All of a sudden, everyone’s worrying about Turkey. The concern stems from two recent Turkish acts – heavy criticism of Israel in wake of the Gaza flotilla and Turkey’s Security Council vote against additional sanctions on Iran. But as far as the Israel-Turkey relationship is concerned, the plummet of the past 18 months is not as sudden as the West thinks, as emotional or irrational as Israel thinks, and probably not as effective as Turkey’s government would like it to be.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been leader of Turkey since 2002 as head of the Justice and Development Party (AKP). The Islamic-leaning party differs from the dogma of Kemalism – the secular based belief system enshrined by and after Mustafa Kemal, a.k.a. Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey – in two major ways: the nation has become increasingly religious and has fostered increased minority rights. Both steps have fractured the Turkish identity of the past 80 years. The AKP behaved cautiously at first, until Erdogan won a specially called for election to validate his nomination of fellow AKP member Abdullah Gul to the presidency, solidifying the party’s control of the government. Since then, the AKP has pushed for more religious rights – students’ right to wear headscarves on university campuses most notably – and constitutional reform that would put Turkey in line for EU admission while also, conveniently, limiting the secular military’s power. In a visit to Turkey three months ago, I noticed that constitutional reform and the tensions between the AKP and the old secular establishment were the hot topics of Turkish politics, and not any foreign policy matters.
Still, changes internally lead to changes in external policy. With Turkey’s growing economic power and the change in governmental ideology, one might accept the recent events as a fait accompli. But Erdogan’s foreign policy, with Israel and in general, has been more focused, consistent, and goal-oriented than often seen. Chief among these goals is the establishment of a Palestinian state, and his words and actions are intended to lead towards this; the side benefit of Turkish involvement leading to rising Turkish prestige is of course part of his efforts as well.
Even from the beginning of his term – indeed, even before his election – Erdogan launched verbal attacks against Israel, terming it a “terror state” as far back as 2002. At first, the ministry of foreign affairs and the military balanced Erdogan’s rhetoric, seeking to maintain the relationship between the two secular, non-Arab democracies in the Middle East, a relationship that experienced a golden era in the 1990s.
But then Erdogan too came around, and in doing so showed the positive side of his results-oriented policy. When Prime Minister Ariel Sharon led the disengagement from Gaza and shared a vision of Israel leaving the territories unilaterally in 2004-5, Gul (as foreign minister) and then Erdogan both visited Israel. Erdogan especially hit it off with Sharon, and there was a clear quid pro quo: an Israeli plan for change on Palestine for Turkish support and continued good relations. There was no such conditional status to the relationship before Erdogan, but it still showed there could be a basis for good relations.
After Sharon’s stroke and the ascension of Ehud Olmert to the Prime Minister’s seat, the relationship hit a few bumps as the vision and close personal bonds Sharon shared with Erdogan were lost. And yet, despite some stalling, Turkey mediated peace talks between Syria and Israel over 20 months that were on the brink of achieving direct talks and an agreement between the two countries. Talks paused on this brink on the 23rd of December, 2008, with Olmert to return home from Turkey to get cabinet approval for the plan. The next day, Israel launched Operation Cast Lead against Gaza, and it’s been all downhill ever since.
It’s unclear whether informing Turkey of the attack beforehand would have ameliorated Turkey’s response, but in any case this marked a major and so far ultimate turning point in the relationship. Erdogan has railed against Israel in nearly every relevant public forum, most notably in a verbal attack on Israel’s president Shimon Peres at the 2009 Davos Economic Conference. Turkey has become one of Israel’s most vocal critics in the past half year, and bring with this criticism far more credibility than, say, the babblings of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadenijad, or the occasional missives of autocratic Arab world leaders.
The Benjamin Netanyahu-led Israeli government, which came into power right after Cast Lead, has played the role of Turkey foil to a tee. A lack of clear vision or progress towards a solution to the situation is the underlying backdrop to flashpoints like the flotilla. That was only the latest crisis; among others the high theatrics of Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon’s public shaming of the Turkish Ambassador to Israel stands as a particular low point.
Beyond emotions and reactions though, the questions of why Turkey has shifted away from Israel, and how their means match their ends must be considered. Experts on Turkey view Erdogan as a smart, pragmatic leader, and consider current Foreign Minister Ahmet Davoglu a thinker of strategic depth.
Yet Turkey’s policies have at times contradicted that depth. Erdogan’s criticisms before the past few weeks came twinned with the call, often sounding like a demand, for Israel to resume indirect talks with Syria through Turkish mediation. An effective mediator need not be impartial, but they certainly need the trust of both sides, and insulting one of the sides is no way to win this trust.
Similarly, Turkish support for the flotilla can be questioned. It is not completely clear how much the government explicitly supported the flotilla beforehand, and it is unlikely the government expected bloodshed. Still, Erdogan has lifted the banner of Turkish pride and sovereignty in the aftermath.
On the one hand, it appears that Israel is easing off the blockade to a significant degree (why they couldn’t do this before violence, death, and international isolation is another matter), and so Turkey might consider this stance a success. At the same time, Erdogan may be selling out Turkey’s power and credibility, playing to the extremes of his country and the “Arab street” at the cost of spurning Turkey’s former role as a bridge. The West has begun to raise caution at Turkey’s action, and some reports suggest the secular party has a higher approval rating in Turkey. Turkey cannot turn its back on its past so easily.
Perhaps Turkey embraces this new role, but it’s fair to ask if their ultimate regional goal is prestige and being viewed as leader of the Arab world or the establishment of a Palestinian state and general regional stability a la their stated “zero problems towards neighbors” policy. As we wait for signs of progress in the region, it’s hard to tell if Turkey can aid that progress better as a bridge or as a power.
The day after the flotilla, a guest lecturer, Israel’s leading expert on Turkey and a former Charge D’affairs for Israel in Turkey, spoke to one of my classes on Turkey and its relation to the Arab-Israeli Conflict. Besides mentioning Erdogan’s long history of condemning Israel, or that the agreement between Israel and Syria was written and merely waiting final approval, he raised a point about Erdogan’s visit to Israel in 2005. “Before,” he said, “when Turkey would visit, they would hug us and call us brothers, and there was great love. Now, Erdogan offered help and encouragement for the peace process, he and Sharon got along great, but there was not the same love.”
Much has happened to ensure that love is lost. The questions are if that loss is permanent, what the sides can do about it, and what it means for the Middle East. Things worth worrying about.