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Ankara's Chosen Scapegoat

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Monday morning Turkey took its anti-Israel campaign to a new level. Beyond downgrading diplomatic relations with Israel; beyond suspending military agreements; beyond threatening naval war; beyond threatening to foment an irredentist insurrection of Israeli Arabs; the Turks decided to terrorize Israeli tourists landing in Istanbul airport.


Forty Israeli passengers, mainly businessmen who had landed in Istanbul on a Turkish Airlines flight from Tel Aviv, were separated from the rest of the flight passengers. Their passports were confiscated.

They were placed in interrogation rooms and stripped down to their underwear. Their carry-on bags were checked. And then they were lined up against a wall, forbidden to sit down or use the washroom.

Passengers who contacted the Foreign Ministry said they felt frightened and intimidated.

The ordeal went on for 90 minutes, until Turkish authorities returned their Israeli passports and permitted them to pick up their suitcases and exit the airport.

What were the Turks trying to accomplish by terrifying the Israeli tourists? They didn't need to threaten trade ties. Their Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu already took care of that over the weekend.

The victimized Israelis said the Turkish airport authorities wouldn't even answer their questions. Any time we asked them a question, the tourists said, the Turks ignored us.

It was as if they weren't even there.

And that's the thing of it. The Turks didn't harass the Israeli tourists in order to send a message to Israel. They have nothing more to say to us. We are non-entities to them. We're only good for attacking.

No, Israel wasn't the target audience the Turks were playing to on Monday. Their target audience was the Islamic world generally and the Arab world specifically. Turkey's influence in these arenas skyrocketed in January 2009 after Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused President Shimon Peres and Israel of mass murder as the leaders shared a stage at the Davos Conference.


Similarly Erdogan's domestic and pan-Islamic support levels increased steeply in the aftermath of the Turkish-supported pro-Hamas flotilla to Gaza in 2010. After nine Turkish government-supported IHH terrorists were killed aboard the Mavi Marmara when they tried to murder IDF naval commandos who had lawfully boarded the ship, the Arabs hailed Erdogan as a hero for bravely attacking Israel.

Given how well scapegoating Israel has served him, Erdogan clearly believes it is a no-risk strategy for raising his star from Cairo to Algiers.

Leftist Israeli commentators refuse to accept what is happening. Writing in Haaretz on Sunday, Shlomo Avineri recommended that Israel compensate the nine IHH members whom IDF commandos killed in self-defense on the Mavi Marmara. Avineri argued that by refusing to do so, Israel was playing into the hands of hardliners. True, "it won't be easy, but we need to grit our teeth and do the right thing," he wrote.

Others have argued that Israel may be able to rebuild its strategic relations with Turkey by selling Ankara more drones with which to kill Iraqi and Turkish Kurds. The Turkish military claimed it killed 100 Kurdish fighters in its attacks last month in Iraq and along the Turkish-Iraqi border. Israeli UAVs reportedly played a key role in the bombing. But Turkey needs more. If we sell them more, the argument goes, maybe they will see how useful we are and stop attacking us.


Aside from being morally reprehensible, these arguments fail to recognize the basic reality that Turkey has no interest whatsoever in rebuilding its ties with Israel. The once-important strategic alliance is over and gone, and Israel cannot do anything about it. All Turkey sees us as today is a scapegoat.

It has been argued by commentators on the Right that Turkey's abandonment of Israel is part and parcel of its abandonment of the US. But this is a mischaracterization of Turkey's policy toward the US.

Since 2003, Turkey has undertaken a series of actions that have harmed US strategic interests. The first, of course, was Erdogan's decision on the eve of the Iraq War to deny the US military the right to invade northern Iraq from Turkey.

The latest action was arguably Turkey's joint air exercises with the Chinese Air Force last September.

Chinese jets en route to Turkey refueled in Iran. The exercise was a clear signal that NATO member Turkey intends to exploit its alliance with the US to build ties with the US's chief geostrategic competitor.

Yet at the same time that Turkey has harmed the US, it has also taken steps to assist it. Most recently, last week, Erdogan belatedly agreed to station the high-powered US X-Band radar on its territory as part of a missile defense system to protect NATO allies against the threat of Iranian long-range missiles.


Turkey's mixed policies toward the US reveal that unlike its position on Israel, Turkey believes that it has an interest in maintaining its alliance with the US. Its hostile behavior is more a function of perceived US weakness than anything else. That is, Turkey is willing to risk angering the US by undercutting it because it does not fear US retribution.

Turkey's aggressive behavior might end if the US made Turkey pay a price for it.

To its credit, the Netanyahu government has not accepted the advice of the Left and has refused to apologize to Turkey or pay compensation to the families of those killed aboard the Marmara. Moreover, the government has wisely used Turkey's behavior as a means of building strong bilateral ties with other victims of Turkish aggression. Over the past two years, Israel has strongly upgraded is strategic ties with Greece, Cyprus, Bulgaria and Romania. Israel should add to these accomplishments by strengthening its ties to Armenia and to the Kurds of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran.

With newspapers running groundless stories about prospects for reconstituting relations with Turkey, we need to recognize that what we are experiencing now is the beginning, not the end, of Turkey's slide into the enemy camp. Erdogan is openly taking steps to transform Turkey into an Islamic state along the lines of Iran. And the further he goes down his chosen path, the more harshly and aggressively he will lash out at Israel.


Given that scapegoating Israel is not a momentary lapse of reason on Turkey's part but a central aspect of a long-term regional strategy, it is clear that Israel needs to meet Turkish aggression with more than momentary courage in the face of intimidation and threats. Israel needs to build on its already successful policy of forming a ring of alliances around Turkey and develop a long-term military and diplomatic strategy for containing and weakening it.

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