Sunday, October 18, 2009

Israelis Boycott Turkish Coffee

Arabic news network Al Arabiya reports many Israeli restaurants have decided to boycott Turkish coffee. In addition, Israeli's national airline, El Al, will stop subsidizing vacations for their workers to popular Turkish destinations.

These developments are the latest indicators of the deteriorating relations between traditional allies Israel and Turkey. According to Michael Reynolds at the MESH blog, "The Turkey-Israeli strategic partnership is no longer in crisis, but has essentially ended."

In recent weeks, Turkey expressed its anger over the Gaza War by barring Israel from participating in a joint military exercise. Later, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman chastised Turkey for a new television drama that shows Israel soldiers murdering Palestinian children. Last week, Syria and Turkey signed several treaties that indicate a growing strategic partnership between the two countries - a trend none too comforting to Israelis. Finally this weekend, Prime Minister Netanyahu has questioned whether Turkey can act as an "honest broker" in mediating talks between Syria and Israel.

So what's the deal? At a recent event I attended at the United States Institute of Peace, Brookings expert Ömer Taşpınar cited two causes. One, the voice of the Turkish people has been amplified over the years, making the government more responsive to populist sentiment. The Turkish people, never fully convinced about their government's alliance with Israel, have voiced their anger forcefully over innocents killed during Israeli military operations. During a conversation this summer with a Turkish friend, I said in passing "Now that the Gaza War is over..." She immediately interjected angrily, "The war's not over! Palestinians are still suffering every day!"

Second, perhaps as a backlash over stalled E.U. ascension talks, the Turkey has witnessed a growing surge of nationalistic fervor. Turkey now seeks to become a regional power, solving the region's issues and developing ties with all of its neighbors. Towards this end, Turkey has sought to improve relations with its longtime rival Armenia. In addition, Turkish President Abdullah Gul boasted today that Turkey is among the "rare" countries that maintain good relations with both Israel and the Arab states.

That statement implies to me that, while relations are suffering right now, in the long run cooler heads will prevail in both Turkey and Israel. The countries share several essential strategic interests that require cooperation, especially in countering Iran's vision of establishing its own regional hegemony. The United States won't let them forget what's at stake. In fact, it appears President Obama may have already raised the issue of Israel to President Gul in a telephone call this weekend.

But for the near future, expect some grumpy, caffeine-starved Israelis in Tel Aviv's cafes.

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