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Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Turkey and Israel: The Deep Freeze Thaws Ever So Slightly

Driving in and out of Tel Aviv on Tuesday via the coastal highway, I noticed three things:

1. Heightened activity at the location, which to the untrained eye appears like a giant garbage dump, where Israel trains to lift massive concrete blocks in anticipation of the earthquake which will ultimately rock the country.

2. An advertisement on a bus reading "Turkey welcomes you." Turkey is again welcoming Israelis to vacation there? Given the strains between the two countries since the Mavi Marmara incident and the humiliation of Israelis arriving in Istanbul, I found it somewhat remarkable that Turkey would now be "welcoming" Israelis.

3. As always, the Turkish flag proudly unfurled from the Turkish Embassy building in Tel Aviv with no sign of tension whatsoever in the environs.

Sure enough, I later learned that Turkey was asking Israel for assistance in rescuing persons still trapped under the rubble following its latest earthquake. I'm certain that the delay has resulted in the deaths of several Turks, but fortunately Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan was ultimately willing to swallow his pride. However, there's more to this story than meets the eye.

Erdogan has recently learned that a weakened Egypt does not want his meddling. The roots of this rivalry between Arabs and Turks go back hundreds of years, particularly as it pertains to Egypt. Moreover, even when I visit Istanbul, I still hear Turks decrying how the Arabs stabbed them in the back during World War I.

Erdogan has also sought to improve relations with Iran, notwithstanding economic sanctions being imposed by the West on Tehran. Erdogan is again coming to realize that notwithstanding the Middle East power vacuum created by Obama, the historic tensions between Turkey and Iran cannot be undone overnight, and there is a price to be paid for snubbing Turkey's NATO benefactors, particularly when he is seeking their material assistance in heightened fighting with Kurdish guerilla forces.

Last but not least, Erdogan, who had sought to improve relations with Syria, as part of his efforts to regain suzerainty over the Middle East in a throwback to Ottoman days, has determined that more harm than good can come from befriending Syria's Assad, who has made sport in recent months of murdering his own people.

As the Russian ambassador to Israel once told me many years ago: "There is never a dull moment in this country. Sometimes it's crazy."

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