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Turkey and the West

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Having supposedly turned its back definitively on Israel, the EU, and the West in general, it turns out Turkey engaged in talks with . . . Israel and the EU. Go figure.

I'm not going to belabor this point. Neither am I going to minimize the wild-card factor represented by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's temperamental reactiveness and his unrealistic conditions for Turkey-Israel reconciliation. And it's useless to deny the fundamental shifts emerging in Ankara's strategic calculus, both regionally and further abroad. But those shifts are based on a pretty clear-eyed and smart assessment both of Turkey's upside potential as a middle power, and the fundamental shifts emerging in the geopolitical landscape, both regionally and further afield.

The Turks should be careful not to overplay their hand. The balance of who needs whom between Turkey and the West has certainly shifted, but not so overwhelmingly that the Turks can dispense with the smart diplomacy that got them to this point. Also, Turkey is not the only game in town. If the West became willing to simply bypass Ankara as a regional interlocutor, it would represent a significant constraint on Turkey's options, and force it to consider relationships (Russia, Iran) that are even more problematic than its strained ties with Israel, the U.S. and Europe.

Meanwhile, the West should be careful not to exaggerate or sensationalize what is going on in Turkish strategic circles, nor lay all the blame on Turkey. (See Yigal Schleifer for more on how that's playing out.) There's already been a healthy dose of honest criticism of the EU for its failure of vision regarding Turkey's membership candidacy. The same amount of honesty is needed regarding Israel's recent blunders in the bilateral relationship. Whatever the domestic politics and tactical justifications that drove the decision to invade Gaza in 2008-2009, that war was a huge self-inflicted wound for Israel in its broader regional strategic situation, and nowhere more so than in the damage it did to the Israel-Turkey relationship -- and as a result the Israel-Syria peace track.

One alternative scenario for the first months of the Obama presidency involves President Barack Obama providing the U.S. imprimatur to a Turkey-brokered Israel-Syria peace deal. Contrast that to today, when to engage in talks with its closest historical regional partner, Israel sends not its foreign minister, but its minister of industry to a secret meeting in Brussels. If that's not a wake-up call, I don't know what is.

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