sparking a political process in Turkey that makes breaking with Israel the easier choice.
By deliberately embarrassing the Turks, Lieberman and Ayalon are unlikely to make the Turks want to improve their relationship with Israel. And Lieberman and Ayalon seem to underestimate the degree to which Israel needs this relationship. Turkey can afford to criticize Israel because an Israeli rupture with Turkey actually solves diplomatic problems for Turkey without harming the Turkish strategic position. If Turkey breaks with Israel, Israel now has a very powerful regional adversary quite capable of arming regional Arab powers. It is also a country able to challenge the primacy of the Israeli relationship in American regional thinking. We therefore see avoiding a crisis in Israeli-Turkish relations as mattering more to Israel in the long run than to Turkey.