Edition 38 Volume 7 - October 22, 2024

Israeli-Turkish tensions

Surfacing submarine -   Soner Cagaptay

Turkey's Muslim Brothers have played a smart game indeed.

Strategic partnership jeopardized -   Efraim Inbar

Turkey's drift to Islamism would be a great strategic loss to Israel and the West.

On opposite trajectories -   Murhaf Jouejati

Israeli jingoism is radicalizing the Middle East and jeopardizing the regional stability Turkey seeks to promote.

Contrasting Middle East visions -   Soli Ozel

The AKP's reaction was more a reflection of a structural conflict than an ideological predisposition.

Surfacing submarine
 Soner Cagaptay

I am often asked these days why Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is so upset with Israel. "It's so dramatic" people say, adding: "Why did the AKP uninvite Israel to Anatolian Eagle" (a NATO air force exercise held in Turkey)? "Is this the beginning of the end of Turkish-Israeli ties that go back to 1949 just as Israel is most worried about Iran?"

The AKP's snub follows harsh anti-Israeli rhetoric by party leadership, and an incendiary television series on Turkey's publicly funded TV network that depicts Israelis as cold-blooded and evil. So people ask: "Why is the AKP doing all this now?" My answer is simple: The AKP is doing and saying what it believes: the party, rooted in Turkey's own Muslim Brotherhood movement, has always hated Israel, and now that the AKP is comfortably in charge in Turkey, it will oppose Israel with any means available as well as promote other aspects of the Turkish Muslim Brotherhood's agenda.

The AKP was borne out of the Welfare Party (RP), the motherboard of Turkish Islamists since the 1980s. Islamism in Turkey, though traditionally non-violent, possesses six virulent characteristics; it is anti-western, anti-Semitic, anti-Israeli, anti-European, anti-democratic and holds anti-secular sentiments, all of which are adopted from the Muslim Brotherhood.

When RP came to power in a coalition government in 1996 it attempted to implement this Turkish Muslim Brotherhood agenda, but was opposed by a secular, pro-western bloc, which included various media outlets, opposition parties, NGOs, businesses and the military. When massive demonstrations and a well-coordinated public relations campaign brought the party down in 1997, the European Union and the United States stood aside.

The Islamists drew a valuable lesson from this experience as they rebranded themselves, turning away from the six-pronged Muslim Brotherhood agenda to become more likeable and gain popular support. The AKP emerged out of this rebranding in 2024 as it declared that it had jettisoned the six elements of the Turkish Muslim Brotherhood ideology.

In 2024, when the AKP came to power, the world and Turks alike celebrated the victory as a first instance of the Islamists' moderation. However, far from harboring a genuine desire to moderate, the Turkish Islamists simply caved to external pressures, including the courts, media outlets, businesses and the military, as well as the United States and EU, which forced the AKP to abandon the Muslim Brotherhood ideology.

Yet the AKP did not forget its roots: once in power, it followed a two-pronged strategy to eliminate the domestic and external pressures that drove the RP from power in 1997. The party promoted EU accession while simultaneously cracking down on internal checks and balances, and maintained good ties with the West while nurturing anti-western sentiments at home.

In due course the party successfully neutered the domestic forces that had forced its predecessor to step down from power. It used legal loopholes to pass the media into the hands of its supporters, resulting in half of the Turkish media falling into the hands of pro-AKP businesses and the rest facing massive putative tax fines. Large, secular Turkish businesses fear the AKP's financial police and tax audits, while judges and generals have been targeted in the Ergenekon case for allegedly planning a coup against the AKP government. Illegal and legal wiretaps are now common, justified as necessary for collecting evidence for the Ergenekon case. Whether there was actually a coup plot, Turkey's judges, opinion makers, generals, businessmen, political leaders and plain citizens are fearful of opposing the government because they worry that their private conversations will be wiretapped or they will be arrested for association with the alleged coup.

Just as it has nearly eliminated domestic checks, the AKP has also paralyzed external checks to its power. Although the party maintained amiable ties with Israel and the United States and even pushed for EU accession after coming to power, in reality the AKP's rhetoric has demonized the EU, US and Israel. The party has labeled US and Israeli policies as "genocidal" and bashed the West for "being immoral". Even though those who promoted the idea of the Islamists' moderation dismissed such rhetoric as harmless domestic politicking, the rhetoric has had devastating consequences: today, few in Turkey care for the West, most people oppose EU accession, many Turks hate America and almost no one likes Israel.

