Mon, Sept 12, 2011 | Turkey Analyst, vol. 4 no. 17 | By Gareth H. Jenkins
Turkish-Israeli Relations: Empty Threats or a Looming Crisis?
This article was first published in the Turkey Analyst (www.turkeyanalyst.org), a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center. © Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, 2011.
On September 2, 2011, Turkey downgraded its diplomatic ties with Israel from ambassadorial to second secretary level and suspended all bilateral military agreements between the two countries. On September 8, 2011, in an interview on Al Jazeera, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan vowed that Turkey would provide naval escorts for any future attempts by Turkish aid vessels to breach the Israeli naval blockade of Gaza. He also warned that Turkey would “prevent Israel from unilaterally exploiting the natural resources of the eastern Mediterranean.”
The rapprochement between Turkey and Israel during the 1990s was primarily driven by Turkey’s secular elite, particularly the Turkish military. Amongst the mass of the Turkish population, attitudes towards Israel remained ambivalent at best. Although far from universal, anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic attitudes remained widespread — particularly on the religious right — and were exacerbated by Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians.
After the AKP first came to power in November 2002, government officials were frequently outspoken in their condemnation of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. But, in practice, political, economic and military ties between Turkey and Israel continued almost unchanged. The situation changed when Israel staged a military incursion into Gaza on December 27, 2008. The operation was launched just five days after Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had met with Erdoğan in Ankara and led him to believe that no military action against Gaza was imminent. For many in the party, what they saw as Olmert’s duplicity revived long-held prejudices. The resultant tensions came at a time when the Turkish military’s political influence was in precipitous decline. Bilateral political ties became increasingly strained and military cooperation came to an almost complete halt.
The Islamist NGO İnsan Hak ve Hürriyetleri (Human Rights and Freedoms or İHH), which organized the ill-fated aid flotilla Gaza, is closer to smaller, more radical Islamist parties than the AKP. When it sought to send off the Mavi Marmara to lead the flotilla, inspections found that it was unseaworthy, failing to meet international safety standards. The AKP, reluctant both to associate too closely with the flotilla and to prevent aid from reaching the beleaguered Palestinians in Gaza, overrode objections and ordered that the aid flotilla be allowed to sail for Gaza.
The ensuing violence on the ship following its storming by Israeli commandoes led to a severe curtailing of Turkish-Israeli relations. Erdoğan declared that normal relations would not be restored until Israel issued a formal apology, paid compensation to the families of the nine Turks killed on board, and lifted its blockade of Gaza. Israel expressed its regret over the deaths but refused to meet any of Erdoğan’s demands. (See June 6, 2010, Turkey Analyst for details)
In response to a call by Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, on June 6, 2010, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon set up a four-member panel of inquiry under former New Zealand Prime Minister Geoffrey Palmer. Both Israel and Turkey agreed to cooperate and contribute one member to what become known as the “Palmer Panel”. The panel began its investigations on August 10, 2010.
On September 1, the New York Times published a leaked copy of the report of the Palmer Panel. It said that the commandoes who boarded the Mavi Marmara had used “excessive and unreasonable force”. It described the killing of the nine Turks as “unacceptable”. But it found that Israel’s blockade of Gaza was “a legitimate security measure to prevent weapons entering Gaza by sea and its implementation complied with the requirements of international law.”
In June 2011, the AKP had pressured the İHH into suspending its plans to dispatch another aid flotilla, apparently for fear of appearing provocative in the run-up to what it expected to be the favorable conclusions of the Palmer Panel. Over the months that followed, the Turkish media repeatedly quoted AKP sources as claiming that Israel was delaying the publication of the Palmer Panel report, raising public expectations that it would find in Turkey’s favor. The AKP was aware of the contents of the report well before it was leaked to the New York Times. It knew that its conclusions were much closer to the Israeli than the Turkish position. Yet it failed to brief Turkish journalists and reduce public expectations ahead of its official publication.
On the morning of September 2, 2011, just hours after details of the report had been leaked, Davutoğlu announced a series of sanctions against Israel. Israel had yet to issue an official response to the report. As a result, the timing of Davutoğlu’s statement made it look like a reaction against the leaked report, rather than against Israel.
