On May 16, 2013, President Obama will host Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at the White House. In a January 2012 interview, Obama counted Erdoğan as one of his top five foreign friends. Erdoğan, who has made a half dozen previous visits to the White House, often points to his White House reception as evidence of an uncritical endorsement of his policies.
This visit should be different. This will be the Turkish leader’s first meeting with Obama since the president brokered an apology by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the 2010 botched raid on the Mavi Marmara, a Turkish ship seeking to break Israel’s anti-Hamas blockade of Gaza. American officials hoped that the apology would allow the two former allies to put the past behind them in order to focus on renewed challenges that will also impact American national interests. Syria’s civil war — and the possibility that Syrian chemical weapons could fall into the wrong hands — had exacerbated the cost of Turkey-Israel sparring.
Erdoğan’s break with Israel had also undermined hopes that the two nations could cooperate in the Eastern Mediterranean to reduce their own and Europe’s susceptibility to Russian or Iranian energy blackmail. Israel has apparently been willing to play ball. Israel has reportedly offered to build a submarine pipeline to Turkey to transport gas from the Tamar and Leviathan fields off Israel’s coast. Turkish-Israeli cooperation would be a win-win, allowing gas- and oil-poor Turkey to become a regional energy hub while allowing Israel to become a major exporter of gas. Turkey’s Energy Minister Taner Yildiz asserted that Turkey is open to energy cooperation with Israel so long as it is “politically feasible.”
Tensions between Israel and Turkey — Turkish minister Egemen Bağış even threatened to use the Turkish navy against Cyprus should it continue to develop offshore fields with Israel — have distracted potential financiers from investing more in the exploration and transportation infrastructure. Both Jerusalem and Ankara need to improve the perception of reconciliation to attract foreign capital.
When Obama meets Erdoğan, he needs to make clear that he places the onus for continued problems on Turkey. Erdoğan’s claim that “Zionism is a crime against humanity” may curry favor among the prime minister’s Islamist constituency, but it has no business on the international stage. Nor should there be any excuse for Turkey to continue to block Israel’s participation in joint NATO meetings as both the United States and Europe have an interest in Eastern Mediterranean security. Erdoğan’s refusal to cancel his trip to Gaza despite requests by both the State Department and the Palestinian Authority that he do so suggests the Turkish leader continues to let radical inclinations outweigh responsible statesmanship.
Should Erdoğan place his own antipathy toward Israel ahead of energy security and potential reconciliation with Israel, Obama should use Erdoğan’s visit not to bestow laurels on his friend, but rather the condemnation which he increasingly deserves.
Niklas Anziger is an intern at the American Enterprise Institute.