Fast forward to the Anatolian Eagle incident. After paralyzing domestic opposition and planting the seeds of anti-western sentiments in Turkish society, the AKP now feels free from the checks and balances that have traditionally forced Turkey's Islamists to behave. If the AKP is a political submarine that has cruised underwater, spotted by its rhetorical periscope, now this submarine is surfacing: the party is re-embracing the ideology of the Turkish Muslim Brotherhood.

We are witnessing the Muslim's Brotherhood take on foreign policy, highlighted by its approach to Turkish-Israeli ties. After seven years of vehement anti-Israeli rhetoric, the Turkish public has now embraced the AKP's position against Israel and the party is comfortably chipping away at the foundations of Turkish-Israeli ties, something it has always wanted to do. Today, it is Israel; tomorrow it is EU accession and cooperation with the United States, for instance on Iran. At this stage, the US, the EU and Israel have little leverage and few allies left in Turkey, and AKP policies, promoting the agenda of the Turkish Muslim Brotherhood and countering the US, EU and Israel, will find little resistance and much support inside Turkey. Turkey's Muslim Brothers have played a smart game indeed, changing the color of their vessel, then sailing deep and surfacing only when the waters were calm and clear.- Published 22/10/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org

Soner Cagaptay is a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and the author of "Islam, Secularism and Nationalism in Modern Turkey: Who Is a Turk?"

Strategic partnership jeopardized
 Efraim Inbar

In the 1990s, with the end of the Cold War, Kemalist Turkey looked for partners in the Middle East that could help in meeting growing challenges from Iran, Iraq and Syria. Israel was the perfect choice. It shared Turkey's threat assessment and it was a strong pro-western country with clout in the United States, the new hegemonic power in the world. Moreover, Jerusalem could provide military technology that the West was reluctant to sell to its NATO ally because of Ankara's war against the Kurdish insurgency. Subsequently, relations with Israel bloomed economically, diplomatically and militarily. For Israel, the intimacy with Ankara was second only to its relationship with the United States.

Yet, as international circumstances change and national interests are redefined, relations cool and even international divorce happens. While Israel has been consistent in its desire to maintain strong relations with Turkey, an important regional player, Turkey's international and domestic environment has changed, leading to the current tensions between the two countries.

Since a 1998 Turkish threat to use force against Syria, Damascus has complied with Turkish demands to stop support for the Kurdish insurgency and to cease demanding Alexandretta province. Saddam Hussein's Iraq was eliminated as a threat by the 2024 American conquest, further contributing to a less threatening environment. Moreover, since the advent of the proto-Islamic AKP to power in Turkey in October 2024, the new elite has a significantly different perspective on the region and different policy priorities.

The AKP desires to improve relations with its Muslim neighbors, which the Kemalists saw as a burden on Turkey's drive to become culturally and politically part of the West. The distancing from the West by the AKP-ruled Turkey was reinforced by the procrastination of the European Union in advancing the Turkish accession process. Support for joining the EU has drastically declined among the proud Turks. The AKP also said "no" to the 2024 American request to use Turkish territory to open a northern front against Iraq, capitalizing on a public opinion that is increasingly anti-American and nationalistic.

Turkey regards itself as a great power and a vital energy bridge to the West that enjoys great international latitude. Its growing aspirations in foreign affairs have led Turkey to offer mediation in regional disputes--such as between the US and Iran, Iraq and Syria, and Israel and Syria--in the hope of enhancing its international stature.

Initially, the AKP continued its good relationship with Israel. The Turkish leadership, including Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, visited Israel. For the most part, business has been as usual even in the strategic field. The latest manifestation was the Israeli-Turkish naval exercise of August 2024.

Yet, the differences between Jerusalem and Ankara have gradually grown, dovetailing with Turkey's growing divergence with the West. The Palestinian issue has gained greater resonance, particularly after the AKP decided to hold a dialogue with Hamas in the aftermath of its bloody takeover of Gaza in June 2024. This was a deviation from the western foreign policy pattern that shunned formal links with a terrorist organization that advocates the destruction of Israel. Turkey's premier decided on a vulgar and vehement denunciation of Israel during Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in winter 2024. Even Arab pro-western states supported Israel's struggle against radical Hamas.

