It wasn't so long ago that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon called Turkey the most important nation in the world to Israel -- after the U.S. But the ardor between these two Middle Eastern democracies is cooling. At a recent luncheon sponsored by the Nixon Center, Mark Parris, a former ambassador to Turkey and now a senior foreign-policy adviser at the law firm of Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz in WashingtonParris noted that Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was stiffed last month when he tried to see Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
LOOKING TO EUROPE. The falling out is tied to several issues. As Soner Cagaptay, a Turkish expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, noted in the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz, Israel would like a decentralized government to keep Iraq weak. But that possibility could mean an unbridled Kurdish region -- dangerous at a time when the nationalist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) has renounced its ceasefire with Ankara and increased attacks against Turkey.
Not surprisingly, Turkey would like a strong central government in Baghdad to keep the Kurds in check. And Turkey is outraged at reports that Israel is training Kurds in northern Iraq -- a charge the Sharon government denies. The denials ring true because it doesn't make sense to choose a handful of Kurds over a country with Turkey's size and clout. Yet Ankara apparently is still suspicious, and the issue remains an irritant.
Iraq isn't the only sticking point between Turkey and Israel, however. Cagaptay points out that with Ankara anticipating a yearend invitation to join the European Union, Turkey is aligning its policies with prevailing European views on everything from Iran's nuclear programs to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This shift in thinking includes taking a less sympathetic view of some of Israel's more aggressive moves to bolster security, such as the attack in May on Rafah in Gaza, which destroyed homes and left dozens dead. Erdogan said Israel's action amounted to state terrorism.
FAILED STRATEGY. Beneath the friction, something more basic may be at work as well. Turkey's governing Justice & Development Party (JDP) has roots in the banned Islamist Welfare Party. While the JDP's leaders are far more secular than their fundamentalist political forbears, they haven't forgotten from whence they came. Ankara consults more with Arab leaders than previous secular governments did, according to Parris. And domestic political considerations, including an anti-Israel press, provide further incentive for getting tough with the country. Inside Turkey, Erdogan's criticism of Sharon is viewed as "not only right but wise," Parris adds.
While Turkish pols may see a benefit from roughing up Israel, it's a serious setback for Jerusalem. Steve Rosen of the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee said at the Nixon Center lunch that a strong Turkish-Israeli relationship is critical for restraining Syria. Keeping Damascus in line is "a cardinal strategic objective for Israel," he says.
The Turkish government's more European outlook has implications for the U.S. as well. It could undermine Bush Administration hopes for a "radical realignment" in the Middle East, according to Geoffrey Kemp, director of regional strategic programs at the Nixon Center. Kemp said at the lunch that the White House had hoped that the Iraqi war would produce three pro-American democracies in the region -- Iraq, Turkey, and Israel. That "would have a profound effect" on reforms in neighboring countries. "It hasn't turned out that way," he noted.
HOLDING A GRUDGE? Yet even before the war, Ankara had been reassessing its relations with Washington. Turkey's failure to send troops into Iraq demonstrates the impact of that strategic shift, though the U.S. was permitted to use Incirlik Air Base. Indeed, Turkey, once a staunch U.S. ally, is deeply concerned about American intentions and actions in Iraq. Turkish officials fret that the U.S. isn't up to fixing Iraq and fear a U.S. confrontation with Iran and Syria, according to Zeyno Baran, director of international security and energy programs at the Nixon Center. As a result, the Turkish government and population are "feeling close to neighbors it never identified with," she says.
Turkish officials also are upset that the U.S. has done nothing to stem Kurdish terrorists in northern Iraq. "If you're fighting against terrorism, you have to fight against all terrorists," a Turkish embassy official said at the lunch. The Iraqis can't or won't take care of the matter. But Baran says the Turks feel hamstrung because if they attack the Kurds, it could be the death knell of their bid for EU membership.
Don't look for the situation to get better any time soon. Turkish officials have mulled trying to patch things up. Experts say the Turks contend the problem is not Israel or Jews, but the Sharon government. They would like to visit Israel to work things out, but they would have to visit Palestinian leader Yassir Arafat. Sharon opposes that -- even though Turks say the message would not be one of support but rather that Arafat has to go.
FAST TRACK. Nor will the situation between the U.S. and Turkey improve. At the NATO summit, President Bush told Erdogan to bring up the subject of the Kurds with the Iraqis -- which could not have gone down well in Ankara. While Bush may have been relying on the veneer of Iraqi sovereignty to duck the issue, the response may demonstrate Washington is still miffed that Turkey didn't send troops into Iraq and blocked the U.S. army from opening up a front from the Turkish border. Ankara could have the last laugh, though. One wonders how it will respond next time the U.S. needs Incirlik.
Some of this tension probably was inevitable as Islamists gained more clout and Ankara sidled up to the Europeans. But the war in Iraq undoubtedly sped up the unraveling of close ties between Turkey and the countries it once considered most important. It's hard to see how relations will be mended as quickly. Crock covers national security and foreign affairs for BusinessWeek from Washington. Follow his views in Affairs of State