From Michael Reynolds
Origins of cooperation. For the past two decades, cooperative relations between Turkey and Israel had been one of the constants of international relations in the Middle East. While it would be incorrect to describe those ties as equivalent to an alliance, they were close and multi-faceted. Turkey recognized Israel in 1949, the first Muslim majority state to do so, but it was at the beginning of the 1990s that the two countries began to develop close ties. Bringing them together was a shared opposition to Syria and, to a lesser extent, Iran. Turkish-Israeli cooperation against Syria replicated a common geopolitical pattern whereby two non-contiguous states align against their common neighbor. Syria’s support for the Kurdistan Workers Party (the PKK) and its military struggle against Turkish control of eastern Anatolia made Ankara eager to cooperate with Israel to contain Syria.
Although outside observers often overstated the degree of hostility between the Turkish Republic and Islamic Republic of Iran by extrapolating straight from their irreconcilable ideologies, a mutual interest in blocking Iran’s export of Islamic revolution and influence did also serve to bring Turkey and Israel together. The two shared a general antipathy to revisionist radicalism of any sort and were both (relatively) comfortable with the status-quo in the Middle East.
The fact that they enjoyed close ties to the United States facilitated their cooperation; indeed, their bilateral ties cannot be understood in isolation from their ties with America. Their pro-American orientation was reinforced by their identification with liberal democracy and even lent their relationship a broader “civilizational” sheen. Finally, their cooperation was complementary in very practical ways in a number of areas, ranging from the military-security field to planned projects to bring natural gas and water to Israel.
Beginnings of estrangement. Recent years, however, have seen a definite deterioration in Turkish-Israeli ties. Several reasons explain this, but perhaps the most fundamental lies in the post-9/11 shift in United States’ policy under George Bush from support of the status quo in the Middle East to revision of it through the toppling of multiple regimes in the Middle East, starting with Saddam Hussein’s. Although no one in Washington even imagined targeting the Turkish Republic in the project to remake the “Greater Middle East”—to the contrary, American policy makers saw the goal of creating more secular, democratic, and thus pro-American regimes as one complementary to Turkish interests—Turkish opinion across the board was profoundly skeptical of American motives and fearful of American plans.
Not a few Turks, including those in think tanks and the military, believed that the ultimate target of Operation Iraqi Freedom was not Middle Eastern despotism but the Turkish Republic. Once the United States was in Iraq, it would proceed to incite and agitate Kurdish groups inside Turkey. Then, in the name of democracy, it would detach Turkey’s eastern provinces to form a Kurdish state. By breaking the Middle East up into a greater number of smaller, more pliable, states, the United States could maintain its hegemony over the Middle East more easily. Because Israel, in turn, would be a prime beneficiary of this fracturing of Middle Eastern states, it was seen as complicit in this project.
It is an utterly fantastic, not to mention paranoid, reading of U.S. (and Israeli) policies and capabilities. But it is a worldview embedded in the institutions of the Turkish Republic, from the schools to the Turkish military. These institutions did not spring forth whole-cloth following the breakup of the Ottoman Empire. Rather, they were forged in the long struggle to prevent the empire’s break-up and division. That struggle ultimately was successful to the extent that the new republic managed to retain control of Anatolia despite the intentions of the Great Powers to partition it, most notably in the Sykes-Picot (Sazonov) agreement of 1916 and the Treaty of Sevres of 1920.
The Turkish Republic, in other words, was the direct response to the problem of Ottoman decline. Indeed, the republic’s founding elites embraced secularism and Turkish nationalism—the two main pillars of republican ideology—not because of their intrinsic appeal but rather because they saw them as essential to arrest the process of break-up and partition. Secularism was needed to ensure the technological progress and economic growth that a strong state required, and nationalism was needed to maintain unity, bind the people to the state, and immunize society against dissension that more powerful states always looked to exploit.
The belief that outside forces are steadily and consciously working to undermine Turkey and divide it is thus almost hard-wired in Turkish institutions. The U.S. invasion of Iraq activated these circuits of suspicion. Pentagon national security strategy papers that spoke of maintaining America’s global hegemony through the suppression of peer competitors, maps in U.S. military journals showing a partitioned Turkey, a surge in PKK attacks inside Turkey, the U.S. military’s disinterest in cracking down on the PKK in Iraq, and reports of PKK acquisition of American arms, among other things, served to confirm the suspicions of many Turks that the United States was a new predatory “Great Power.” Far from being a trustworthy ally, the United States began to loom as the single greatest threat to the unity of their country.