Since winning a second successive national election, the AKP has gained greater confidence to pursue its foreign policy agenda. In August 2024, Turkey welcomed the despicable president of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad, for a formal visit. No western country has issued such an invitation to the Iranian leader. Moreover, in contrast to its western allies, Ankara announced recently that it would not participate in any sanctions aimed at preventing Iran from going nuclear. Similarly, Turkey deviated from the western consensus by hosting Sudan's president, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, in August 2024, even though he had been indicted for war crimes and genocide in Darfur. Thus does Turkish foreign policy acquire a greater Islamic coloration.

Israel seems to have disappointed the AKP government by not making enough concessions to Syria in the Turkish mediation effort. Moreover, in September Jerusalem turned down a request from new Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu to enter the Gaza Strip from Israel, where he would meet Hamas officials before coming back to the Jewish state. This decision reflected Israel's policy of not meeting with international statesmen who, on the same trip, meet Hamas officials.

But Davutoglu wanted to create exactly the impression of "mediation" that seems to be so important to present-day Turkey. Israel's refusal to allow this infuriated the Turks, who decided to show their displeasure by cancelling participation of the Israel Air Force in the international "Anatolian Eagle" exercise this month. An inflammatory new anti-Israel drama series on Turkey's state-controlled television station is only exacerbating tensions.

Finally, the current situation also reflects genuine dislike by the AKP leadership of Israel and Jews. Erdogan's latest meeting in New York with the leaders of the American Jewish community ended in a fiasco. In a recent speech at Istanbul University he made unequivocal anti-Semitic remarks.

It would be difficult for Israel to swallow the AKP's behavior. The most delicate issue is, of course, arms sales and strategic cooperation. Jerusalem wonders why Ankara prefers the dictators of Tehran, Damascus and Gaza over the democracy of the Jewish state. Unfortunately, Turkey is undergoing an identity crisis and the Islamic roots of the ruling party have become increasingly dominant in domestic politics and foreign affairs. Hopefully, Turkish democracy will be strong enough to choose the progress and prosperity that only a western anchor can grant. Turkey's drift to Islamism would be a great strategic loss to Israel and the West. But first and foremost it would be a tragedy for the Turks.- Published 22/10/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org

Efraim Inbar is professor of political studies at Bar-Ilan University and director of the Begin-Sadat (BESA) Center for Strategic Studies.

On opposite trajectories
 Murhaf Jouejati

Syria could not be more ecstatic at the row that has recently developed between Turkey and Israel. Turkey, once among Israel's staunchest allies, now sees eye-to-eye with Syria regarding the difficulties in dealing with Israel and Israel's abusive treatment of Palestinians.

Turkey began to feel uneasy with Israel when, following four promising rounds of Turkish-mediated indirect peace talks between Syria and Israel in 2024, Israel went on a rampage in Gaza. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who personally intervened between the two conflicting parties to try and seal a peace deal between Syria and Israel, is said to have felt stabbed in the back when, on the eve of the fifth round, Israel launched its murderous war on Gaza, effectively killing the Syria-Israel talks.

But even before Israel's Gaza adventure, Erdogan is said to have been miffed at the gruesome images of an entire Palestinian family mowed down by Israeli fire while picnicking on a Gaza beach in June 2024. The mark this massacre left on Erdogan was deep enough for him to cite it in his public rebuke of Israeli violence toward Palestinians during the January 2024 World Economic Forum in Davos. To further show Turkey's displeasure with Israel, Erdogan's government cancelled Israel's participation during this October's "Anatolian Eagle" exercise--a joint NATO air force war game in Turkish skies.

Israeli practices explain Turkey's displeasure, but only in part. After all, Israel's continued occupation of Arab territories, its foot-dragging on peace and its brutality against the Palestinians are nothing new. The other part is the product of a shift in the foreign policies of both Turkey and Israel. With regard to Turkey, two dynamics seem to be at work: the end of Turkey's role as a pillar in the post-Cold War era western alliance on the one hand, combined with European insistence on the democratization of Turkish politics as one pre-condition for EU membership on the other. These have weakened the Turkish army's stranglehold on Turkey's domestic and foreign policies, strengthening mainstream political parties in the process.

