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Friday, September 09, 2011

Israel contemplates playing hardball with Turkey

For an entire week since the Palmer report mostly exonerating Israel for the Mavi Marmara incident was released, Turkey has been increasing its rhetoric and actions against Israel - and the only official Israeli response has been to express hope that relations between the two countries can improve.

That may be about to change.

From YNet:
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has decided to adopt a series of harsh measures in response to Turkey’s latest anti-Israeli moves, Yedioth Ahronoth reported Friday.
Senior Foreign Ministry officials convened Thursday to prepare for a meeting to be held Saturday with Lieberman on the matter. Saturday’s session will be dedicated to discussing Israel’s response to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s recent threats and his decision to downgrade Ankara’s diplomatic ties with Jerusalem.

Following Thursday’s meeting, officials assessed that Turkey is not interested in an Israeli apology at this time and prefers to exploit the dispute with Jerusalem in order to promote Ankara’s status in the Muslim world. Lieberman therefore decided there was no point in seeking creative formulas for apologizing, instead choosing to focus Israel’s efforts on punishing Turkey.

The Foreign Ministry has now decided to proceed with the formulation of a diplomatic and security “toolbox” to be used against the Turks. The first move would be to issue a travel warning urging all Israeli military veterans to refrain from traveling to Turkey. The advisory will be especially harsh as it will also urge Israelis to refrain from boarding connections in Turkey.

Another planned Israeli move is the facilitation of cooperation with Turkey’s historic rivals, the Armenians. During Lieberman’s visit to the United States this month, the foreign minister is expected to meet with leaders of the Armenian lobby and propose anti-Turkish cooperation in Congress.

The implication of this move could be Israeli assistance in promoting international recognition of the Armenian holocaust, a measure that would gravely harm Turkey. Israel may also back Armenia in its dispute vis-à-vis Turkey over control of Mount Ararat.

Lieberman is also planning to set meetings with the heads of Kurdish rebel group PKK in Europe in order to “cooperate with them and boost them in every possible area.” In these meetings, the Kurds may ask Israel for military aid in the form of training and arms supplies, a move that would constitute a major anti-Turkish position should it materialize.

However, the violent clashes between Turkey and the Kurds only constitute one reason prompting accusations that Ankara is violating human rights. Hence, another means in Lieberman’s “toolbox” vis-à-vis Erdogan is a diplomatic campaign where Israeli missions worldwide will be instructed to join the fight and report illegal Turkish moves against minorities.

The tough response formulated by Lieberman stems, among other things, from the foreign minister’s desire to make it clear to Erdogan that his anti-Israeli moves are not a “one-way street.”
The current Turkish leadership is not the type to back down in face of actions like these, so there is a danger of a macho cycle of escalation that cannot be easily repaired.

 Perhaps Lieberman's disclosure of his "toolbox" is meant to give a taste of what Israel could do, not a plan of what Israel will do. Combined with European pressure, Erdogan might be persuaded to back off a bit if Israel holds onto these cards for now. And there is some indication that outside of the downgrading of diplomatic ties, Turkey's other anti-Israel moves might be more bluster than reality.

 No one should discount the fact that Turkey wants to be seen as the leader of the Muslim world, and will act accordingly against Israel. Nor the fact that the Turkish street seems to support Erdogan's rhetoric. But on the other hand Turkey also seeks to be recognized as a serious nation in dealing with Europe and the rest of the West. It also enjoyed its status as a go-to place for certain Arab-Israeli negotiations.

 So Israel's best response might be to remain low key, to let Erdogan continue to make a fool of himself in front of his erstwhile European friends, and not to burn any bridges. At the same time, Israel can  let Turkey know that it has no shortage of matches should it come to that.