Israel turns tables on Turkey

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Niccolo and Donkey
Israel turns tables on Turkey

Asia Times Online

M K Bhadrakumar

August 26, 2011

Israel has all but concluded that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is disinterested in reviving strategic ties between the two countries. This used to be a relationship that Israel desperately wanted to keep going as it was ideologically and politically useful, having been a unique one with a major Muslim power, and also highly lucrative, Turkey being a receptive market for Israeli goods and services, civilian and military.

Istanbul used to be a safe destination for Israeli tourists who could lower their guard and take relaxed holidays.

But the adamant stance that Erdogan has taken with regard to the Gaza flotilla fiasco last year, in which nine Turks were killed by Israeli marines, changed all that. Turkey wants Israel to apologize even after knowing the Israeli cabinet has decided against doing so.

Israel tried to make Ankara understand that there are things it will never do, and it got high-level American intermediaries to assuage Turkey's wounded pride, but Ankara went ahead to threaten that ties with Israel would be further downgraded.

Israel will not apologize because it would be tantamount to indicting the marines who killed the Turks. Washington tried to persuade Turkey not to be obdurate and at the same time cajoled Israel to indulge in some form of verbal jugglery, but the positions of the two protagonists remain unbridgeable.

At the root of it also lies the historic turnaround in Turkey's regional policies and its assertive claim to regain its Ottoman legacy in the Muslim Middle East, which puts it at odds with a range of Israeli core interests and vital concerns. Israel is now moving on with life, turning a new leaf in its regional policy, almost accepting that the relationship with Turkey is probably irretrievably lost unless there is a regime change in Ankara and the Islamist ruling party loses power.

Friend in the Mediterranean
True to style, Israel is looking around the region for comfort and companionship with anyone who might also have an intractable problem with Turkey - it didn't have to look far across the Mediterranean.

The two-day visit by the Foreign Minister of Cyprus, Erato Kozakou-Marcoullis, to Tel Aviv, which ended on Thursday, was much more than a routine call. The minister had just assumed charge in Nicosia and headed for Israel as soon as her customary first visit to Athens was out of the way.

Quite obviously, Nicosia and Athens (which has an ancient grudge to settle with Ankara) put their heads together and assessed that Israeli regional policies are on a remake. Cyprus and Greece have had indifferent ties with Israel, but a compelling commonality of interests is sailing into view. A realignment of regional powers is taking place in the eastern Mediterranean, the leitmotif being the "containment" of an increasingly assertive Turkey.

The backdrop is easy to understand. Cyprus contracted American oil company Noble Energy to prospect for gas in 350,000 hectares in the eastern Mediterranean, bordering Israel's economic zone where significant gas deposits have been discovered.

But Turkey butted in, saying the hydrocarbon resources also belonged to northern Cyprus (which has been under Turkish occupation since 1974) and Nicosia didn't have the right to exploit resources that belonged to Turkish Cypriots. Turkey threatened to intervene.

Regarding Kozakou-Marcoullis' mission to Tel Aviv, the Foreign Ministry in Nicosia said on Tuesday, "Particular emphasis will be placed in cooperation between Cyprus and Israel in energy issues, and the recent developments in the wider region." Nicosia factored in that the minister would receive a warm welcome in Tel Aviv, which she did from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres.

The statement issued by Netanyahu's office virtually underscored that Israel has a convergence of interests with Cyprus with regard to Ankara's perceived belligerence. Netanyahu said Israel and Cyprus had "overlapping interests". The statement said Netanyahu discussed with Kozakou-Marcoullis "the possible expansion of energy cooperation given that both countries have been blessed with natural gas reserves in their maritime economic zones".

Israeli Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman told Kozakou- Marcoullis that Israel "welcomed the exclusive economic zone agreement that was signed between the two countries ... [and] that this was a bilateral issue that must be implemented as soon as possible to enable the initiation of the gas production process for the benefit of both parties and that the agreement was signed in accordance with the rules and rights of international law."

Peres is due to visit Cyprus soon while Netanyahu hopes to visit Cyprus in the near future.

Snub to Ankara
The Israelis are pinning their hopes on Cyprus turning out to be a prize catch, being a member of the European Union, which works by consensus and is shortly expected to evolve a common stance apropos the expected Palestinian move at the United Nations General Assembly session in New York in September, seeking recognition for their "state".

This explosive diplomatic issue haunts Tel Aviv (and Washington) and the stance that Cyprus takes at Brussels could be a diplomatic windfall when the mood in Europe is increasingly empathizing with the Palestinian case for statehood.

Turkey, on the other hand, has taken a firm stand supportive of the Palestine cause. Indeed, the first fracture appeared in the architecture of Turkey-Israel ties when Erdogan snubbed Peres in front of television cameras at the Davos forum some two years ago during a debate on the Palestine problem.

