Roger Cohen
The New York Times (Opinion)
July 9, 2010 - 12:00am

NEW YORK — Here’s an intriguing nugget, given Turkey’s recent decision to close its airspace to Israeli military planes: When Israel attacked a covert Syrian nuclear reactor on Sept. 6, 2007, its bombers overflew Turkey.

A former senior U.S. official who was intimately involved in handling the fallout from the raid told me Turkish officials raised the issue with Israel, were invited to discuss the matter, but in the end let it drop.

Those were different times, before Turkish-Israeli ties entered their current poisonous phase.

The biggest injection of poison was administered by Israel’s killing of nine Turkish activists (one of them also a U.S. citizen) on a Gaza aid ship on May 31. This was the immediate catalyst to the airspace exclusion. But well before that, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister who heads a party of Islamist bent, had hit the (negative) reset button with Israel.

Erdogan was infuriated by Israel’s Gaza offensive of 2008-09, in which about 1,400 Palestinians, and 13 Israelis, were killed.

Spurned as a supplicant to the West — some European Union politicians have much to answer for with their notions of a “Christian club” — Erdogan has recast Turkey as a regional power with strong interests in Iran and Syria. Looking east has helped ignite the Turkish economy while Europe flounders. A novel role that turns history on its head has appealed to Erdogan: Turkish hero of the Arab street.

Given the military trade between Israel and Turkey ($1.8 billion in 2007), U.S. godfathering of the Turkish-Israeli relationship, and Turkey’s commitment to remaining inside the Western tent even while reaching outside it, I don’t expect cooperation to cease between Ankara and Jerusalem. But Israel has real reason for concern.

It could overfly Turkey in 2007 en route to taking out a Syrian facility of North Korean design because of the wink-and-nod nature of its military relationship with its best regional Muslim friend. That’s history.

Since then Israel’s actions, tactical bluster devoid of strategic sense, have left it far more isolated than before. I hear more hostility to Israel around the world than at any time I can recall.

The United States, traumatized, made mistakes after 9/11. Too often, it shunned prudence and rode roughshod. Israel is in some ways an extension of the United States. The line between what’s domestic and what’s international in the relationship is flimsy. It’s therefore not surprising that Israel, too, has erred on the side of warmongering this past decade.

The war on terror, an expression dropped by President Obama, was a catchall phrase that enabled Israeli leaders to bundle the Palestinian national struggle into the terror camp, where much of it did not belong. This has proved a terrible distorting lens.

I sense some Israeli realization at last that this course — the terror-propagating Gaza sardine can, the ad-hominem outrage of the reaction to the Goldstone report on Gaza, the facile recourse to disproportionate force, the repetitive “no Palestinian interlocutor” complaints, the too spin-doctored slogans of constant existential threat — leads only to a dead end. Israel can do much better.

How else to interpret the prizing open, to some degree, of that Hamas sardine can? And the Israeli indictment of officers and soldiers for their roles in Gaza — precisely the possible war crimes of which Richard Goldstone wrote? And the dawning realization that in Salam Fayyad, the West Bank Palestinian prime minister, Israel has the last best interlocutor it will ever encounter? And a toning-down of the overdone Iran threat drumbeat?

I’ve long argued for such shifts. I’m pleased to see them. I’ve no idea how lasting they will be: Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing government gives cause for doubt. Much will depend on whether Obama — this week’s pre-November love-fest with Netanyahu notwithstanding — is prepared to be tough.

The Mideast remains volatile. On the Iran drumbeat, some other nuggets from that former senior official are of interest. The Bush administration opposed the 2007 Israeli strike. It was worried the Syrians would respond and ignite a wider Middle East war. It believed tough U.S. diplomacy, backed by the threat of force, would ensure the Syrian reactor never became operational. President Bush’s line was: Let me handle it.

Ehud Olmert, then the Israeli prime minister, was disappointed at American inaction. His line was: It’s now in our hands. No U.S. green light was asked for, and none given, as Israel bombed.

The fallout was contained through sleight of hand. Israel feigned ignorance. A tight collar was placed for several months around U.S. intelligence. President Bashar al-Assad was not made to feel cornered. It was as if the reactor had gone poof in the night.

Could Iran’s Natanz plant go poof in the night? Some people are thinking about it, an attack from “nowhere.” I think those are dangerous thoughts. Iran is not Syria.

The Obama-Netanyahu statement said: “The president told the prime minister he recognizes that Israel must always have the ability to defend itself, by itself, against any threat or possible combination of threats, and that only Israel can determine its security needs.”

Is that plain language or a hall of mirrors?



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