Date:Sun, 8 Feb 2009 12:33:41 +0200
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TEL AVIV NOTES - "Turkey and Israel: Relations at a Crossroad?"
Editor: Bruce Maddy-Weitzman February 8, 2008
Turkey and Israel in the Aftermath of the Gaza War: Relations at a Crossroad?
The recent Davos incident in which Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip
Erdogan demonstratively walked off the stage during his debate with
Israeli President Shimon Peres was not an accident. Rather, it was
the culmination of a long process of changing Turkish priorities
under the two AKP governments and a new configuration of Ankara's
foreign policy's role in the region. The main principles of this
policy, however conflicting they may be at different times, are the following:
1. Playing a pivotal role in the region.
2. Multilateralism, i.e. courting Arab and Muslim countries of
the region while maintaining its ties with Israel.
3. Engaging its neighbours for the sake of insuring "zero
conflicts" with them.
4. Playing the role of mediator in various regional problems.
5. Attempting to strike a new balance between its European and
Middle East policies.
6. Setting an example of a democratic Muslim state for Arab and
Muslim countries, in contrast to Iran.
The most important transformation under the AKP is that it has turned
Islam into a platform for advancing its bid for regional leadership.
Thus, the AKP engaged Hamas and granted it legitimacy, rather than
ostracize it as most other countries did. The invitation to Hamas's
senior personality in Damascus, Khalid Mash`al, to visit Ankara in
early 2006, was a harbinger for things to come. Unlike Egypt, Saudi
Arabia or Jordan, Ankara did not raise the spectre of Shi`i Islam,
allowing it to pose as neutral party in the Sunni-Shi`i conflict
raging in the region and thus enhance its stature in the Muslim
world. Similarly, in the last few months and especially after the war
in Gaza, Turkey has sought closer ties with Arab and Muslim countries
due to domestic political and economic considerations in advance of
approaching local and national elections, and in order to obtain aid
from Arab oil-rich countries at a time of economic crisis.At the same
time, it continued its attempts to play the role of mediator, using
both its European and its Middle Eastern credentials.
Turkey's relations with Israel should be seen against this
background, as well as the sea-changes that have occurred in the
region since the AKP's advent to power in Turkey in 2002. The 2003
US-Iraq war sparked a deterioration in Ankara's relations with
Washington, and also had negative effects on Turkey's perceptions of
Israel's role in the region, especially regarding Iraqi Kurdistan. In
addition, the Turkish military elite, the chief architect of Turkey's
close links with Israel, lost of its hold over the political system
and thus its ability to dictate foreign policy lines. Moreover, the
growing friction between this elite and the AKP government,
manifested in the still-unfolding Ergenekon scandal, only added to
the ambiguity toward Israel. At the same time, Turkey has developed
close relations with its erstwhile hostile neighbor, Syria, thus
lessening Turkey's need for a strong ally in the south to
counterbalance Damascus. Similarly, for the ruling AKP, the Islamic
Republic of Iran appeared much less threatening than it did to
previous Turkish governments. Added to all of this was the ongoing
conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, particularly the
outbreak of the second intifada in Fall 2000, and the more recent war
with Hamas in Gaza, which severely damaged Israel's image in Turkey.
Capping these changes is the fact that the long-standing, inherent
asymmetry in Turkish-Israeli relations became even more pronounced
under the AKP. Turkish politicians have no qualms about vehemently
attacking Israel because of its policies towards the Palestinians,
while Israeli politicians tred delicately on tiptoes regarding any
issue that touches on Turkish sensitivities. For example, Israeli
politicians refrain from any referrance to Turkey's policies
regarding the Kurds, let alone criticizing them. As for the Turkish
media, most of its reports on the Palestinian problem are one-sided
and biased against Israel. Israeli attacks against Palestinians are
always reported, but the Turkish media rarely dwells on Hamas
terrorist attacks against Israel.
Israel has been concerned with the spread of anti-Semitism in Turkey
in recent years. Kavgam, (Mein Kampf), was a best-seller in
Turkey. The immediate causes for the rise in anti-Semitism are not
clear. It could be the result of the strengthening of
ultra-nationalist trends, or that the very ascent to power of an
Islamic party has legitimized it. One thing is certain: the Turkish
government has not done enough to fight this phenomenon. Whereas
Germany and other states forbid the publication of Mein Kampf, the
Turkish government did not do so, on the flimsy pretext of protecting
democracy. By contrast, official Israel has done its best to take
into consideration Turkish sensitivities on the Armenian issue,
including lobbying in Washington against attempts to achieve US
recognition of the massacres of Armenians during World War I as genocide.
All this prepared the ground for the outburst of Turkish attacks
against Israel and support for Hamas in the wake of the three-week
Israeli military offensive. Erdogan led the way by warning Israeli
leaders that "history will judge them for the black stain they are
leaving on humanity". He even went as far as to declare that the
blood of the dead Palestinian children would not be left on the
floor, and that Israel's deeds were "a crime against humanity".
Taking their cues from him, the media and the Turkish street
escalated their anti-Israeli, and at times even anti-Semitic attacks
to a point which surpassed those voiced in Arab countries. No wonder,
then, that Erdogan came to be considered a hero by Gazans, Iranian
and Syrians. The main problem, therefore, is that a great deal of
damage was done on the level of people-to-people relations between
Israelis and Turks, relations which were quite amicable for many
years and which will be much more difficult to mend than those in the
official political-diplomatic sphere.
Nevertheless, there is ample reason to think that Turkey and Israel
will be able to overcome this latest crisis, however serious it may
be, due to underlying common interests. They have no serious problems
on the bilateral level. They have never engaged in a war against each
other, nor do they pose any sort of strategic menace to one another.
Morover, for all the changes in the geostrategic map in the region,
Turkey and Israel still share common threat perceptions. Both
countries dread the day when Iran might have nuclear weapons, and the
military in Turkey most certainly would like to continue maintaining
intimate strategic ties on this score. Similarly, both need to share
information and technological know-how for combatting international
terror networks. As in the Iranian case, Israel serves as a bulwark
against real or imagined threats emanating from Turkey's Arab
neighbors. Turkey's aspirations to play the role of mediator may also
help to bury existing grudges. Nor are common economic interests to
be belittled. Finally, Israel remains important to Turkey as a
balancing power in the region, as well as an advocate for Ankara in
different international forums.
To sum up, although Turkish-Israeli relations under the AKP
governments have lost much of the intimacy of the 1990s, the bonds of
mutual interests are still strong enough to enable the two partners
to overcome occasional crises.
 More than 100,000 copies were sold in early 2005. The Guardian,
29 March 2005
 Al-Jazeera, 6 January 2009.
 Cumhuriyet as quoted in Mideast Mirror, 12 January 2009.
TEL AVIV NOTES is published with the support of the V. Sorell Foundation
Previous editions of TEL AVIV NOTES can be accessed at
<http://www.dayan.org/>www.dayan.org, under "Commentary".
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