Understanding Turkey's Policy of Confrontation with Israel

On a bright, cold day in mid-January, 1998, I stood with a group of Turkish journalists at the water's edge on Haifa Bay. A shape appeared on the horizon. It was a Turkish warship, beginning its approach to the Israeli coastline. One of the journalists handed out cigars as the ship slowly drew nearer. We toasted the friendship between Israel and Turkey -- and the transformation of the Middle East's strategic balance.

I was a young official of the Israel Prime Minister's Office at the time. The Turkish journalists were our guests. They were in Israel to cover the Reliant Mermaid naval exercise. Reliant Mermaid, a joint maneuver involving the Israeli, Turkish, and U.S. navies, launched the strategic alliance between Turkey and Israel which formed a lynchpin of the pro-western dispensation that marked the post-Cold War Middle East.

How things have changed. Turkish navy ships may soon once again be sailing to the eastern Mediterranean. This time, however, they will do so with the real possibility of a clash with their former Israeli comrades in arms. This sentence sounds absurd even as I write it. Yet it is accurate. What has transformed these friends into enemies?

Profound changes are under way in the Middle East. In recent years, the key strategic process in the region was a Cold War-type system, placing the U.S. and its regional allies in a contest with a rival alliance led by the Islamic Republic of Iran.

The series of upheavals known as the "Arab Spring," however, have cut across this picture, weakening both the rival sides. The United States lost a key lynchpin of its alliance with the fall of the Mubarak regime in Egypt.

Iran, contrary to its early expectations, has not yet been able to successfully take advantage of the travails of its enemies. The uprising in Syria and Tehran's determination to preserve the dictator Bashar al-Assad at all costs have left Iran with the image of an oppressive, alien power supporting violence against Sunni Muslim Arabs.

The weakening of both the U.S.- and Iranian-led regional alliances has left a power vacuum into which Erdogan's Turkey is now trying to step. Ankara used to pride itself on its "zero problems with neighbors" policy. Today, under the leadership of the Islamist AKP, Turkey is simultaneously picking fights with a long array of enemies, while trying to propose itself as a candidate for the leadership of the region.

Thus, Ankara is playing the key role behind the scenes in aiding and organizing the Sunni opposition in Syria. It has in recent days been enthusiastically bombing Kurdish targets in northern Iraq (with the loss of a number of civilian lives). It is threatening Cyprus against beginning to drill for gas in its own territorial waters.