Politics & Policy

A Fine Recipe for War

Turkey's attempt to breach the Israeli siege of Gaza is a destabilizing and unacceptable challenge to vital U.S. interests.

The government of Turkey seems increasingly bent on a collision course with vital U.S. interests, and the time has come to stop ignoring that fact. Our wayward NATO ally’s recent involvement in the incident of the Gaza flotilla is particularly hurtful to the United States, and demands a particularly sharp response. The U.S. has a vital interest in maintaining the regional stability that is indispensable for the preservation of peace and for any prospect of a two-state solution. Sanctioning an attempt to forcibly breach the Israeli siege of Gaza is among the most destabilizing and dangerous things that Turkey could have done.

The Turkish government knew in advance that a Turkish organization with ties to Hamas was launching a flotilla of activists bearing humanitarian aid for Gaza, and chose not to stop it. Turkey knew that the flotilla would put Israel in an impossible dilemma, and that it would be a direct challenge to the Israeli siege of Gaza. Israel reacted precisely as the Turkish government knew it would, with a military response that resulted in bloodshed and in a public-relations disaster for Israel. Because Israel generally defends its internationally understood legal rights, the Turkish government was able to predict what it would do. 

The Turkish flotilla may well have had a humanitarian purpose. But that does not alter its military significance. The attempt to breach the Israeli siege by a flotilla of eight ships carrying some 800 activists — and totally unknown cargo — had obvious military implications for Israel. Israel is on solid legal ground in claiming the right to search cargo approaching Gaza, and that right has been widely confirmed through customary practice. When the flotilla proceeded in disregard of Israel’s offer of docking rights in an Israeli port, and help in transporting all nonmilitary aid overland to Gaza, it turned into a hostile action. And because of the Turkish government’s complicity in the flotilla’s mission, the action can and should be attributed directly to the Turkish government.

As an attempt to forcibly breach a military siege, the Turkish flotilla constituted a “use of force” under the United Nations Charter — of that there is no doubt. The only question is whether that use of force was legitimate. That in turn depends on whether the Israeli siege of Gaza is itself a legitimate use of force. If the siege is illegitimate, then the flotilla was a laudable attempt to bring humanitarian assistance to a beleaguered people. But if the siege is legitimate, then the flotilla was arguably an act of war by Turkey against Israel.

The carefully worded presidential statement from the U.N. Security Council took no position on this issue. It condemned “the acts” that resulted in loss of life, which obviously include actions of both Turkey and Israel, and studiously avoided apportioning blame. It called the siege of Gaza “unsustainable,” but stopped short of styling it illegal or illegitimate. The document represents a commendable parry by the State Department, and sustains a longstanding principle of U.S. foreign policy, namely the inviolability of a legitimate naval quarantine.

When NATO launched its air campaign against Serbia during the Kosovo crisis of 1999, the U.S. threatened to sink Russian vessels if they entered the Adriatic Sea, the naval theater of NATO operations. Nobody doubted the threat’s legitimacy. When Kennedy threatened to sink Soviet vessels headed for Cuba while still on the high seas, he never had to worry about legitimacy. Military actions that are necessary for enforcing a legitimate military blockade, and are kept clearly within that need, have always stood on firm grounds of international law.

 

The siege of Gaza is a terrible human tragedy. It is sapping Israel’s international standing to a dangerous degree. As an act of self-defense, it may well prove suicidal, just as holding on to the occupied territories for decades after the 1967 war has proven of dubious benefit to Israel’s long-term security.

But none of that has any bearing on the legal issue. There is simply no respectable basis for arguing that the siege of Gaza is illegal under international law. The siege is founded on multilateral agreements involving Egypt, the U.S., and even the Palestinian Authority, in the wake of the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 and the subsequent Hamas takeover. It is a legitimate military incident to a legitimate state of war, one that will continue to exist so long as no general peace agreement is reached — and for the moment, neither Hamas nor Hezbollah has any interest in peace. Now Israel’s enemies smell the blood of a real kill, and as a result, they have never been more disinclined to compromise.

Meanwhile, Turkey appears bent on challenging key elements of the international legal order on which our Middle East diplomacy is based. Even if there is a colorable argument that the Israeli siege of Gaza violates international law (which it doesn’t), it is crucial to the Israeli–Palestinian peace process that lifting the siege remain a matter for negotiation.

Turkey’s assault on the legal foundations of regional stability has already had serious strategic consequences. Within hours of the flotilla incident, Egypt opened its border with Gaza pending further notice, in violation of legal agreements it reached with the U.S. and Israel in support of the peace process over several years. Tens of thousands of Palestinians have already crossed into Sinai — but the far worse problem is that the parties to the Israeli–Palestinian process no longer have any real control over the influx of weapons to Gaza from the smuggler’s paradise that is the Egyptian Sinai peninsula.

With the unraveling of the regional legal edifice, the situation can only grow more volatile. The siege of Gaza is starting to collapse under international pressure — and those who think this is good news for the Palestinians are not thinking clearly. In the absence of a negotiated settlement of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, the collapse of the Gaza siege will bring about an extremely dangerous situation: Missiles will pour into the Hamas arsenal; further devastating Israeli military action against Gaza will become inevitable; all prospects for a two-state solution will disappear; and the collateral effects could make a wider Middle Eastern war more likely than it has been in decades.

