On the margins of the United Nations Security Council vote on the Palestinian Authority’s bid for statehood, President Obama met with Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan this week in New York to discuss the future of Turkey’s deteriorating relations with Israel.
Since Israel’s attack on the Gaza Flotilla in 2010, which killed nine Turkish citizens, Erdogan has demanded that Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu formally apologize for the incident or face a tangible downgrade in diplomatic relations.
Erdogan stood by his word. This month the Turkish government expelled Israel’s ambassador from Ankara and suspended defense industry ties.
As the heat rises in the standoff between Turkey and Israel, stakes are high for Obama who has fought an upward battle for credibility in the streets of the Arab world. However once again, the United States has stood silent in the face of the Israeli government’s increasingly belligerent foreign policy decisions.
The dilemma facing Obama exemplifies the pressing need for the United States to reexamine its future role in the Middle East – its ability to approach an empowered Arab public, its ability to maintain influence, and its ability to regain legitimacy.
Although a long-standing special relationship between the US and Israel had become a pillar of American foreign policy in the Middle East, if we critically examine the US’ long-term interests in the context of the Arab Awakening, we must ask ourselves: At what point does a “special relationship” become a strategic nightmare?
As the Arab Awakening continues to reshape key political, military, and economic alliances in the Middle East, Turkey has undoubtedly emerged as a willing leader in a still tumultuous regional environment. Now more than ever, Turkey stands as an indispensable bridge between the West and an emerging Arab world.
A developed country of nearly 75 million Muslims with a globally competitive market that Stanley Fischer, Governor of the Bank of Israel, calls a “hot spot” for international investment it would behoove not only the US and Europe but also Israel to take seriously the scope of Turkey’s geopolitical and economic influence in the Middle East.
The US must either reform its “special relationship” with Israel to adapt to this changing region or face a strategic nightmare in the Arab world. The US cannot afford a conciliatory position as Netanyahu leads his country down a road of complete international isolation and domestic instability. Obama must support Erdogan’s challenge to Israel’s truculent and ultimately self-destructive regional policies.
Rena Zuabi is with the Atlantic Council’s Strategic Foresight Initiative.