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Ankara's Washington misreading

HDN | 6/25/2010 12:00:00 AM | ILHAN TANIR

As the diplomatic consequences of the Mavi flotilla raid play out, Ankara needs to be more sensitive to the unique nature of the relationship between Washington and Tel Aviv

The flotilla attack, which turned out to be one of the saddest events of the Republic of Turkey's recent history, still produces consequences in the Middle East and beyond.

Following the attack, Turkey waged a diplomatic war against Israel with every possible instrument that it held in its disposal. Billions worth of military contracts and joint military exercises are canceled, the Israelis started to boycott the Turkish goods along with sending dramatically fewer tourists to Turkey. The leaders of the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, have uttered the heaviest words possible in the international diplomacy arena against Israel since then, and received equally harsh responses from Jerusalem.

Turkey, in the days that imminently followed the flotilla attack, rightly, acted crossly and mobilized the international bodies to punish Israel. Israel failed to confront the aid ships safely and it will, at some point, have to accept its responsibilities in killing 9 people. In light of this disproportionately heavy intervention by the Israeli Navy commandos, various international actors rallied behind the Turkish position, along with the majority of public opinion.

It can be well argued, on the other hand, that the Erdogan government used the flotilla crisis to the limit to exploit it for its own domestic and foreign political gains as well. Sadly, it seems that the hard-hitting rhetoric against Israel is politically very convenient in Turkey, because there are so few minorities left to demonstrate any meaningful backlash against those populist orators.

The leadership of the AKP, however, did not stop with waging a diplomatic war. Instead, Ankara chose to cut about all its diplomatic and intelligence ties, most importantly back channel exchanges of information with Jerusalem. The new head of the Turkish Intelligence Service, or MIT, Mr. Hakan Fidan, was also detested by Jerusalem the minute it became clear that Fidan was promoted to the job. The Israeli media, in a rare occurrence, targeted and flaked Mr. Fidan harshly and tended to depict him as someone who has closer ties with Iran than Israel. The Israelis, according to sources who have close eyes on the clandestine services and world, are panicked by a possibility that some of the military and diplomatic secrets that have been shared with Turkey can be passed onto Iran and others.

The diplomatic relations also took a heavy hit between Ankara and Jerusalem, when Turkey withdrew its ambassador from Israel in very early days of the crisis. Since then, with almost no or very little behind the scene communication, Turkey has chosen to shout lauder, and angrier at the Israelis. And this is when the US administration began to draw a line with the Turkish government.

Did the AKP sincerely believe that it could push Washington to take a position against Israel, dump it if necessary and support the Turkish position all the way? It appeared throughout the recent weeks that Ankara indeed believed that, through building its own '9-11' rhetoric to convince the Obama administration.

It can be safely argued then, that whoever is in the charge of reading Washington on the side of the AKP government, read Washington upside down, and picked up the mistaken insights.

The Turkish ambassador to Washington, Mr. Namik Tan, is known with his clear understanding and deep familiarity with the realities of the Washington political theater. It is also confirmed by different sources that the Turkish diplomatic channels did indeed ring the alarm bells continuously in recent weeks to warn Ankara that a stormy weather has been gathering against Turkey in Washington which would be extremely difficult to defy once starts to act.

The next question then becomes which other channels are in the loop, between Ankara and Washington that produce many of the miscalculated analyses, which mostly run against the realities of Washington or the official diplomatic cables, and known that they arrive on policy making desks?

Nowadays, another huge disadvantage of the current Turkish government is its lack of credible and well-connected backchannel relations with Washington's power houses. It was easy to recognize the negative effect of this missing chain just a week ago when the AKP Parliamentary delegation was in Washington. The AKP delegation was consisted of prominent Parliamentary figures in its ranks to explain Turkey's position in Washington highest officials possible. However, the delegation ended up meeting none of the first class American Congressional leaders, and the US administration officials.

For the last few weeks, "no" vote at the United Security Council coincided with the flotilla crisis, and for many, this coincides also validated the arguments that suggest Turkey drifts away from the West. Whether the members of the US Congress know much about the Turkish foreign policy and its newly found regional leadership aspirations, is a different topic. However, various letters have been distributed to the members of the Congress throughout weeks received a record number of signatures. For instance, 87 out of 100 senators did not hesitate to sign on a letter that targeted Turkey's foreign policies, without naming names, next to ask stronger support for Israel from Obama.

Turkey now seems to be put in a dog house in Washington for a while. The US administration treats Turkey extremely carefully, and the statements that came from the various State Department officials in recent days, lack excitement, spirit and warmth. This stonewalling attitude of the US administration does not mean necessarily it wishes to alienate the Turkish administration. However, it does signal that it will not tolerate some of the harsher rhetoric that repeatedly come from there.

Israel eased the blockade on Gaza last week, and Turkey's role to push Israel in that direction is undeniable. The Turkish administration can build on this noteworthy success and be persistent to see the total end of the blockade in foreseeable future. Though, Turkey also must be able to calculate its priorities and preferences when it comes to new engagement and disengagement policies in the region.

Ankara, first, shall start spending more time to read Washington better. The US domestic politics, and the turbulent months ahead will even more complicate the power balance in Washington, most likely resulting a weaker President in few months time along with a stronger legislative branch and the opposition.

Ankara cannot afford to misread Washington any longer.

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