In addition to effectively expelling the Israeli ambassador to Ankara and suspending military agreements with Israel, Davutoğlu declared that Turkey would “take measures to ensure the freedom of maritime movement in the eastern Mediterranean.” He announced that Turkey would not recognize the conclusions of the Palmer Panel but would take the Gaza blockade to the International Court of Justice (ICJ). AKP officials confirmed that Turkey would increase its naval presence in the eastern Mediterranean and “exercise its rights under international maritime law.”
The AKP appears to have drawn up its list of sanctions against Israel without consulting with legal experts in the ministry of foreign affairs. Rulings of the ICJ are not binding unless both parties to a dispute agree to abide by its decision; something Israel is unlikely to do. The main international agreement on maritime law is the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. To date, it has been signed by 161 countries and the EU. Turkey is not a signatory. Neither is Israel or Syria, although all of the other Arab countries have signed.
The Law of the Sea sets a limit of 200 nautical miles for a country’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), in which it can exploit natural resources. In 2010, Cyprus signed separate agreements defining the borders of its EEZ with those of Israel and Egypt. Cyprus and Israel have already indicated that they are prepared to cooperate in the exploitation of natural gas reserves in their EEZs. Cyprus is due to begin exploratory drilling for oil and natural gas in its EEZ on October 1, 2011; something the Turkish government has vowed to prevent.
Israel has recently discovered significant reserves of natural gas off Haifa in what are known as the Tamar and Leviathan fields. Both fall within Israel’s definition of its EEZ. Lebanon has disputed Israel’s definition of the northern boundary of its EEZ and claims that part of the Leviathan field may extend into the Lebanese EEZ. It has called on the UN to determine the boundary between the two EEZs. But, in a definition of its EEZ submitted to the UN in August 2010, Lebanon made no claim to areas of the Tamar and Leviathan fields in which gas has already been found.
Egypt has long been Israel’s main supplier of natural gas. The regime of President Hosni Mubarak has now been replaced by a government which is more hostile to Israel. Doubts in Israel about Egypt’s reliability as a source of natural gas have inevitably increased the importance of the discoveries in the Tamar and Leviathan fields.
Any attempt to prevent Israel from drilling in areas of the Tamar and Leviathan fields which are accepted as lying within its EEZ would risk not only a military response from Israel but Turkey’s international isolation. Even the Arab countries of the Middle East would be alarmed if Turkey sought to prevent a country from exploiting natural resources under the terms laid down in the Law of Sea; not least because they see the convention as essential to the protection of their own rights to exploit offshore resources.
More problematic would be an Israeli attempt to drill in areas claimed by Lebanon. In such a situation, Turkey might dispatch warships in the expectation that it would be supported by other countries in the region.
The conclusions of the Palmer Panel are the latest in a series of foreign policy setbacks for the Turkish government. Over the last year, Turkey has threatened to block NATO’s missile shield, prevent the NATO air campaign against Libya and voiced its support for the regime of Bashar al-Assad; and then reversed its policies when it realized that it risked international isolation. Similarly, its responses to the Palmer report have been hastily prepared and poorly thought out. More damagingly, the AKP government’s aggressive saber-rattling has squandered the remnants of the considerable international sympathy it enjoyed in the immediate aftermath of the Israeli assault on the aid flotilla in 2010.
In theory, it should be possible to argue that, once the Turkish government’s initial anger at the Palmer Panel has passed, tensions will subside and a military clash in the Mediterranean will be avoided. However, Turkey’s foreign policy has become increasingly characterized by impulse, emotion and an almost hubristic self-confidence; in which the ruling AKP genuinely believes that its claim to leadership of the Middle East is both recognized and welcomed by other Muslim countries in the region. There is also a danger that, after making so many threats, the AKP government may finally deliver on one.
In this context, Turkey’s response to the planned drilling off Cyprus is of critical importance. The hope is that the government will either back down or make merely a symbolic gesture. But any attempt to carry out its threat to prevent the drilling could have serious repercussions not only for Turkey’s relations with Israel but for the stability of the entire region.
Gareth Jenkins, a Nonresident Senior Fellow with the CACI & SRSP Joint Center, is an Istanbul-based writer and specialist of Turkish Affairs.