To observers of Israel’s deteriorating relations with Turkey, the Iranian story inevitably comes to mind. For three decades, Israel had no better friend in the Muslim world than the Shah’s Iran (not that we had many friends). Mali is negligible, and supposedly friendly Jordan razed synagogues in occupied Jerusalem and kept shelling us in 1967 long after the fighting had ended on the Egyptian and Syrian fronts. The problem is, Jews have forgotten how to be friends. Slaves we can be, subservient vassals, too; we can also be the hysterical masters of rural checkpoints—but throughout history, we had no friends. And so Jews fooled even the Shah, and not even with Peres’s promises of nuclear technology, but with mundane weapons supplies. Israel took massive advance payments from Iran with no intention of supplying the weaponry. So whether with the Shah or the ayatollah, the conflict was brewing.
The Ayatollahs were not inherently hostile to Israel. The main feature of their foreign policy was practicality. The overwhelming objective was for the clerical regime to survive, and to that end any alliance would do. Khomeini partnered with socialist terrorists to come to power, and Jews, in theory, were no worse adversaries. So the Iranians twice tried to establish working relations with Israel for arms supply. Once Israel abandoned the arranged deal because of internal politicking, the other time she supplied Iran expired American rockets. Enough was enough, and the ayatollahs switched from tacit cooperation to outright hatred of the treacherous Jews.
Five years ago we could have established excellent relations with Iran by welcoming its nuclear capability. Egypt and Saudi Arabia are crumbling under the increasingly high welfare payments to their burgeoning populations; a nuclear race with Iran would bankrupt our perennial enemies. But we have lost that chance.
The lesson is that foreign relations are a highly personal matter. In 1973, Nixon banned Israeli preemption only because that was Kissinger’s position, and Kissinger opposed the strike only because he was suppressing a Jew inside himself, and thus he bent toward Arabs. A personal quarrel between Rabin and Carter, and the great affection Reagan had for Begin and Clinton had for Rabin and Barak were the real moving factors of their respective foreign policies. Leaders are surprisingly removed from reality; they rely on intelligence digests, State Department memos, and advisors’ opinions. Foreign policy is not a science in which facts are processed according to rules; rather, it is open to whims and impulsive decisions by policy-makers. Israel is not alone—every other country similarly ignores subjective factors, but for small Israel such mistakes are fatal. Ignore Ahmadinejad, a clown with no political power. Both his superiors are highly pragmatic individuals: Rafsanjani created Iran’s nuclear program by hook and by crook despite Khomeini’s objections, and Khamenei refused to give the go-ahead for the program for years despite Rafsanjani’s pressure. Yes, they want the bomb, and yes, they will get it eventually regardless of Israel’s efforts to stop them; but certainly we can find common ground with them. Yet, astonishingly, Israel has attempted no direct talks, which could be easily arranged through Rafsanjani.
A similar attitude precluded an early settlement with the PLO. Back in 1972, Sadat offered us better terms than Israel is accepting now: we would have kept the Western Wall and signed peace treaties with all Arab countries. France talked to the FLN, and America to the Vietcong. By stubbornly refusing to talk to terrorists, Israel waited for them to become respected politicians—and as such they are able to demand and receive more than terrorists. In 1981, the United States pressured Saudi Arabia to arrange for a ceasefire in Lebanon. The Saudis simply paid $20 million to Arafat, and a close approximation of ceasefire ensued, punctured by violence from both sides in a cycle where no one could tell attack from retaliation. Israel could sign a peace treaty with Arafat with sufficient bribes and concessions similar to what we’re offering the Palestinians now.
And so comes Turkey. Despite its rapid Islamization, the state remains remarkably secular. Turks do not care about ethnically different Arabs, especially since the Turks dominated the Arabs for centuries into the rule of the Ottoman Empire. But there must be some politeness on the Israeli side. What was the point of hijacking Turkish vessels, including the Mavi Marmara, which we knew for certain did not carry weapons? A smart policy must be flexible. We can intercept some ships, but not others. The Turkish government would most certainly have cooperated with Israel in inspecting vessels before departure for the absence of weapons. Erdogan is not a big fan of Hamas and Hezbollah, whose officials he meets only grudgingly, and would not risk compromising his international reputation by covertly shipping arms to terrorists. And on the contrary, Erdogan is well predisposed toward Jews; his relations with Olmert were excellent. He needs Israel to bolster his own stance on the international scene. What could be greater PR for the Turkish prime minister than mediating the Israeli-Syrian talks, like the United States did? Turkey needs Israel’s help on many other matters, not the least of which are controlling the flow of weapons to the Kurds and forestalling Armenian genocide resolutions in the US Congress. And all those pros went south because of that silly incident with the Gaza flotilla; even worse, obnoxious Israeli leaders refused to save Erdogan’s face with a nominal apology.
We can maintain decent relations with our nominal enemies, but not if the Israeli government plans to talk to them in such an amateurish fashion.