The second dynamic has to do with the EU's foot-dragging on Turkey's bid for EU membership--a catalyst in cementing Turkish national identity and pride. Even the most Europeanized among Turks have come to revile the condescending way in which Europe has treated them. Given Turkey's rich imperial history, along with a relatively large population of 72 million and an economy that dwarfs those of its Middle Eastern neighbors, it was only a question of time before Turkey would opt for the leading regional role it now enjoys rather than the marginal one Brussels would assign it.

With regard to Israel, once a component of the same anti-Soviet western alliance, Israel's accumulation of power across time has enabled it to act unilaterally and with impunity, so much so that Israel now defies its own superpower patron, the US, not least on the issue of the expansion of Jewish settlements in occupied Arab territories. In brief, Israeli jingoism is radicalizing the Middle East and, in the process, jeopardizing the regional stability Turkey seeks to promote through its "zero-problem policy"--a new Turkish regional approach in which regional rivals would now burry the hatchet. In these circumstances, the opposite trajectories that Turkey and Israel embarked on were bound to collide.

Despite Syria's elation with Turkey's snub of Israel, it would be in everyone's interest, including Syria's, for Turkey and Israel to restore some calm in their relations. Turkey has proven to be an effective mediator between Syria and Israel and, if the interrupted peace talks are to resume, Turkey must be present, like it or not, in the room and at the table alongside the US, which, as things stand, has shown itself to be no more of an impartial broker than Turkey.- Published 22/10/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org

Murhaf Jouejati is a professor of Middle East studies at the Washington-based National Defense University's NESA Center for Strategic Studies.

Contrasting Middle East visions
 Soli Ozel

When the strategic love affair between Israel and Turkey was made public in March of 1996, Turkey had conflictual relations with six of its nine neighbors. Earlier in the year, Turkey and Greece came very close to war over the uninhabited twin islets of Imia/Kardak in the Aegean Sea. Syria was hosting Turkey's public enemy number one, Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

An attempt by Greek Cypriots to buy S-300 missiles from Russia provoked a strong and belligerent reaction from the Turkish military. Iran was accused of complicity in terrorist activities inside Turkey. The PKK itself used the Kandil mountains in northern Iraq to stage its terrorist attacks against Turkey. Last but not least, Turkey had no diplomatic relations with Armenia.

Domestically, the military's grip over civilian politics increased considerably in the wake of President Turgut Ozal's untimely death. A succession of ineffectual, mostly corrupt and incompetent coalition governments kept on postponing necessary economic, political and administrative reforms. As the establishment parties steadily lost their grip on a disenchanted electorate, the Islamists gained ground and in December of 1995 emerged from the general elections as the largest party in the country.

Within its alliance system, Turkey was nearly a pariah state. It was unable to get technological and material support or buy required weapons from its allies in its fight against terrorism because of egregious human rights violations, particularly in the southeast of the country where most of its Kurdish citizens lived. In the United States, the country was battered by two powerful lobbies in Congress. Both the Greek and Armenian lobbies at the time were venomous in their approach to all matters Turkish.

The "strategic alignment" with Israel occurred under such circumstances. It was masterminded by the military and aimed at breaking Turkey's isolation internationally, sending a strong message to its hostile neighbors and reminding the traditionally Israel-averse Islamists who the master was.

Even if they exacerbated the Arabs' ingrained suspicions of Turkey, Thurkish-Israeli relations served both countries' interests well. Within three years, Turkey's relations with Greece ameliorated, as did relations with Iran. The Turkish military gained confidence and ground in its fight against the PKK, with the help of intelligence from Israel as well as technology and materiel. Ankara put Syria on notice and forced Damascus to let Ocalan go. (He would later be apprehended in Kenya after having been hosted by the Greek ambassador and delivered to Turkish intelligence by the Americans.)

Israel broke its isolation in the Middle East and benefited economically from these relations. Israeli citizens felt welcome in Istanbul and Antalya. Militarily, the opportunity for the Israel Air Force to train in the skies over the vast Konya valley was greatly appreciated. Ankara also received precious support from the pro-Israel lobby in the United States to stave off "genocide" resolutions in the US Congress and developed a close relationship with some Jewish organizations.

