Turkey, and not the Arab Spring, may well be the real “wild card” in Israel’s future, according to a specialist in Middle East affairs at the Congressional Research Service.
Speaking Oct. 23 at Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick, Jeremy M. Sharp said Turkey, with its stable government and growing power, is looking to increase its influence in the Middle East.
A longtime Western ally and member of NATO, Turkey’s friendly relations with Israel have taken a sour turn since last year’s Gaza flotilla confrontation.
“I don’t think Turkey will go to war with Israel,” said Sharp. “But it wants more of a place for itself in the region and to play a greater role and Israel could get in the way of its doing that. As Turkish power grows, it could become more of a problem.”
The United States, as an ally of both countries, finds itself “stuck in the middle” trying to broker an improvement in relations.
Sharp said his initial sense of optimism watching the Egyptian revolution and the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak has since been tempered.
The revolutions, spread largely through social media, present an opportunity for the United States to increase its influence while leaving Israel with “quite complex” realities.
Overall, Sharp said the Arab Middle East “was not a healthy place.” Thirty percent of its 100 million people are between 13 and 29 years old and the youth unemployment rate ranges from 25 to 40 percent.
An “explosion” in the use of satellite television and the Internet has transmitted images of wealth and success elsewhere around the globe, helping to fuel the upheaval.
‘Minefield of uncertainty’
Sharp said pro-Western Egypt, which receives $1.5 billion in foreign aid from the United States, is being closely watched in Washington as a bellwether for the Arab world.
“If the situation goes bad in Egypt, it will go bad all over the region,” he predicted.
Of particular concern was an Aug. 18 incident during which Palestinian militants from Egypt set off a series of explosions near Eilat that killed eight Israelis and injured more than 30. In response, Israel launched attacks that killed six Egyptian police officers.
Calls came from Egypt to withdraw its ambassador to Israel. At the Israeli embassy in Cairo, a mob overran security guards while the staff barricaded itself inside.
“Israel actually called the White House to get them help,” he said. “These were a group of people who had hours — or the world would have seen a mass lynching inside that embassy. President Obama got on the phone to Egyptian security forces to get them out.”
Israel, which issued an apology for the killing of the Egyptian police officers, realizes that maintaining peace with Egypt hinges on the Egyptian military, which, Sharp said, “believes in the Camp David accords.”
As Israel navigates a minefield of uncertainty about its neighbors, Sharp said it also has had to make realistic decisions. It has remained silent on arms sales from the U.S. to anti-Israeli Saudi Arabia because those sales help keep Iran in check.
“You know the old saying, ‘ An enemy of my enemy is a friend of mine,” said Sharp.
Sharp said that as a Jew, he finds himself in a unique position in providing analysis of Arab political, military, and diplomatic affairs to Congress.
As an American Jew, he worries that Hamas or another militant group will provoke Israel into military action, and that Israel is being isolated by the United Nations and other international bodies.
However, as a congressional insider, he does not worry about its American support.
“Israel has always sort of been a bipartisan issue,” he said.