In a time-tested tradition, the Turkish government stirred up hatred for Israel and the Jews to mobilize support at home.
Israel and Turkey, post-flotilla
The Israeli attack on the Turkish-flagged "Freedom Flotilla" that aimed to break the siege and blockade on the Gaza Strip is threatening the once strategic relationship between Israel and Turkey. Turkey considers the incident an attack on its sovereignty and has warned that relations with Israel will never be the same.
Turkey was the first Islamic country to recognize Israel in March 1949. Over the past 60 years, the two countries developed a very strong relationship. Israel has been a major supplier of arms to Turkey. Military, strategic and diplomatic cooperation between Turkey and Israel were accorded high priority by the governments of both countries, which share concerns with respect to the instabilities in the Middle East. They have joint military committees and have held joint military exercises until very recently. Trade and tourism between them is considered the best in the Middle East region, which is otherwise hostile to Israel.
But diplomatic relations between the two countries were strained after Israel launched a war on the Gaza Strip in 2008-2009 that took the lives of more than 1,400 Palestinians, mainly civilians. Turkey heavily criticized Israel's conduct during its assault on Gaza, and Turkish PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan's subsequent walk-out from the World Economic Forum in Davos humiliated Israeli President Shimon Peres and ignited a wave of criticism and incitement from both sides. But relations between the two countries had already changed since the election in 2002 of the Islamic Justice and Development party.
The Palestinians, especially Gazans, along with other Arabs, have welcomed the bold and courageous policies of Erdogan, describing them as representative of a new Ottomanism. The Israeli attack on the flotilla gave even more prominence to Turkey and its government. Palestinians in Gaza waved Turkish flags and decorated their homes with portraits of Erdogan. Ismail Haniyeh, the deposed prime minister of Hamas, posted a Turkish flag next to the Palestinian flag during last Friday's sermon.
Erdogan has defended Hamas and told the Obama administration that Hamas is not a terrorist organization, but rather a resistance group dedicated to fighting the Israeli occupation. He also called on the international community and the Quartet to engage Hamas because it won Palestinian legislative elections in 2006. The international condemnation of Israel's raid on the flotilla and new calls to end the siege on the Gaza Strip have even led many Israelis to declare that it is Israel that is now under siege while Hamas is gaining more international recognition.
But how far can Turkey go with its current policy toward Israel and Hamas? Some analysts are skeptical of Turkey's new Middle East policy and believe that the refusal of Europe to accept Turkey into the European Union caused Turkey to shift its policy eastward and advocate the Palestinian cause to improve its position vis-a-vis the United States and Europe. Some have also suggested that this new policy is only a public relations stunt to show the Islamic world that Turkey is on its side, because Turkey had long been silent on major issues important to Arabs and Muslims, not least the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
And Turkey has its own domestic constraints: first, the secular military establishment is strong enough to intervene when it feels that Turkish secular values are threatened. In spite of the recent weakening of secular elements, the battle between secularists and Islamists is far from over in Turkey. Second, Turkey's war with its Kurdish minority must be taken into consideration in analyzing Israeli-Turkish relations. Israeli support for Kurdish rights is one of the key factors in the damage done to Israeli-Turkish relations. Turkey is also a member of NATO, which is dedicated to the collective national security of its members.
The Palestinians are obsessed with any country or leader that advocates their rights and stands up against Israel. The Palestinians supported Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt and Saddam Hussein of Iraq for that very reason. Now the pattern is being repeated with Erdogan. The failure of Palestinian leaders to end the Israeli occupation and liberate occupied land has led Palestinians to cling to desperate fantasies. Even though many of these leaders exploited the Palestinian cause for their own personal agendas, Palestinians have not learned the lessons from past experience.
Can Turkey terminate its relations with Israel? And if so, would Turkey do that for the sake of the Palestinians and Islam? Palestinians should know that no one can help them if they cannot help themselves. The key is to reorganize their internal house and adopt a national political program that can be used to recruit international pressure on Israel.- Published 10/6/10 © bitterlemons-international.org
Mkhaimar Abusada is a professor of political science at al-Azhar University in Gaza.
No longer an ally
There are three ways to view the deterioration in Israeli-Turkish relations. They are complementary and, taken together, should guide Israeli policy-makers in deciding how to proceed in dealing with Ankara.
The most prevalent view in Israel but possibly in some western and moderate Arab countries as well, is that PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling Islamist AKP are steadily leading Turkey on a path toward extremism. They are linking Ankara to the most radical countries and movements in the Middle East, from Iran and Syria to Hamas and Hizballah. Further, Erdogan seeks to usurp the role of more moderate countries and governments in dealing with Islamist extremists: to replace Egypt in mediating the needs of Hamas; and along with Brazil, to displace the United States in making deals with Iran.
