Not a month goes by without a new chapter in the increasingly bitter diplomatic sparring between traditional allies Turkey and Israel. Relations took a downturn a year ago, when Turkey's government forcefully criticized Israel's military assault on Gaza, and have since lurched from bad to worse. "One road accident, two accidents, three ... all of a sudden it starts to look as if they're not accidents the road itself is the problem," says Turkish foreign-affairs commentator Cengiz Candar. "The Turkey-Israel love affair is over."
This week's drama was provoked by a bizarre p.r. stunt on the part of Israel's right-wing Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon. Ayalon called in Turkey's ambassador to Israel and staged a demeaning photo op calculated to humiliate the Turkish diplomat as a rebuke for negative portrayals of Israel on a Turkish TV drama. Only Ayalon's last-minute apology prevented the resulting furor from causing a diplomatic breakdown.
But further rows seem inevitable. Turkey's newfound ambition to become a major regional power broker has seen an energetic forging of ties with Arab and Central Asian countries. Asserting a foreign policy increasingly independent of Washington, Turkey has not hesitated to criticize Israel's actions against the Palestinians, defend Iran's nuclear program and expand economic ties at a moment when the U.S. seeks to isolate Tehran, and repair relations with Syria. Israel's leaders warn publicly that they believe Turkey is moving into the region's Islamist orbit, and hard-liners within Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition government appear to have been spoiling for a fight.
In the past six months, Turkey has scrapped visa requirements for Lebanon, Jordan and Syria and signed a raft of agreements with each country designed to improve trade and cultural exchange. Since publicly chastising Israeli President Shimon Peres over Gaza at a conference in Switzerland last January, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has become a hero on Arab streets, and the latest diplomatic spat with Israel won't do his popularity any harm. Beirut daily Al Akhbar's headline on the Ayalon apology story praised "Sultan Erdogan" and exalted that "Israel understands only Turkish."
But while Erdogan may appear to be striking out independently of his country's NATO partners, it's notable that his outbursts critical of Israel draw little comment from the U.S. and Europe. That suggests "there is a sense that Erdogan is saying things that someone needs to say to Israel," says a European diplomat speaking on condition of anonymity. Just last month, Erdogan left an upbeat meeting with President Barack Obama, rode to a downtown Washington hotel and gave a speech lambasting Israel for "inhuman" deeds in Gaza. "The timing doesn't suggest someone who is unaware of what he's doing in an international context," says Candar. "The West is relieved to have someone taking on Israel. They've outsourced the job to Erdogan. That's why, when he does the cost analysis of saying these things about Israel, he has the added confidence of knowing that Turkey won't face recrimination from its Western partners either."
Turkish-Israeli relations are still anchored by military cooperation, as they have been since the 1950s. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak is due to visit Ankara next week, hoping to reinforce strategic ties and negotiate deals for Israel's military industries, which already have contracts worth more than $1 billion to supply Turkey. Meanwhile, a Turkish delegation is currently in Israel to wrap up the purchase of 10 Heron drones. "Defense ties have become the safety valve for bilateral relations," says Candar. "They prevent a complete breakdown. That doesn't change the fact that there has been a significant structural shift in the relationship, and it is open to future crises."