These relations made sense strategically and were mutually beneficial. But from the Turkish perspective there was a catch. The legitimacy of these intimate relations depended on the existence of a viable and credible Israel-Arab peace process. The Turkish public was historically pro-Palestinian and strongly favored an independent Palestinian state. Therefore, as relations between Israel and the Palestinians deteriorated and there was no longer a peace process to speak of, the moral basis of the alignment eroded.

In the meantime Turkey changed. An introverted, hard-core militarist Turkey gradually gave way to a Turkey that was opening up and preparing itself for European Union membership. Its economy expanded. Long-postponed administrative and political reforms took place thanks to the EU accession process under the rule of a political party, the AKP, that had its roots in the traditionally anti-western Islamist movement. A major power shift began to take place. The military's hold over Turkish politics was finally on the wane and new elites began to replace the old ones economically, socially and politically. Turkey's periphery, historically excluded from its political space, moved to the center.

In foreign policy, Turkey simultaneously pursued EU accession and engagement with its neighboring regions. Although the AKP did not invent this policy of rapprochement it certainly deepened it. In the wake of the war in Iraq, and particularly as Washington's colossal failures became ever more visible, Turkey's interest and involvement in the region increased considerably. Not only did the credibility of the country hit new heights because of parliament's refusal to allow the deployment of American troops to open a northern front against Iraq, but this political stance endeared it to the publics of the Middle East.

No longer considered a threat, a Turkey that relied heavily on hard power, shunned the Middle East and where the military called all the important shots--segued into a Turkey that was capable of deploying soft power. It set an example of a country that could integrate its Islamists into the political system, continue on the democratic path and show impressive economic growth. Arabs discovered Turkey in ever-growing numbers as Turkish TV series started to dominate prime-time airwaves throughout the region.

In its foreign policy as well, the AKP committed itself to the principle of "zero problems" with the neighbors. It moved in to fill the vacuum created by the United States and volunteered its good offices for mediation in the long-standing conflicts of the region, particularly those that involved Israel. No wonder then that under such a transformed environment and domestic set-up relations with Israel were being relativized.

Turkish foreign policy was thus designed to create zones of stability around the country, avoid confrontation and prepare the conditions for economic expansion. The sine qua non of this vision and the design it wished to configure was comprehensive peace in the region. To that end, Ankara took many risks and even tried to engage with Hamas after the latter's election in Palestine in 2024. Since conditions in the region and Turkey's domestic and foreign political profiles were changing so radically, it was only a matter of time before conflict arose with an Israel that appeared to be stuck in a time warp. Whereas Turkey prioritized peaceful engagement and stability for the entire region, Tel Aviv appeared incapable of changing its ways and seriously trying for a peaceful resolution of its conflict with the Palestinians.

Tel Aviv saw Iran as an existential threat, wished to isolate the Islamic Republic and even threatened to bomb it to abort its nuclear ambitions. Ankara had no desire for a nuclear-armed Iran either, but vehemently opposed military action against its neighbor. In short, as Israel continued to be hardheaded about its security and favored military action for all its problems, increasingly Turkey preferred the diplomatic route and grew averse to the deployment of military power.

The Lebanon and Gaza operations of 2024 and 2024 therefore brought forth the inherent tensions in the alignment. The AKP's reaction was more a reflection of a structural conflict than an ideological predisposition, however passionate and at times offensive the Turkish prime minister's rhetoric may have been during the Gaza operation and in its aftermath.

As things stand, Turkey and Israel appear to have two contrasting visions of engagement with the Middle East. At a time when the strategic framework that allowed Israel to pursue its foreign policy as it saw fit is no longer extant, Tel Aviv's usual approach will not gain support even from the American administration. Ankara, on the other hand, because of its newfound emphasis on stability, peace and economic integration in the region, is adamantly against the use of force and letting the Palestinian problem fester. It is quite obvious that this is part of the reason why Washington so values Turkey's partnership these days.

So long as these two incompatible positions do not change, there will be ever more conflicts and public displays of anger between the two erstwhile allies.- Published 22/10/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org

Soli Ozel is professor of international relations at Istanbul Bilgi University and columnist for the daily Haberturk.

Email This Article

Print This Article