It is not discussed openly in Washington, Jerusalem or Ankara, but privately, high military and intelligence officials in all three capitals are looking at the possibility of air and naval clashes erupting between Turkey and Israel in the eastern Mediterranean at some future point and their wider impact on the region.
Their attention was first drawn, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military and intelligence sources report, by the secret transfer of Turkish naval, air and marine units to North Cyprus (the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus – TRNC) Sunday, Sept. 4.
Their concern was fueled further by the sudden and steep decline in Turkey-Israel relations in the past week, persuading US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to shelve her other business and put her back into averting a clash of arms.
And the tension boiled over into the explicit threat of a collision at sea Thursday, Sept. 8, when Erdogan confronted Israel with what was perilously close to a casus belli by announcing an order to Turkish warships to escort Turkish aid vessels to Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.
In a broadcast to Al Jazeera television, he also said Turkey had "taken steps to stop Israel from unilaterally exploiting natural resources from the eastern Mediterranean."
This was a direct challenge to Israel's blockade on the Gaza Strip after it was ruled legitimate by the UN and the gas wells it is exploring offshore.
The evil hour of armed conflict may be postponed for weeks if not months. But the animus between the two countries has taken a dangerous turn.
Friday, September 2, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan summarily rejected the UN panel's report which justified the Israeli commando interception of a Turkish vessel bound for breaking Israel's blockade on the Gaza Strip in May 2010. In the clash on its decks, nine mostly Turkish armed activists were killed.
Erdogan chooses E. Mediterranean as confrontation arena with Israel
In a hot outburst against the panel's findings, Erdogan immediately downgraded Israel's diplomatic mission in Turkey from embassy to consular level and froze all military ties and contracts. He issued a warning that the Turkish Navy would start paying more frequent visits to the eastern Mediterranean – the stretch of water between Cyprus and Israel.
Five days went by and Tuesday, September 6, the irate Turkish prime minister slapped down more anti-Israel sanctions, explaining the steps taken so far were part of Plan B, while Plan C, he said, was ready to go depending on developments. He then said, "…We are totally suspending our commercial, military and defense ties. They are being frozen entirely."
Regarding Turkish steps in the eastern Mediterranean, Erdogan said: “The eastern Mediterranean is no stranger to us. Our ships will be seen more frequently in those waters.”
Thursday, Sept. 8, Erdogan's meaning became clear when he instructed Turkish warships to not only frequent the eastern Mediterranean, but actually guard vessels breaching the Israeli blockade against interception, as well as preventing Israeli offshore gas exploration.
While ratcheting up the war fever day by day, Erdogan also works hard to drive a wedge between Washington and Jerusalem.
“Israel has always acted like a spoiled child in the face of all UN decisions that concern it. It assumes that it can continue to act like a spoiled child and will get away with it,” Erdogan told reporters.
This remark was interpreted in Washington and Jerusalem as pressure on President Barack Obama to withdraw America's diplomatic and military support from Israel and once and for all decide where the US stands in the Muslim, Arab conflict with Israel.
Erdogan's bid to make trouble between the US and Israel
Two hardline signals were seen as the subtext of the Turkish leader peroration:
1. Flat rejection of Secretary Clinton’s appeal to Erdogan and Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu to cool their hostile steps and fiery rhetoric against Israel.
2. A warning to the Obama administration that if its plan for establishing a US-led alliance linking Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States were to prosper, Washington could not avoid treating Israel like a spoilt child.
As relations between Ankara and Jerusalem continued to spin out of control, Israel leaders showed disquiet.
Monday, Sept. 5, Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) Home Front Commander Maj. Gen. Eyal Eisenberg made the following comments to a forum of senior security officials in Tel Aviv:
The Arab revolts and Israel's rift with Turkey are capable of sparking all-out war in the Middle East. "In the long term (he emphasized the long-term aspect here), the probability of such a war will increase."
Eisenberg foresaw the Arab Spring evolving into "a radical Islamic winter that would raise the likelihood of total war with the potential for the use of WMD."
The general spoke shortly after attending an IDF General Staff meeting headed by the Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz which ranged over Israel's strategic position in the light of the uprisings besetting its Arab neighbors.
Israeli general and ex-diplomat agree on imminence of threat
Eisenberg was called to order at home because it is not the function of Israeli generals in his position to issue public national security forecasts.
However, the home front chief clearly spoke candidly under the impression of what he heard at the general staff meeting, especially in the context of the crisis with Turkey.
Alon Liel, former Foreign Ministry director-general and Israeli ambassador to Turkey, followed with a similar succinct warning Wednesday, Sept. 7:
“I think that Turkey and Israel may fight – not over Gaza or Lebanon, but over Cyprus. Arguments over the rights of gas and oil reserves, shipping, the demarcation of territorial waters, may cause conflict," said the ex-diplomat.