Alas, our ally Turkey has now joined Iran as one of the two major external influences undermining the prospects for a negotiated peace. It is crucial to appreciate just how destructive Turkey’s flotilla adventure is likely to be for the effort to achieve a two-state solution.

The Israeli government has long held that, in light of what happened to Gaza after the unilateral Israeli withdrawal in 2005 (namely, that it became a platform for missile terrorism against Israel), and in light of the continuing existential threats facing Israel, a two-state solution based in the West Bank would require continued Israeli control of the West Bank’s borders, particularly its border with Jordan. In other words, any Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank would be conditioned on what for all practical purposes would be a consensual Israeli siege of the West Bank. Netanyahu was quite clear about this in his AIPAC speech earlier this year, and it seems incredible that commentators have taken almost no notice.

No Israeli government of any party would ever allow the uncontrolled influx of weapons into the West Bank from the direction of Jordan. Look at a map. The ensuing problem for Israeli security would vastly dwarf the problem that would result even from a total collapse of the Gaza siege.

Israel will withdraw from the West Bank only if it feels safe — and Turkey has just made that a lot more difficult to achieve. How can Israel feel safe with the Gaza siege collapsing amidst a general increase in hostility towards it? How can anybody think that with Gaza under Hamas control, and arming freely for war, Israel would ever risk withdrawing from the West Bank?

Only the U.S. can reassure Israel sufficiently to deliver Israeli concessions to the Palestinians. Hence neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians can get what they ultimately want except from the mediating efforts of the United States.

We are not there to arbitrate. We are not there to be even-handed in settling playground fights. Our indispensable role is to underwrite an international transaction of historical significance, by minimizing the risks and costs of a peace settlement for both sides in the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. This has indeed been the overriding aim of U.S. policy in the region for decades — since 1967 to be exact — and it is a cause to which we have devoted hundreds of billions dollars and a huge amount of time and effort by our most senior leaders.

Forget about Israel. Turkey’s complicity in the aid flotilla is a flagrant offense against the United States.

The existing Middle East balance of power must be preserved. And that balance is now tilting dangerously against Israel.

In terms of offensive military capability, Israel has never been stronger. But the asymmetrical threat of missile terrorism emanating chiefly from Hezbollah and Hamas — which Israel has no way to defend against — has created perhaps the most existentially threatening situation in the history of Israel. Given this reality, and given that Israel is faced increasingly with the impossible choice between security at home and legitimacy abroad, the looming collapse of the Gaza siege has terrifying implications for Israel.

If Israel cannot get both peace and security out of negotiations, then it faces an existential choice between them — and alas neither, by itself, will bring legitimacy or survival for the Jewish state in the long run. Israel can simply surrender the occupied territories to its enemies, without any security guarantees, and pray for mercy — which is what Iran, Turkey, the Arabs, and Western liberals increasingly want. Or it can get security through further and endless projections of military power, while its international legitimacy continues to dwindle. Faced with that choice, Israel is highly likely to continue trying the latter before resigning itself to the former.

Dim though the prospects for a two-state solution may be right now, keeping those prospects alive, and protecting the balance of power and legal edifice on which those prospects rest, is the only way to slow the increasingly inescapable spiral toward war.

Hence the enormous destructiveness of what Turkey did this week. For many years now, the U.S. has been trying to ignore a disturbing trend in Turkey’s behavior. Turkey has been turning away from traditional allies — and toward a new role as a dominant regional power, perhaps even hoping for a reprise of the Ottoman Empire’s leadership of the Muslim world. The end of the Cold War, and the near-simultaneous end of Turkey’s prospects for membership in the European Union, have set the stage for Turkey’s drift towards Islamist militancy.  But even worse, the Turkish government has both followed and fomented an increasingly anti-American and anti-Israeli trend in Turkish public opinion.

This disturbing trend has just taken a significant turn for the worse. In the space of two weeks — between its attempt to undercut U.S. diplomacy toward Iran and its complicity in the forcible attempt to lift the siege of Gaza — Turkey has now openly undertaken actions totally incompatible with an alliance relationship. Turkey’s official statements on both the Iranian nuclear crisis and the Gaza incident have been a direct affront to U.S. diplomacy, and — in the latter case — have reached a tenor of hostility that is simply unacceptable from an ally.

At the very least, the U.S. should quietly remind the Turkish government that losing America’s support can be quite costly. When Britain and France seized military control of the Suez Canal in 1956, President Eisenhower threatened to dump U.S. holdings of British pounds-sterling and French francs, plunging them both into a currency crisis, if they did not withdraw their forces. They promptly withdrew.

Turkey has survived more than one imminent currency crisis because of U.S. help. Such assistance may not be so readily available in the future.

The United States should make it clear to the Turkish government that its status as an ally depends upon its observance of a certain minimal regard for U.S. interests. Turkey has many concerns that depend upon U.S. support — in its economy, in the Armenian Genocide resolution before Congress, in Cyprus, in Kurdistan, and elsewhere. We can cause a lot of problems for them, and they should perhaps be reminded of the fact as they stroll about the Middle East causing serious problems for us.

– Mario Loyola is a former counsel for national security affairs to the U.S. Senate Republican Policy Committee.

Mario Loyola — Mr. Loyola is a research associate professor and the director of the Environmental Finance and Risk Management Program at Florida International University and a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. From 2017 to 2019 he was the associate director for regulatory reform at the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

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