Erdogan's rhetoric against Israel, often in the name of Turkish honor, has become inflammatory and at times anti-Semitic. The hypocrisy informing his regional policies is particularly evident in the ongoing friction with Turkish Kurds and the refusal to come to terms with the Armenian genocide, even as Erdogan shrilly condemns Israel for its attitude toward the Palestinians.
Additional proof of Erdogan's intentions can be found at the domestic level in Turkey, where his government is slowly introducing Islamist themes, neutralizing the constitutional leadership role assigned to the armed forces under Kemalism and stigmatizing and even allegedly incriminating traditional pro-western elements.
A second, more moderate take on Turkey, views with admiration and envy its recent foreign policy departures, led by Erdogan's former adviser and now foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu. Turkey has the most dynamic and pro-active foreign policy in the Middle East and possibly the world. It seeks to solve each and every conflict situation among its many neighbors. Whether defined as neo-Ottomanism, a reaction to European rejection or simply smart diplomacy, Ankara's approach has opened doors to commerce and prestige in Asia, the Mediterranean, Europe and the Middle East.
With few exceptions, this new diplomatic approach seems to have succeeded. But Israel is one of those exceptions. Here we encounter a third way of reacting to Turkey's new dynamism. The attitude of many Israelis toward Ankara was molded by the security alliance that linked the two countries in the 1950s and 1960s and that reemerged in the 1990s and seemed to hold sway until just a few years ago. That alliance began as part of "Trident", a tripartite pact that involved Iran under the Shah as well.
Trident was perhaps the high point of Israel's periphery doctrine, which sought to cultivate non-Arab or non-Muslim allies as a means of leapfrogging over the circle of Arab hostility that surrounded the Jewish state. As an alliance against the perceived shared threat of Arab nationalism it flourished until the 1970s, when Gamal Abdel Nasser passed from the scene, Iran became an Islamic republic under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and Israel made peace with Egypt. It seemingly resurfaced in the mid-1990s, when Turkish-Israeli military cooperation was instrumental in forcing Syria under President Hafez Assad to abandon support for the Turkish Kurdish terrorist movement PKK.
The perception of Turkey under Erdogan as somehow betraying an alliance with Israel that responds to Arab hostility constitutes a significant mental block among some Israeli leaders in their dealings with Ankara. Paradoxically, that block may receive reinforcement from moderate Arab leaders who resent Turkey's bid for a leadership role with and encouragement for militant Islamist and radical actors. Nor does Israel understand how commercial, tourism and even military relations could have flourished until now unless Turkey were inherently more friendly with Israel.
Accordingly, Israel's leaders have not adapted well to the more attractive aspects of Turkey's new pro-active approach, such as the offer to mediate Israel's problematic relations with Islamists and with Syria. In 2008, then-PM Ehud Olmert did take advantage of Ankara's offer to hold proximity peace talks with Syria, at a time when the Bush administration in Washington was not interested in advancing such talks.
But tellingly, the talks ended in late December of that year when Olmert, just days after a very successful session in Ankara, launched Israel's attack against Hamas in Gaza. Erdogan, who received no advance warning from Olmert (Egypt apparently did), has harbored a fiery grudge ever since. Israel has nurtured that grudge by rejecting renewed Turkish offers to intercede with Syria and, in a paroxysm of juvenile diplomacy, insulting the Turkish ambassador publicly in a meeting with Israel's deputy foreign minister.
All of this seemingly culminated in the recent flotilla incident. A Turkish Islamist group with close ties to the government sought to spearhead contacts with Hamas and laid a violent propaganda ambush that Israel walked into with eyes wide open. Now Ankara demands apologies and reparations and threatens to seriously downgrade relations.
Relations between the Netanyahu and Erdogan governments may be beyond repair. Certainly, Erdogan is on a "trip" of regional diplomatic and propaganda successes that positions Turkey as an emerging power with links that must worry the West as well as Israel and that hardly encourages compromise. Israel, for its part, is run by a hawkish government that has become paranoid about much of the worlds' intentions.
Unless and until there is radical change in Turkey, Israel would be well advised to abandon its fond memories of Ankara as an ally. Trident is dead and the tables are turned: most Arab states are now probably closer in orientation to Jerusalem than are Ankara and Tehran. But the latter are strong, while the Arab state system is in sad disarray.- Published 10/6/2010 © bitterlemons-international.org
Yossi Alpher is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.
No short-term fix to relations
Turkish-Israeli relations are in a state of coma. Will it be possible to resuscitate? The answer is, no, not any time soon, or maybe even later, unless extraordinary developments take place that reverse the current course of events.