"Both navies know each other. This may help to overcome crisis, but it is possible for the two countries to enter into an armed conflict.”
The general and the former diplomat are therefore of one mind over the dispute, which began in a clash over a Turkish-led flotilla's attempt to break Israel's naval blockade on Gaza in May 2010, and more than a year later has acquired the potential for an armed Israeli-Turkish conflict capable of seeping out across the Middle East and gathering in Greece and Cyprus.
Ankara also challenges Athens and Nicosia over gas and oil
Turkish clouds were already gathering over Cyprus following a harsh warning from Ankara to halt the Nicosia government's planned gas and oil exploration of waters opposite its southern shore.
In late 2010, Cyprus and Israel signed zoning agreements demarking areas of maritime exploration in the eastern Mediterranean. Cyprus starts deep-water drilling in just four weeks.
Greece has endorsed these agreements, but Turkey, Iran, Lebanon and Egypt have called them illegal.
Ankara is clearly eying both Cypriot and Israeli offshore gas reserves.
On Sept. 6 Turkey’s European Union Affairs Minister Egemen Bagis threatened to send Turkish naval vessels to the drilling area if Cyprus proceeds with its exploration for hydrocarbons.
“It is for this reason that we built our army and trained our soldiers,” said Bagis, accusing Cyprus of illegally exploring “waters that do not belong to them.”
Turkey will make use of all its rights under international law and act accordingly, said the angry Turkish minister: “They know Turkey is serious and that all options are on the table.”
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military and intelligence sources report that Jerusalem and other Middle East and Gulf capitals are convinced that the Erdogan government is willing to go to great lengths to provoke a crisis between Washington and Jerusalem, even if this means whipping up an armed clash between the Turkish, Israeli and Greek armies.
Ankara is also strongly motivated by covetousness for control of the oil and gas resources opposite the shores of Israel and Cyprus.
Washington turns heat on Israel
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his government have always kept a wary eye on President Obama and his Middle East and Palestinian intentions. Their mistrust was not allayed by the leak to the US media on Tuesday, Sept. 6, of remarks Robert Gates made before his retirement as Defense Secretary to the National Security Council Principals Committee.
The former secretary coldly laid out the many steps Washington had taken to guarantee Israel's security – access to top-quality weapons, assistance in developing missile-defense systems, high-level intelligence-sharing. He then declared bluntly that the US has received nothing in return, particularly with regard to the peace process.
Netanyahu, Gates argued, is not only ungrateful, but also endangering his country by refusing to grapple with Israel's growing isolation and the demographic challenges it faces if it keeps control of the West Bank.
The leaked report claimed Gates met no opposition to his remarks from other members of the committee.
Our sources say administration officials leaked these comments months after they were made to accompany two senior White House officials who were on their way to Jerusalem in an attempt to twist the Israeli prime minister's arm into being more accommodating on the Palestinian issue.
Obama's Middle East adviser Dennis Ross and Israel-Palestinian peace negotiator David Hale were sent out for a last-ditch bid to draw from Israel enough concessions to change Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas's mind about submitting a unilateral application for UN recognition of Palestinian statehood on September 20.
Cairo and Riyadh look askance at Erdogan's machinations
The Gates leak, unbeknownst to Washington, coincided with the Turkish prime minister's condemnation of Israel as a "spoilt child" and had the same results.
Concern in Jerusalem over the purpose of Ankara's provocations grew more acute as the week advanced.
Cairo and Riyadh are also profoundly distrustful of Erdogan and his intentions.
The Turkish prime minister has invited himself for a visit to Cairo Monday, Dec. 12. He says he is eager to develop economic and strategic ties with the generals ruling Egypt since the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, who spurned his overtures. Turkish sources constantly harp on the importance of this visit and the accords their prime minister has drafted for cementing an alliance with Egypt's new rulers.
Their eagerness is not reciprocated, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources report. The military junta's attitude towards Erdogan differs very little from that of the ousted president. The Egyptian side may therefore go through the motions of signing high-sounding economic and other accords but will stop short of meeting Turkey's expectation for agreements with strategic content.
In Riyadh, Saudi King Abdullah and his strategic advisers look askance at Erdogan's machinations. They take exception to the Islamic rulers installed in Arab capitals for a new Middle East alignment which President Obama and the Turkish prime minister are plugging hard.
(See separate article in this issue: US Reinvents ex-Al Qaeda as "pro-Democracy Converts" Fit to Rule).
The Saudis have nothing but resentment for Erdogan's policy initiatives for Syria, Egypt and Iraq, regarding them as blatant attempts to disrupt the front they are building for challenging Iran.