Israel and Turkey – time for cool heads

by | May 31, 2010

Waking up to the catastrophic news of Israel’s attack on the flotilla that was trying to break the blockade of Gaza, my snap reaction was that this event had the potential to trigger a chain of uncontrollable consequences. Nothing has since happened to reassure me that this was an early-morning overreaction.

Perhaps most worrying is the potential for friction between Israel and Turkey, countries that once enjoyed an unexpectedly good relationship (£2.5bn in bilateral trade in 2009). Turkey was the aid convoy’s main national sponsor, leading Israel’s unions to retaliate with a boycott of the country.

According to one Israeli union leader:

Turkey had been wiped off the workers unions’ travel maps. In a survey we conducted among the participants in the semi-annual union heads forum, we found that Israel’s workers’ unions have had enough of Turkey’s hostility toward Israel, which in the past had been characterized by verbal attacks by the country’s prime minister, but had now shifted to active attempts to harm Israel’s sovereignty. The tourism boycott is a weapon that will send a message to Ankara that words and deeds have consequences.

But Tel Aviv may now be the capital to discover that deeds have consequences that can go well beyond a boycott. The Turkish government is reported to be threatening to send more boats sailing towards Israel’s coast, but this time to give them a naval escort. That would put the two countries on track towards a very dangerous confrontation.

Bradley Burston, writing in Haaretz, is also worried:

Perhaps most ominously, in a stepwise, lemming-like march of folly in our relations with Ankara, a regional power of crucial importance and one which, if heeded, could have helped head off the First Gaza War, we have come dangerously close to effectively declaring a state of war with Turkey.

“This is going to be a very large incident, certainly with the Turks,” said Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, the cabinet minister with the most sensitive sense of Israel’s ties with the Muslim world.

Let’s hope the Turkish government continues to pursue its grievances with Israel through the international system, rather than putting the two countries’ navies on a collision course. Otherwise this grim year could get soon get much worse – yet again.

Update: Channel 4’s Faisal Islam points to NATO’s charter, presumably with Turkey in mind.

The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defence…

An armed attack on one or more of the Parties is deemed to include an armed attack… on the forces, vessels, or aircraft of any of the Parties, when in or over these territories or any other area in Europe in which occupation forces of any of the Parties were stationed on the date when the Treaty entered into force or the Mediterranean Sea or the North Atlantic area north of the Tropic of Cancer.

Update II: NATO will meet on Tuesday at Turkey’s request. According to an unnamed diplomat:

NATO does not really have instruments with which to deal with the follow-up from this type of affair. Turkey has not invoked article five which envisages all allies coming to the aid of a member country that is the victim of an attack.

But, given that numerous Turkish citizens appear to figure among the casualties, it is understandable that (Ankara) triggers political dialogue with its partners.

Update III: One to watch is the Irish boat – MV Rachel Corrie (yes, that Rachel Corrie) which is yet to reach Israel:

Five are onboard the Irish-owned vessel, MV Rachel Corrie, and all are safe. The ship was one day behind the main flotilla and is still on its way to Gaza.

Among the passengers on the Rachel Corrie are Nobel Peace Laureate Mairead Maguire and former UN Assistant Secretary-General Denis Halliday.

Does it sail on towards a second confrontation? And if so, how will the Israelis react?


  • David Steven is a senior fellow at New York University, where he founded the Global Partnership to End Violence against Children and the Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies, a multi-stakeholder partnership to deliver the SDG targets for preventing all forms of violence, strengthening governance, and promoting justice and inclusion. He was lead author for the ministerial Task Force on Justice for All and senior external adviser for the UN-World Bank flagship study on prevention, Pathways for Peace. He is a former senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and co-author of The Risk Pivot: Great Powers, International Security, and the Energy Revolution (Brookings Institution Press, 2014). In 2001, he helped develop and launch the UK’s network of climate diplomats. David lives in and works from Pisa, Italy.

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