FRIEDMAN: Israel, Turkey are spinning out of control

As a friend of both Turkey and Israel, it has been agonizing to watch the disastrous clash between Israeli naval commandos and a flotilla of "humani- tarian" activists seeking to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza.

I've long had a soft spot for Turkey. Turkey's role in balancing and interpreting East and West is one of the critical pivot points that helps keep the world stable.

I happened to be in Istanbul when the street outside one of its synagogues that was suicide- bombed on Nov. 15, 2003, was reopened. The chief rabbi of Turkey appeared at the ceremony, hand in hand with the top Muslim cleric of Istanbul and the local mayor, while crowds threw red carnations on them. Second, Turkey's leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who comes from an Islamist party, paid a visit to the chief rabbi — the first time a Turkish prime minister had ever called on the chief rabbi in his office. Since then, I have seen Turkey play an important role mediating between Israel and Syria and voting just a month ago in favor of Israel joining the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development.

Therefore, it has been painful to hear the same Prime Minister Erdogan in recent years publicly lash out with ever-greater vehemence at Israel over its treatment of Palestinians in Gaza.

I have no problem with Turkey or humanitarian groups loudly criticizing Israel. But I have a big problem when people get so agitated by Israel's actions in Gaza but are unmoved by Syria's involvement in the murder of the prime minister of Lebanon, by the Iranian regime's killing of its own citizens demonstrating for the right to have their votes counted, by Muslim suicide bombers murdering nearly 100 Ahmadi Muslims in mosques in Pakistan on Friday and by pro-Hamas gunmen destroying a U.N.- sponsored summer camp in Gaza because it wouldn't force Islamic fundamentalism down the throats of children. It is not surprising Israelis dismiss the out-of-balance concern with Gaza as motivated by hatred — not the advice of friends.

Turkey has a unique role to play linking the East and West. If Turkey lurches too far East, it would lose a lot of its strategic relevance and, more importantly, its historic role as a country that can be Muslim, modern, democratic — with good relations with both Israel and the Arabs. Once this crisis passes, it needs to get back in balance.

Ditto Israel. There is no question that this flotilla was a setup. Israel's leaders certainly failed to think more creatively about how to avoid the very violent confrontation that the blockade-busters wanted.

At the same time, the Israeli partial blockade of Hamas and Gaza has been going on for some four years. It is surely not all Israel's fault, given the refusal of Hamas to recognize Israel or prior peace agreements, and its own repeated missile attacks on Israel.

But it is overwhelmingly in Israel's interest to bring more diplomatic imagination and energy to ending this Gaza siege.

Israel has gotten so good at controlling the Palestinians that it could get comfortable with an arrangement that will not only erode its own moral fabric but increase its international isolation. Hamas may give Israel no other choice, but Israel could show a lot more initiative in determining if that is really so.

One of my oldest Israeli friends, Victor Friedman (no relation), an education professor from Zichron Yaacov, e-mailed me the following on Tuesday: "It's time we started using our wits. If we used even a tiny fraction of the brain-power and resources we put into 'defense' into finding a way forward in terms of living with the Palestinians, we would have solved the problem long ago. ... The Arabs are scared of the Iranians, the Saudi peace plan is still on the table, and the Palestinians are beginning to act rationally. But we lack the leadership to help us make a real change."

Two of America's best friends are out of balance and at each other's throats. We have got to move quickly to get them both back to the center before this spins out of control.