The clash on the high seas between Israeli commandos and a Turkish Gaza-support vessel could prove a historic moment in Middle East history, perhaps more far-reaching in its political consequences than the Gaza war of 2008-09 or the Lebanon war of 2006. For the first time, Israel and Turkey are in open hostility, and Turkey has seized a leadership position in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Turkey is now competing with Iran for leadership of regional public opinion, and its actions are putting new pressure on Egypt and other Arab states. Recent events bring new risks to already complex regional tensions, but also offer an opportunity to the United States and other players to make progress on the peace process.
The old Middle East of the second half of the 20th century - characterized by Arab summits, the Arab-Israeli conflict and superpower politics - no longer exists. Turkey and Iran are now full players in the region, challenging Israel’s dominance and freedom of action, defying superpower diktats, and putting pressure on Arab states to make difficult choices. The Arab states are divided, weakened by repeated losses to Israel on the battlefield, undermined by non-state actors, and frustrated that their offer of a comprehensive land-for-peace deal with Israel has fallen on deaf ears.
Israel, on the other hand, has enjoyed strong regional power since 1967. It took that victory as a license to annex and settle occupied Arab land. It took advantage of its separate peace with Egypt in 1979 to expand its settlements on the West Bank and annex the Golan Heights. But Israel has been coming up against a shift in the regional balance of power. This is not the result of superpower politics, but the result of emerging regional powers - Iran, and now Turkey - and their impact on conventional and unconventional power dynamics.
Iran grew in power in the Middle East particularly after the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. It has strong influence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Gaza and casts a long shadow over the Gulf. And with a developing nuclear program, Iran could directly challenge Israel in the nuclear arena as well. President Ahmadinijad and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah have been very popular in the Arab and Muslim street, but their appeal has been limited by sectarian identities and the radical nature of their project.
But Turkish leadership is of a different nature. Turkey is a Sunni power, heir to the Ottoman Empire, and last seat of the caliphate. And today’s Turkey has been regarded as a mature and responsible nation-state proposing a reasonable way forward for the Middle East in terms of foreign policy, governance and economics.
Turkey had turned its back to the Arab world after the Arab revolt in World War I helped bring down the Ottoman Empire. Turkey was one of the first states to recognize Israel in 1948 and was a close ally for decades afterward. As Turkey repaired its relations with the Arab world in the past two decades, it offered to serve as a bridge for Israel and work for Arab-Israeli peace. But these efforts were effectively deflated by successive Israeli governments. The two countries parted ways over the last Gaza war in 2008-2009, especially because Israeli Prime Minister Olmert launched the war only days after discussing Syrian-Israeli peace talks with Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan. But even then, Turkey remained an outside player in the Middle East. Today, with Turkish citizens killed by Israeli commandos, Turkey as a nation and a state, has become for the first time a direct party to the widening Israeli conflict with its neighbors.
Prime Minister Erdoğan, after the latest clash on the high seas, can claim popularity in the Arab and Muslim world that could prove very powerful and lasting. And herein lies both a risk and an opportunity. Erdoğan and the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, must guard against the danger of moving blindly along the path of escalation and confrontation. The region does not need another war. And many Arab and Iranian leaders have preceded Turkey on this path.
Rather, Turkey should use its regional and global influence to convince Israel that continued defiance of Palestinian rights, international law and regional order can be extremely costly while reminding it that the path of reasonableness through negotiation and building a just and lasting peace is open. The power of Turkey’s anger today is that it has been a reasonable power, counseling fair and negotiated outcomes. It must not abandon that reasonable position in favor of a blindly angry position more akin to the position of Iran, several Arab leaders in the past and today’s Israel.
With regard to the United States and the international community, the Obama administration has often said “no crisis should be allowed to go to waste - they are opportunities to do big things.” Indeed, the latest escalation between Israel and Turkey presents an opportunity to break the unsustainable status quo of the past years and find a new path forward. Turkey can be a formidable foe for Israel and the United States. But if Washington can wake up to its interests and power - and prevail upon Israel to abandon its occupations and opt for a just and lasting peace, it will find that Erdoğan can be a powerful leader for building peace in ways that the Iranian President is uninterested in and many Arab leaders don’t have the popular legitimacy to do.