It seems it is now hard to get a cup of Turkish coffee in Tel Aviv. Israel’s patriotic restaurant owners are giving Turkey the “freedom fries” treatment because of the Turkish decision to exclude Israel from the annual air combat exercises that since 2001 Turkey has been sponsoring in collaboration with its allies.

But this is a more serious affair for Israel than the George W. Bush administration’s “punishment” of France for refusing to invade Iraq in 2003. Israel has for many years enjoyed a certain international impunity with respect to the civilian as well as military casualties of its wars. This was thanks to United States and West European reluctance to discuss the subject and because Israel’s longstanding association with Turkey has provided a certain international insulation for it in matters concerning Muslims.

Other than the United States, Turkey has been probably the most important of Israel’s allies, informal or otherwise. It is Muslim; it possesses the most democratic government of all the present-day Muslim states. Its major military and political links are with NATO, the United States and Western Europe. It has provided an important market for Israeli goods and a source of useful military exchanges. It sees itself as a modernizing state, allied with the West.

Thus when the war in Korea broke out in 1951, Turkey was an early volunteer to furnish troops to the United Nations coalition that was placed under American command. These won a fabulous combat reputation in the Korea fighting, and in 1952 Turkey was invited to join NATO.

Turkey and Greece — the latter also sent troops to Korea — were the first two states to become NATO members, following the 12 original signatories of the North Atlantic Treaty in 1949.

After the 9/11 attacks, Turkey was the first Muslim state to volunteer troops to serve in Afghanistan. Turkey wants European Union membership, and is an official candidate, but faces considerable (and likely decisive) opposition because of reluctance among existing EU members to accept a Muslim nation with a much lower level of education and lower living standards than the rest of Europe as the second-most populous member of the union (next to Germany) and therefore as the nation with the second-largest representation in the EU Parliament.

The reason for Turkey’s rebuff to Israel is what Israel did last year to the population of Gaza. The disproportionate use of force in Gaza resulted in the United Nations Human Rights Council’s commission of a special investigation and report, recently completed under the leadership of Judge Richard Goldstone, the noted (and, incidentally, Jewish) South African jurist. Goldstone’s report accuses both Israel and Hamas — which controls Gaza — of acts that could be construed of as war crimes. It demands that further investigation be conducted by both sides and that each accept accountability for what its forces did. If that is not done, it is recommended that the report be forwarded to the U.N. General Assembly, for possible referral to the International Criminal Court.

Israel officially is outraged, blaming all this on anti-Semitism. But it is seriously alarmed at the threat of losing its alliance with Turkey, which it has considered a talisman in its foreign relations: a Muslim state that has at least symbolically supported Israel against its Muslim enemies.

It has perhaps counted too much on the Turkish army, custodian of the secular character of the state founded by Ataturk in 1923, responsible for maintaining Turkey’s distinct secular place with respect to the rest of the Muslim world, and its military and political links to those modern Western forces and societies with which the Turkish governing elite has wished to identify its nation.

The orthodox religious community in Turkey, which is increasing in influence, has been much affected by the Gaza affair. It has inspired anti-Israel demonstrations across the country, with definite anti-Semitic overtones.

The attack on Gaza has influenced the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, as well as the Islamist community in which his party has its roots. Last weekend he said that his government defends the “oppressed” against the “persecutors,” obviously referring to Gaza. The head of Turkish diplomacy said that relations with Israel will not improve until “the human tragedy in Gaza” has ended. Israel’s assumptions of invulnerability to world opinion have become a danger to itself.

Visit William Pfaff’s Web site at

© 2009 Tribune Media Services Inc.


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