Neither side seems to be willing to back down, even an inch, from their current positions. Moreover, these positions are getting ever more deeply entrenched due to the incessant crossfire of words from the highest posts in the administrations of both countries.
How far can this go? Hopefully, not to the point of no return toward a hot confrontation.
The root causes of the current situation lie far deeper than most people think. They can certainly not be traced to the famous "one-minute" crisis in Davos in January 2009 at a panel attended by Turkish Premier Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Israeli President Shimon Peres as well as UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon and the Arab League's Secretary-General Amr Musa. There is no doubt that the exchange of blunt words between Peres and Erdogan on that cold winter evening in Davos brought even colder air to relations between Turkey and Israel. But the incident only brought to the surface underlying tensions.
Turkey and Israel enjoyed an almost perfect relationship throughout the 1990s, one that amazed their friends and bothered their rivals. The US war in Iraq revealed, however, that the two allies did indeed have differing objectives and concerns with respect to the future restructuring of Iraq. While Turkey feared the emergence of an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq, the same possibility seemed favorable to Israel from its security standpoint vis-a-vis threats posed by countries like Iran, Pakistan and beyond.
Turks and Jews have a long and much cherished history of peaceful relations spanning over five centuries since the Ottoman Empire first embraced Jews who were persecuted in Spain in the 15th century. Against this background, what is being witnessed today could not even be imagined a decade ago when the two countries reached a climax in their relations, which was signed and sealed with the 1996 military cooperation agreement.
The September 11 attacks dramatically changed the threat perceptions of many countries, however, and have had no less an impact on the relations between Turkey and Israel. This time, however, divergences in threat perceptions were significant even if the parties did not want to admit it.
In the ensuing "clash of civilizations", Israel has started to see Turkey's Muslim character now from an entirely different angle. This Israeli perception was further enhanced with the coming to power of the Justice and Development Party following the November 2002 elections.
Israel thus became seriously concerned whether Turkey, under a new administration that hails from a so-called "Islamist" background, would honor its commitments to Israel vis-a-vis the grave threats it perceives from its regional enemies and rivals. Hence, Israel wanted more options and thus invested in the future of northern Iraqi Kurds. That, at least, was the view of most Turks.
On the other hand, Turkey's political environment and the threats perceived therein have become subject to rapid and radical change both due to conjunctural changes in the international system and also, and maybe more so, due to a new philosophy that has started to dominate the drafting and conduct of Turkish foreign policy. This new philosophy has become widely known as the "zero conflict with neighbors" school of thought, and was the brainchild of Dr. Ahmet Davutoglu, who later became Turkey's foreign minister.
The disappearance of common ground between Turkey and Israel in terms of threat perceptions and the mounting concerns of the Turkish security elite about Israel's alleged support to Iraqi Kurds have not left much reason or substance for the countries to shore up confidence.
Occasional visits and limited arms sales did not do much to save relations, which were quite visibly going downhill on the Davos mountains. And after a series of mutual recriminations, the current Netanyahu-Lieberman government's attitude toward the Erdogan government and vice-versa should have struck an alarm that worse was yet to come. No doubt, the Israeli military operation against the Mavi Marmara, carrying more than six hundred aid activists from 33 different countries around the world, at least half of whom were Turkish citizens, has put an end to any relations worth speaking of.
The current position of Turkey vis-a-vis Israel should not be seen as stemming from the Erdogan government's attitude alone. There are clear signs that an overwhelming majority of Turks support the government's policies even if they may not have voted for them in the elections. Other institutions within the state apparatus, including the military, have concurred that the Israeli operation could by no means be justified. Moreover, President Abdullah Gul has clearly stated that Israel must feel the pain of the mistake it made and that Turkey will not let Israel escape its responsibilities by saying that "actions always speak louder than words" at the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building in Asia summit in Istanbul on June 8.
It appears then that the "amazing alliance" is heading toward a crossroads. This may change the nature of the relationship from a "win-win" to a "lose-lose" situation unless proper steps are rapidly taken with a view toward rebuilding confidence on both sides.
The worst thing that can happen between two countries is a state of war. The second worst would be non-recognition or cutting of diplomatic relations. Turkey and Israel, it could be said, are currently in the next category down. This means, in case wisdom doesn't prevail, that further deterioration is not out of the question.- Published 10/6/2010 © bitterlemons-international.org
Dr. Mustafa Kibaroglu teaches courses on arms control and disarmament in the Department of International Relations at Bilkent University in Ankara.
