JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Turkey's threat to send warships to protect aid convoys to Gaza is unlikely to trigger conflict with Israel, but the dramatic deterioration in relations between the one-time allies could jeopardize Israeli energy ambitions.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan raised the stakes with Israel on Thursday, saying he would dispatch the navy to escort any future flotillas to Gaza and prevent a repeat of an Israeli raid last year that killed nine Turks.
Ankara has already downgraded diplomatic relations with Israel and halted defense trade following the Jewish state's confirmation last week that it would not apologize for the deadly 2010 assault on a boat challenging its Gaza blockade.
Despite the intensifying rhetoric, it seems hard to believe that the region's two biggest military powers, both important allies of the United States, would face off over the Palestinian enclave Gaza, which is ruled by the Islamist group Hamas.
"It won't turn into a military confrontation, because the Turks aren't stupid. It's absurd to think a NATO country would get into a military confrontation with Israel," said Gad Shimron, a retired Mossad officer and defense expert.
By the same token, it seems unlikely that Erdogan will let the matter drop, with many analysts seeing his repeated criticism of Israel as a calculated bid to boost his standing in the Arab world and assume a dominant role in the Middle East.
Tellingly, he made his comments to Al Jazeera, the pan-Arabic television station, upping the ante just days before he is due to visit a trio of Arab countries, including Egypt, which has itself fallen out with Israel in recent weeks.
"Erdogan thinks the easy target is Israel, but he doesn't know if it will pay off. He is taking a gamble," said Yossi Shain, a professor at both Tel Aviv University and Georgetown University in Washington.
"He wants to be the champion of the Arab and Islamic world, but it is not clear whether he can."
DISPUTED GAS FIELDS
Turkey has a much larger navy than Israel but would have to think twice about any military brinkmanship given the imposing strength of the Israeli air force.
"Keep in mind that were Israel to initiate an interception, say against a Turkish bid to sail on Gaza, it would have the advantage of choosing the time, place and deployment strength," a former Israeli admiral told Reuters, declining to be named because of the sensitivity of the subject.
Indicating there is no imminent danger of a clash, the charity that organised last year's convoy to the Gaza Strip said on Friday it had no plans for now for another flotilla.
Regardless of that, Turkey has also said it will make its presence felt in the eastern Mediterranean at a time when Israel is looking to exploit recently discovered gas fields off its coasts and hook up with Cyprus to build energy facilities.
Turkey does not recognize Cyprus's Greek Cypriot government, while Lebanon has accused Israel of breaking international law by exploring for gas without an agreement between the two countries -- which are formally at war -- on their maritime border. Israel denies this.
A heavy Turkish naval presence near the disputed fields could undoubtedly cause Israel headaches, just as it thought that it had finally overcome its longstanding energy shortages.
"This is a feasible and significantly troubling prospect. I imagine it would compromise foreign investment in those fields," the former admiral said.
Israel has sought to play down the diplomatic crisis, with officials pointing out that the two countries had already overcome previous rows, such as in 1980 when Turkey curbed ties to protest at Israel's annexation of Arab East Jerusalem.
But back then, Turkey was a much poorer nation than it is today, and there were very few cultural, sporting or business links between the two countries.
The implications of a falling-out today are much more significant, with trade between Turkey and Israel worth $3.5 billion last year, helping keep thousands of people in work.
"Turkey is a very strong country today and this is very serious situation," said Alon Liel, the head of the Israeli diplomatic mission in Turkey from 1981 to 1983 and a former director general of the Foreign Ministry.
Although Turkey is an undoubted regional power, it has suffered a difficult few months due to the Arab uprisings.
It has had to retool its foreign policy in Syria and Libya, losing old allies in the process, and has distanced itself with Iran. Erdogan is clearly trying to regain the initiative and will have to be careful not to push things too far.
"He has painted Turkey into a very tight corner," said Gareth Jenkins, an Istanbul-based security analyst.
"Turkey is squandering the moral capital it had gained after the (2010 flotilla) incident, in which international public opinion sided with Turkey. But the international community will be very hostile."
Washington has stayed largely quiet over the past week, urging reconciliation between the two parties without publicly taking sides. However, much more Turkish saber-rattling is sure to fire up passions, with the U.S. Congress fiercely pro-Israel.
"(Erdogan) is about to get a tough response from Washington. They are watching him and letting him play, but the moment is coming," said Shain, who is working in the United States.
Erdogan may well be calculating that Washington cannot afford to imperil relations with Turkey at such crucial moment for the Middle East, but as with his fight with Israel, that is a risky bet to take.