By Patrick Seale
October 16, 2009
In international politics, image counts. A country’s reputation, the aura it projects, the esteem in which its leaders are held -- these are as important as its armed services in providing protection for its citizens. Most politicians know that soft power, skillfully used, can be at least as effective as blood-drenched hard power.
This is a lesson Israel appears to have forgotten. Its pitiless treatment of the Palestinians, whether under occupation on the West Bank or under siege in Gaza -- not to mention its repeated assaults on Lebanon, its 2007 raid on Syria and its relentless sabre-rattling against Iran -- have done terrible damage to its image.
The admiration which its early state-building once aroused in many parts of the world has turned into angry impatience, outrage, even contempt.
Few outside Israel itself -- and outside the shrinking ranks of its diehard supporters in the United States and Europe -- would today be prepared to defend its arrogant militarists, its fanatical land-grabbing settlers, its racist politicians.
Astonishingly, there is no sign that Israel’s political leaders have understood the magnitude of the problem or are doing anything serious to address it. On the contrary, they are busy digging deeper into a hole of their own making.
Turkey’s sudden cancellation this week of a major air force exercise with Israel was a salutary wake-up call. Evidently, Prime Minister Recep Tayyib Erdogan found it necessary to cancel the drill because of the widespread hostility to Israel among Turkey’s population. He has had to take Turkish public opinion into account. Foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu spelled out the reasons in diplomatic terms: “We hope that the situation in Gaza will improve...and that will create a new atmosphere in Turkish-Israeli relations...”
To offend the Turks is no small matter. Israel cannot afford to ignore the warning or sweep it under the carpet. Turkey has for many years been Israel’s main regional strategic partner -- indeed its only one since the fall of the Shah of Iran in 1979. Losing Turkey could turn out to be the worst setback Israel has suffered for a very long time.
Turkey’s army is the largest in the region; so is its industrial base. Its GDP, at over $1,000bn (in 2008) dwarfs that of the oil producers, whether Arab or Iranian, and is four times larger than Israel’s own. In recent years, Turkey has greatly improved its relations with Iran and with neighboring Arab states -- Syria in particular -- and is emerging as the wise “big brother” of the greater Middle East. It has offered to mediate local conflicts and is attempting to spread stability and security all around it.