A new strategic divide in the region
In the past, I have argued in these virtual pages that problems between Turkey and Israel should not be considered as one-off events. There are structural reasons for tensions to flare up. Therefore I concluded that there would be ever more conflicts between the two allies/partners.
Even with that prognosis, I could not have imagined that the episode of the aid convoy to Gaza would end up with the calamitous, illegal, ill-thought-out, ill-fated and bloody attack against the ship Mavi Marmara by Israeli commandos. In my view, neither the personalities nor the ideological affiliations of some of the people who were on that ship, nor their resistance to the attack, can be offered as just causes for the bloody carnage that followed.
This debate will continue for a long time and perhaps inconclusively. What is certain at this point is that there is now civilian blood between two countries that were not at war and that are not even contiguous. It will be amazingly difficult if not impossible to place the relations back on track.
When I reflect on the events and how they proceeded, and think of errors of omission and commission that we know of, I come to the conclusion that we are faced with yet another example of politics of miscalculation. The two governments ended up finding themselves in an undesirable situation, unable to mend fences. In my judgment, both sides expected a confrontation--in fact, Israel announced long in advance that it would intervene forcefully--but no one imagined that the confrontation would turn out the way it did.
In the past, I identified two main reasons why relations were likely to suffer more crises in the future. Firstly, the conditions that led to the flourishing of an alignment between Israel and Turkey framed by their military cooperation are no longer present. Then, conflict and hostility defined Turkey's relations with many of its neighbors. That began to change in 1999.
Upon the delivery of PKK chief Abdullah Ocalan to Turkey by the US in Kenya that year, Turkey's relations with Syria improved considerably. As the Aegean Spring reduced tensions between Greece and Turkey, relations with Iran took a turn for the better. In short, Turkey already had friendly relations with most of its neighbors by the time the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power.
In the wake of the Iraq war, regional circumstances enabled Turkey to play an active and mostly constructive role in the region. As Turkey's policy toward its neighbors gradually became less confrontational, the benefits of the Israeli alignment became relatively less significant. In the meantime, the architect of that alignment on the Turkish side, the military, was fast losing political ground as a result of intensive civilianization of the polity, indictments against its members for alleged coup plots and other illicit activities and further democratization.
Related to these facts is the second structural reason. The two countries have diverging visions for the Middle East and their policy preferences and approaches are increasingly irreconcilable. Turkey increasingly sees itself as a regional power and seeks to be America's main partner in the region. Under the rubric of "model partnership" first brought up by President Obama, Ankara believes that it has a chance to forge such a relationship that will inevitably be at the expense of Israel's most favored and protected status.
Turkey wishes to have a Middle East order that is based on economic integration, political stability and peace. Achieving peace is seen as the precondition of political stability and economic integration that would consolidate that stability. Ankara believes Israel's current policies are blocking this path. Whereas Israel is against the lifting of the siege of Gaza, Turkey believes it must be ended and a way must be found to engage Hamas in the political process.
Similarly, Ankara wished to broker a Syrian-Israeli deal. The fury of PM Erdogan in the wake of the Gaza war in part stemmed from the fact that the war killed a deal that the Turkish side believed was almost at hand during PM Ehud Olmert's visit to Ankara days before the Israeli attack.
Finally, not only does Turkey continue to engage Iran. Despite criticism that Tehran uses these efforts to gain time for further enrichment, Ankara also keeps on bringing up Israel's nuclear arsenal on every platform. The recent decision of the NPT Review Conference that invited Israel to open its nuclear program to scrutiny suggests that Turkey's persistence on this matter paid off.
At a time when Israel and the United States had serious difficulties in dealing with one another, this vision of Turkey became pretty attractive for Washington. Erdogan's aggressive language when it came to Israel received gentle treatment from Washington partially because of resentment against the Israeli government and partially because Turkey's rhetoric and proximity to Hamas had the auxiliary effect of undercutting Iranian influence in Gaza and elsewhere.
In short, Turkey's regional hegemonic aspirations became more visible and its policies more assertive, challenging Israel's hegemonic design and the positions, policies and priorities that stem from it.
In light of these observations, I believe that the Israeli raid was meant to teach the Turkish government a lesson. That Minister of Defense Ehud Barak, the champion of good relations with Turkey who saved the day after the scandal with Deputy FM Danny Ayalon a few months ago, was the architect of the assault in my view supports this hypothesis.
The Turkish government's response, deemed inadequate by two-thirds of the population, was appropriate when it took the matter to the international arena. It is trying to keep it there, despite the initial disappointment at the UN Security Council. Domestically, though, the incident has been used by the government to boost its image and led to a fierce Islamist mobilization that might yet keep the ruling party hostage.