In sum, Israel has every reason politically to throw its weight behind Cyprus in its tiff with Turkey - even if energy security is not compelling enough. The red carpet Tel Aviv rolled out for the Cypriot foreign minister can be seen as Israel's riposte to Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu's warning recently that Ankara would show the "necessary response" if Cyprus went ahead with exploration work.

Kozakou-Marcoullis was simply delighted. She told the Jerusalem Post on Wednesday that Cyprus planned exploratory work within the next two weeks: "We have international law on our side. I think Turkey has to listen to the messages being sent by the international community regarding this issue."

She was referring in particular to statements issued by Washington and Moscow in recent days supportive of Cyprus' right to do the drilling in the eastern Mediterranean. After returning to Nicosia on Thursday, Kozakou-Marcoullis stressed, "On the part of Israel, there is complete understanding about Cyprus' positions."

Noble Energy executives met Cypriot Trade Minister Praxoula Antoniadou in Nicosia on Thursday after which the minister said that drilling was indeed starting as scheduled and that "it is indisputable that Cyprus has every right to proceed and take every step needed for exploiting any natural wealth it possesses". Nicosia's confidence rests on the knowledge that it enjoys the backing of the US, Greece and Israel.

Foreign devils in Kurdish mountains
Meanwhile, Israeli commentators have also begun rattling Turkey's nerves, already somewhat frayed, over the furious return of Kurdish militancy. Israeli intelligence and businessmen have longstanding contacts with the Kurdish Peshmerga in northern Iraq.

Interestingly, Iran has highlighted lately that Israel could be stirring up the Kurdish pot for Turkey and, therefore, Tehran, Ankara and Damascus would have shared interests in countering the Kurdish separatism that threatened all three countries. Leading Israeli defense specialist David Eshel commented in August about the upsurge of Kurdish insurgency in Turkey's eastern provinces:
With the dilemma in Ankara growing steadily, the future of Turkey's Kurdish minority is inevitably shifting into national focus. The long unfulfilled quest of the Kurds for independent statehood is not emerging as a major barrier in ... Ankara's relations with the US ... Turkey cannot afford an independent Kurdistan; it would be losing some of its highly strategic and economic assets. In fact, without Kurdish eastern Turkey, the entire nation would break apart. The most devastating part of Eshel's commentary is his analysis that with the acute ongoing confrontation between the civilian government of Erdogan and the Turkish military, the latter's professionalism and intelligence-gathering capabilities have suffered a severe setback and the Turkish General Staff realizes that any military action in the Kurdish regions would be a "high-risk operation".

Eshel anticipated with an ominous overtone that a criticality might be reached soon if Turkish Kurds merged with the seasoned Iraqi Peshmerga militia numbering more than 100,000 fighters. He warned, "Erdogan is facing his yet most difficult challenge." Given Israel's close links with the Kurdish Peshmerga going back decades, Israel could be signaling to Ankara at various levels that it has the means to hit back at Erdogan.

Israeli interests fundamentally lie in creating rifts in Turkey's relations with Iran and its "diplomacy" toward Ankara is constantly working in this direction. The paradox, however, is that Israel knows that neither Ankara nor Tehran can afford any serious drift to develop in their relationship at this juncture in regional politics. But the Israelis are adept at turning paradoxes to their advantage.

The Kurdish problem exposes fault lines that cut across Sunni-Shi'ite tensions in the region. Ankara, Tehran, Baghdad and Damascus have a convergence of interests regarding Kurdish separatism despite being on different sides of the Sunni-Shi'ite divide.

Israel estimates, however, that the Kurdish problem makes Ankara vulnerable to American and European pressure tactic and an exacerbation of this could politically weaken Erdogan and bring him to his knees. Such an estimation may appear fanciful. But the fact remains that on Thursday, in a Kurdish ambush, 15 Turkish soldiers were injured, two of them critically, and since July over 40 Turkish soldiers have been killed by Kurdish insurgents.

Turkish public opinion is becoming concerned about national security and the government's handling of the Kurdish problem. At a delicate time in Turkish politics when Erdogan is navigating himself with gusto to assume office as the head of state in a new French-style presidential system of government, he cannot afford to be seen as ineffectual in meeting the Kurdish challenge.

He has opted for a firm military response. But in Eshel's estimation, the weakened Turkish military will meet more than a match in the Kurdish mountains and the assertive Turkish leadership may well find itself in a quagmire.

Two opposing camps of democracies forming. Free peoples, with free markets, electing themselves into conflict.
All still very blue camp vs red camp, but with this time both peoples can hate each other directly, rather than blame rival governments who are said to drag their unwilling or uninformed citizens into war against the free world. Maybe we can have a return to honest conflict, rather than the last 100 years of hawkish leaders proclaiming that they are doing the poor people they're attacking a great service.