Commenting on a report in Thursday's New York Times that the Obama administration is considering a policy shift on Gaza, the private intelligence company Stratfor, which for some time has been emphasizing the rise of Turkey's geopolitical prominence in the eastern Mediterranean, said Friday that "Turkey is the more valuable ally to Washington than Israel at this point in time."[1]  --  "The United States . . . cannot afford to prioritize Israel’s interests over Turkey’s." ...


Geopolitical diary


June 4, 2010 -- 1048 GMT [0348 PDT]

Unnamed senior U.S. officials leaked to the *New York Times* Thursday that U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration was considering a policy shift on Israel’s blockade of Gaza.  The U.S. officials reportedly described the Israeli blockade of Gaza as “untenable” and the deadly Israeli raid on the Turkish-led aid flotilla as impetus for a new U.S. approach to Gaza.

These hints of a U.S. shift toward Israel and Gaza, while still in the unofficial stage of newspaper leaks, are deeply troubling for the state of Israel.  The comments by anonymous U.S. officials come after Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Tuesday, that “Israel stands to lose its closest ally in the Middle East if it does not change its mentality.”  Though Turkey is stopping short of threatening a breach in its relations with Israel, it is clearly looking to publicly downgrade the alliance.  And though the United States is not about to abandon its Jewish ally, Washington is not about to rush to Israel’s defense in this difficult time, either.

Israel is not a country that can survive in isolation.  It is a small country surrounded by hostile states that sits on the edge of the Mediterranean basin, where larger, more distant powers with greater resources will inevitably entangle Israel in pursuit of their own interests.  In such a dynamic neighborhood, Israel has to maneuver very carefully in trying to ensure its own security.  Israel can do this by making itself attractive enough to the Mediterranean power of the day such that the Mediterranean power sees in its interest to fulfill the role of Israel’s security patron.  The second Israel becomes a liability to that patron, however, the country’s vulnerability soars and its survivability comes into question.

The Soviet Union -- eyeing a strategic foothold in the Mediterranean Basin -- was a patron to Israel since the state’s inception.  Israel, wanting to balance its relationship with the Soviets and unnerved by Soviet sponsorship of the Arabs, then joined forces with France, which was fighting its own bloody war in Algeria and was already in a hostile relationship with the Arabs.  French interest in Israel began to wane, however, in 1962 with the end of the Algerian civil war.  Paris quickly began to view Israel as a liability to its efforts to maintain influence in the Middle East.  By 1967, the United States was prepared to forge an alliance with Israel as a strategic counter to a Soviet push in the eastern Mediterranean.  By aligning with both Israel and Turkey during the Cold War, the United States had two strategic pressure points in the Mediterranean basin to counter Soviet footholds in Egypt, Syria, and Iraq.  Israel and Turkey were natural allies facing common foes, while the United States was the glue that held this alliance structure together.

But times have changed.  Turkey is no longer a vulnerable power in need of a bodyguard to fend off the Soviets.  Present-day Turkey is rediscovering its Ottoman roots in the Middle East, Caucasus, Europe, and Central Asia, and is using its Islamic credentials to spread Turkish influence throughout the Muslim world.  A tight alliance with Israel does not fit with this agenda.  Turkey derives leverage from having a relationship with both Israel and the Muslim states (and so is unlikely to break ties with Israel), but is also viewing its alliance with Israel as a liability to its expansionist agenda.  The United States, while needing to maintain a strategic foothold in the Mediterranean basin, is trying desperately to follow through with a timeline to militarily extricate itself from Iraq and reach some sort of understanding with the Iranians.  Turkey, unhindered by the Persian-Arab and Israeli-Arab rivalries, can do things for the United States in this region that Israel simply can’t achieve.  In short, Turkey is the more valuable ally to Washington than Israel at this point in time.

With Jordan locked into an alliance, Egypt being more interested in maintaining peace with Israel than making war and Syria too militarily weak to pose a meaningful challenge, Israel is not as dependent on the United States as it used to be.  This decline in dependence explains why Israel feels able to push the envelope with the United States when it comes to thorny issues like Iran and settlement construction in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.  With Turkey regaining flexibility in the region and Israel not under heavy military pressure, the U.S. adhesive in the Turkish-Israeli relationship is wearing off.  Washington no longer has the influence over these two powers it once had.

The United States thus finds itself in the difficult position of having to choose between its two allies in the Middle East.  Washington will try a balancing act, but it has no choice but to lean toward the Turks in the wake of the flotilla crisis.  A little animosity with Israel might also help the United States gain some credibility in this part of the world.  Israel, on the other hand, finds itself backed into a corner.  Turkey means it when it says its relationship with Israel will not go back to what it once was.  The two countries will likely maintain relations, but Israel will not be able to rely on Turkey as a regional ally.  The United States, meanwhile, cannot afford to prioritize Israel’s interests over Turkey’s.  In this geopolitical climate, Israel lacks the luxury of options.