Had blood not been spilled, it would have been easier to put relations back on track. Alas, blood has been spilled and the publics have been mobilized with incendiary rhetoric. The first task therefore ought to be to cool down.
The current governments will be incapable of working with one another. So long as the peace process is a dead concept, I think it unlikely that relations can be ameliorated further. The Turkish side also appears to be quite determined to have an apology from Israel and get the international commission of inquiry that it demanded. At the end of the day, though, the real question is whether or not Turkey will think it necessary to continue with the principle of aligning itself with Israel when the strategic divide in the region is no longer necessarily that between the Arabs and non-Arabs.- Published 10/6/2010 © bitterlemons-international.org
Soli Ozel is professor of international relations at Istanbul Bilgi University and columnist for the daily Haberturk.
Ankara neither needs nor wants Israel
Why has the alliance between Turkey and Israel fallen apart? The answer is simple: a Turkish regime that is Islamist neither needs nor wants the continuation of such a relationship. This has been obvious to Israeli analysts for several years despite the fact that the world has only recently realized the situation.
The alliance was based on three fundamental strategic interests, though the two sides also received three other benefits from the relationship. Let us begin with the interests.
First, the pre-Islamist Turkish governments and armed forces saw the greatest threats as being revolutionary Islamism (for example, Hamas and Hizballah) and, in particular, Iran, Iraq and Syria. Both Ankara and Jerusalem had common enemies. Thus, there was a strong basis for cooperation.
This has all changed. Saddam Hussein was overthrown in Iraq, ending that aspect of the problem. As for Iran and Syria, the current Turkish government views them as allies. Thus, instead of being aligned with Israel against Iran and Syria, Turkey is now aligned with Iran and Syria against Israel. The same point applies to two other common enemies, Hamas and Hizballah, which are now also the regime's allies against Israel.
Another foundation for the alliance was the attitude of the Turkish armed forces. Not only did they view Israel as an ally against their external enemies, they also perceived it as an important supplier of military equipment and modernization of their existing arsenal. The military had a lot of strategic leverage with the Turkish government, which wanted to keep it happy.
This has all changed. The armed forces were weakened by EU-encouraged reforms, and their political power was reduced. Beyond this, however, the current regime regards the army as an enemy to be tamed. The fact that the armed forces look with favor on Israel now becomes a motive for the Turkish government to break the relationship with Israel in order to fulfill its general domestic goal regarding the military.
The third basis of the relationship was that Israel furnished Turkey with an asset in its dealings with the United States. Israel's lobby and supporters backed Turkish interests in Washington.
This has all changed. Not only has the US-Israel relationship declined under the Obama administration, but Turkey's regime found out that it could get away with all sorts of actions against US interests without cost.
Thus, the whole basis of the relationship evaporated or even reversed itself. There were, however, also three different benefits from the relationship that remained important for a while to the Turkish regime.
Israel was a valuable trading partner. But it has been replaced by Arab countries and Iran in this respect.
Israel was a major source of money from tourism. Turkey had to be willing to sacrifice this. The same applies to the opportunity offered to the Turkish regime to play mediator, especially in Israel-Syria negotiations, in order to increase its own prestige and regional influence.
Other developments, however, made the Turkish regime willing--even eager--to sacrifice the relationship. On one hand, the AK party Islamists gained increasing confidence as they did better in elections. A lot of the sense of caution and pretense that the regime was merely a center-left government without Islamist goals was abandoned.
The final straw was the internal economic crisis and the political threat to the regime. With the revival of the CHP opposition and discontent, the regime faced the possibility of losing the constitutional referendum set for later this year and next year's elections. In a time-tested tradition, the Turkish government stirred up hatred for Israel and the Jews to mobilize support at home. The Davos incident was a test case for this demagoguery.
Does this analysis mean that events like the December 2008-January 2009 Gaza war or the recent Gaza flotilla confrontation, with the deaths of nine Turkish citizens, were of no importance? Well, in fact they were of relatively little importance in the major change that took place.
If the same events had happened under a different Turkish government, there would have been short-lived friction but no fundamental change in the relationship. It should also be noted that the Turkish government at the highest level played a central role in organizing the flotilla and then escalating the crisis to a point close to war.
Yet the foundation had already been kicked out of the relationship before these events. Had they not happened, the result would be the same in strategic terms. The difference is that the Turkish regime would have tried to keep the trade, tourism and mediation components. Even these, however, would perhaps have been sacrificed to suit its domestic political need for a foreign scapegoat that would unite Turks around it.- Published 10/6/10 © bitterlemons-international.org
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center at the Herzlia Interdisciplinary Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal and of Turkish Studies journal.