The details of Israel’s attempt on Monday to enforce the blockade of Gaza are less important than the consequences that will now begin to unfold. The Turkish passenger ship Mavi Marmara (Blue Marmara) was one of several that were attempting to run a blockade that Israel has been enforcing against the Hamas terrorists who control Gaza and launch rockets at civilian targets in Israel. Egypt maintains a land blockade for security reasons as well. The 4000-ton Mavi Marmara was sponsored by Insani Yardim Vakfi, a Turkish organization that Reuters has described as an “Islamic charity group.”
This flotilla was larger than its predecessors. Israeli officials had planned to redirect the vessels from Gaza to Ashdod where their cargoes were to be examined and sent overland into Gaza. The plan went badly awry. Israeli naval forces were met by Hamas sympathizers wielding metal poles and perhaps knives. The videos, which are all over the Internet, show troops descending by rope from a helicopter and being met by force. Israel admits that its troops were not armed with standard automatic weapons but rather guns that fire small capsules of paint--loud when fired but they produce only a sting and a big laundry bill. Confronted by the stick- and baton-wielders as well as groups of Mavi Marmara's activists who threw Israeli troops from an upper to a lower deck, the Israelis defended themselves with real bullets that killed nine.
The flotilla had been planned for a year. According to U.S. newspaper accounts the flotilla’s organizers had sought and received Turkish government support. UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon said he was disturbed that the incident took place in international waters, which demonstrates a poor grasp of board-and-search operations, which are normally carried out in international waters. This one went bad and it seems that the Israeli board-and-search party was unprepared to meet resistance. A more threatening or less audible arrival on board the ship might have convinced the Hamas activists that resistance was foolish. There will be inquiries. They will concentrate on the tactical minutiae of the incident and disregard the sensible Israeli policy that seeks to prevent sympathizers and terrorist groups from supplying Hamas with weapons it can turn on Israel. Hamas leadership will be pleased that Palestinians who exist under their violent rule are stirred up against Israel, a state that would live in peace with Palestinians while Hamas itself won’t consider peace with Israel.
But this incident is less about Israeli-Palestinian issues than it is about Turkey, whose Islamist prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, told parliament that “today is a turning point in history. Nothing will ever be the same again.” This observation is probably the most important and to-the-point remark about the incident.
Israel and Turkey have had good relations for virtually all of Israel’s existence. These included military, economic, and most important, strategic cooperation. Whatever Turkish leaders saw in the importance of Israel to the moderate Middle Eastern politics they favored, there was no doubt of common cause with Jerusalem in limiting Soviet ambitions in the region. This ended when Russia withered. Erdogan has been shifting Turkey’s course away from a secular state that looks westward to a religious one that looks to the east since he became prime minister seven years ago. Domestic critics accuse him of leading Turkey toward establishing an Islamic state. “Iran is our friend,” Erdogan told the Guardian in October 2009. Earlier the same year he stormed out of the Davos Economic Forum in Switzerland telling Israeli President Shimon Peres that “I know well how you hit and kill children on the beaches.” Last month Turkey and Syria held joint military exercises for the second time in as many years: This is a significant change. In 1998, Egyptian President Mubarak was mediating to keep Turkey and Syria from going to war with each other. The Islamists have the upper hand in Turkey today and the Mavi Marmara incident, as Prime Minister Erdogan understands, is a custom-made tool in his hands for sealing the fate of strategic cooperation with Israel. But even this shrivels by comparison to broader issues.
A new alignment in the Middle East has been in the making since Erdogan came to power. Unlike his Ottoman predecessors whose ambitions and outlook extended toward both Europe and Central Asia, Erdogan is focused to the east, specifically the Islamist East. The questions this opens rival in scope and magnitude those that Iran’s Islamic revolution raised.
Would an entente followed by strategic alliance between Turkey, Iran, and Syria—including greatly increased support for Hamas and Hezbollah—end Lebanon’s existence as a buffer state on Israel’s northern border? What does so powerful an axis on or close to its borders mean for Israel’s future? How would such an axis use its weight to spread Islamism throughout other Central Asian states and what would this mean for Russia, China, and India? Would Turkish-Iranian cooperation strangle the Kurds between them, and what calamitous prospect does this hold for the northern third of Iraq, to say nothing of Iraq itself? Should a Turkish state with Iran as a partner remain a member of NATO? Is there any reason to keep Turkey in NATO other than to try to prevent a war with Greece? And if Prime Minister Erdogan is right that the Mavi Marmara incident is “a turning point in history,” what reason is there to think that an alliance whose main business today is fighting Islamic radicals outside Europe would have any significant restraining influence over an Islamist Turkey in its age-old disagreement with Orthodox Greece?
Finally, and perhaps most puzzling, what does the Obama administration make of all this? Does it understand the effect of its policy toward Israel? Does it see that gradual diminishing of U.S. support for Israel encourages the suggestion advanced by Prime Minister Erdogan’s friend Ahmadinejad that Israel can be wiped off the map? Does the Obama administration think, for example, that the resolution it supported in the UN on Friday, May 28 for a nuclear-free Middle East, which singles out Israel but is silent on Iran, encourages or discourages the belief that maybe, just maybe, Israel will be forced on terms regardless of their consequences for its security to accede to Palestinian rulers, i.e. Hamas?
Is this an objective that the Obama administration seeks in its belief that Israeli-Palestinian disagreements stand in the way of peace in the Middle East? Or does the current administration believe that it can chip away endlessly at the U.S. relationship with Israel without such large consequences as the radicalization and strategic re-orientation of what was once our most powerful Muslim-majority state in the region? President Obama’s first trip abroad was to Europe and his first stop was Turkey. How could it have turned into this? How did the U.S. miss the opportunity to pull Turkey into a strategic partnership consistent with that great country’s ambitions and capabilities?
Senator Joseph Biden, while he was a vice presidential candidate, said that “it will not be six months before the world tests Barack Obama like they did John Kennedy.” Biden was wrong about timing, but right about the crisis. This one is not about the Mavi Marmara. It is about the strategic mass created by the increasingly convergent paths of the two of the Middle East’s largest, most powerful, and influential states, one of which could become a nuclear power and the other of which is on the threshold.
Seth Cropsey is a Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C. He served as a naval officer from 1985 to 2004 and as deputy undersecretary of the Navy in the Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations.