Choosing Netanyahu Over NATO

July 30, 2010 11:09 am ET — MJ Rosenberg

Anyone who wonders what American foreign policy might look like if it was not so utterly ridden with partisan political considerations should take a look at the United Kingdom.

This is not to say that politics never intrudes on foreign policy in the UK.  It does, but not in any way comparable to the way politics overruns policy here. 

There are many reasons for the difference but one stands out:  the cost of running political campaigns in the UK as compared to the US.  In the UK, television time is free for candidates.  In the United States, candidates and incumbents spend a sizable chunk of time (even a majority of time in many cases) raising money to pay for campaign ads.  Much of that money comes from single-issue donors.

It is hard to imagine what US policy in the Middle East would be without the influence of campaign dollars.  One thing is certain: it would be very different.

This week the House Foreign Affairs Committee held a hearing on Turkey's "New Foreign Policy Direction." Its tone was set by the committee's chair, Howard Berman (D-CA) who made clear that he has had it with Turkey.  

Berman said that he was not among those who criticized Turkey in 2002 when the Islam oriented AK party came to power. 

After the AK Party was elected, I was encouraged by their focus on internal reform and the European Union as well as by the hopeful prospect that AK would be a model for a moderate Islam that would inspire others throughout the Islamic world.

But then he became aware of "the intensity of Prime Minister Erdogan's anger at Israel" over the 2008 invasion of Gaza.  Since then, "Turkey's growing closeness with Iran has added, for many of us, a new dimension of outrage and concern."  Berman said his "concerns about Turkey hit a new peak with the flotilla incident."

Berman is far from alone.  All of a sudden, Congress is pretty down on Turkey.  

And the reason is obvious. This new hostility is all about pleasing Binyamin Netanyahu and his right-wing Israeli government.

This is new.  Turkey, which has been Israel's sole Muslim ally since 1948, was always popular with the Israel lobby and its devotees in Congress.  The Turkish and Israeli militaries worked closely together and, when Turkey had problems with the United States, it often turned to the lobby for help.

But that was back when Turkey kept its mouth shut about Israel's policies toward the Palestinians.  That changed not only because the governing Justice and Development Party (more religiously oriented than its staunchly-secular predecessors) came to power but chiefly because the invasion of Gaza and the blockade of its people enraged Turks, along with most of the world.

In Berman's opening statement, he issued five challenges to the Turks, the answers to which would help Congress determine "how crucial Turkey is to us as an ally."

Turkey, of course, is a NATO ally which — it needs hardly be stated — is the most significant US alliance in the world.  But that does not daunt Berman.  He fires off his questions, essentially demanding to know where Turkey gets the temerity to disagree with us on Israel, Iran, Hamas and other issues. His message to Turkey is clear:  the United States Congress is watching you and we find your attitude toward Prime Minister Netanyahu to be unacceptable.

Israel is not a NATO ally.  It's an informal ally and a friend.  It is also the largest recipient of US foreign aid in the world, by far. 

But neither Berman nor any of his colleagues on the House Foreign Affairs Committee would dream of convening a hearing questioning Israel about why the Netanyahu government repeatedly and consistently rejects US policy prescriptions in the Middle East. 

For instance, Prime Minister Netanyahu just announced that he is unlikely to continue his West Bank settlement freeze beyond September 26. (He already unilaterally, and against the wishes of the United States, exempted Arab East Jerusalem from the freeze.)  Will Berman convene a hearing on that?  Will his committee members demand that Israel comply with US demands or see the alliance re-evaluated? Or, God forbid, will they consider reducing its aid package by the amount spent on settlement expansion?

Yeah, right.

Berman, and the members of his committee, do not criticize Israeli policies. Period.

Even when an American citizen is killed by the Israelis (as on the flotilla) or blinded in one eye (by a tear gas attack during a demonstration in Israel), Congress keeps silent.  When it comes to Israel, if Members of Congress have nothing good to say (and they almost always are effusive with praise), they will say nothing at all.  Especially in an election year.

This is standard American politics.  Turkey may be more important strategically than Israel but it is of no importance electorally. Listening to some of the Turkey bashers in Congress (Anthony Weiner takes the cake), it is not even clear that they understand why NATO is of any importance. It is as if the only ally the United States needs is Israel, and our role is just to support its policies — even those that are bad for us and worse for Israel. It's just politics.

This is not how it works in the UK. Campaigns are inexpensive, there is no AIPAC, and foreign policy tends, for the most part, to be about policy and not politics.

And that is why Prime Minister David Cameron, during a visit to Turkey this week, was able to make clear that he understands just how important Turkey is to the western alliance.   He said he would fight to get Turkey admitted into the European Union, despite opposition from France and Germany.

And then he addressed the issue that so excites Berman:

The Israeli attack on the Gaza flotilla was completely unacceptable. I have told Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu that we will expect the Israeli inquiry to be swift, transparent and rigorous.

Let me also be clear that the situation in Gaza has to change....Humanitarian goods and people must flow in both directions. Gaza cannot and must not be allowed to remain a prison camp.

I doubt that there is a single word in Cameron's statement that President Obama (or most Members of Congress) would disagree with.  But you won't hear that from them. 

Nor will you hear this, which is more significant.  Cameron said that he views Turkey's close ties to Iran not as a threat but as an opportunity.  After all, how can it hurt to have a close NATO ally who actually talks to Iran.  "It's Turkey that can help us stop Iran from getting the bomb," he said.

It is especially important that Cameron is invoking the Turkish opportunity at a time when the Iranians are indicating that they are ready to resume talks over the nuclear issue. 

Except for those who are eager for a bombing attack on Iran (the old Iraq war crowd), it should be obvious to all that now is not the time to berate Turkey for differing with the US line on Israel. 

It is, rather, the time to exploit the benefits friendship with Turkey can bring to the United States. The goal should be advancing the national interest, which is precisely what David Cameron is doing. We should try it.  Even if it makes a few donors mad.