Suspicion also fell upon Israel, primarily because it was the country in the region closest to the United States, but also because it was known to have cultivated ties to the Kurds of Iraq in the past and is presumed to have an interest in the break-up of Iraq and Iran. The result, in short, has been a steady deterioration in Turkish trust toward the United States and, by extension, to Israel.
Some pin the blame for this breakdown in trust on the rise of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), and trace it to the AKP’s origins in Turkey’s Islamist movement. The reality is that the causes for distrust are both broader and deeper than the AKP or Turkey’s Islamist movement. It is worth noting that the AKP’s secularist-nationalist opponents commonly portray the party and its leaders, including Turkish President Abdullah Gül and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, as tools of American foreign policy, products of an American project to cultivate “moderate Islam.” Perhaps inevitably, they have even published books identifying Erdoğan and Gül as key actors in Zionist conspiracies against Turkey.
Ankara’s growing unease with American behavior and intentions coincided with and stimulated a growing conviction that Turkey should engage its neighbors and play a more active role in its neighborhood, including the Middle East. Engagement would raise Turkey’s profile and provide it a hedge in case of any clash with the United States. Ankara’s pursuit of closer ties to Syria and Iran, however, in turn began to erode American and Israeli confidence in Turkey. Following Syria’s cessation of support for the PKK in 1999, Turkey’s relations with its southern neighbor shifted from confrontational to conciliatory. Although Ankara contends that building relations with Syria and Iran will allow Turkey to play a valuable role as mediator, Ankara’s rapprochement with Damascus and dealings with Tehran have unsettled American and Israeli policymakers concerned with isolating Syria and Iran. Tehran’s demonstrated willingness to attack PKK-affiliate bases inside Iraq, however, highlighted Washington’s passivity on Turkey’s predominant security concern and further sullied America’s reputation as a reliable ally.
As part of the effort to play a more active role in the Middle East, Erdoğan and his government have been noticeably sympathetic toward Hamas, condemning the assassinations of Hamas leaders, defending Hamas’s legitimacy as the elected representatives of the Palestinians, and receiving Hamas emissaries in Ankara. Defenders of this policy argue that by engaging Hamas, Turkey will ultimately be able to moderate it. Turkey will then be able to use its unique position as a Muslim country with long-standing ties to Israel to help broker a final resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Critics of Ankara’s policy contend that lending even moral support to Hamas only encourages it to stick to its avowed aim of destroying Israel, and they question what motivates Erdoğan and his government in their support of Hamas: Is it really a desire to play a more responsible role in the Middle East? Or it the reflection of religiously rooted sympathy for Hamas and antipathy toward Israel? Or is it a cunning populist politician’s instinct for what mobilizes his electoral base and delivers votes? Erdoğan’s failure to criticize Hamas beyond issuing stock phrases abjuring the use of force, combined with his emphatic condemnation of Israeli actions and religiously inflected language, suggest to some that the latter two motives are predominant.
The Turkish public’s sympathy for the Palestinians is long-standing, but it was never ardent. In the past two to three years, however, that sympathy has grown in inverse proportion to a decline in Israel’s reputation. Israel’s massive retaliation against Lebanon during its war with Hezbollah in 2006 gravely damaged Israel’s image across all sectors of the Turkish public. Turkish citizens watched during that summer as the Israeli armed forces pounded not just Hezbollah but targets throughout Lebanon, seemingly at will. Israel’s declaration that it held Lebanon responsible for Hezbollah’s provocations (Hezbollah being part of the Lebanon’s government) underscored that Israel’s punishment was willful and deliberate.
Israel’s use of overwhelming force against Gaza in its most recent campaign against Hamas further tarnished Israel’s reputation, as it generated images again of the gratuitous use of violence, this time against a Muslim people who were effectively defenseless. These images, along with with those of American “shock and awe” in Iraq, Abu Ghraib, and more recent operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere have all combined to reinforce the suggestion that the greatest threat to Turkey and regional peace and stability come from the United States and Israel.
Responding to Operation Cast Lead, Erdoğan employed exceptionally loaded language to condemn Israel’s operations in Gaza, describing them as “savagery,” “a crime against humanity,” and deserving of divine retribution. The Turkish Ministry of Education directed that schoolchildren should observe a minute of silence for the victims of Israeli arms in Gaza. These actions caused Turkey’s tiny Jewish community to feel besieged. Israeli officials responded with veiled hints that Jewish American organizations might withdraw their support for Turkish efforts to block passage through the U.S. Congress of a resolution recognizing an Armenian genocide.
Clash at Davos. The most spectacular episode in the deterioration of Turkish-Israeli relations took place this past week, when on January 29 Erdoğan and Israeli President Shimon Peres sat on a panel to discuss Gaza and Middle East peace at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Also sitting in on the panel were the UN Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon and the head of the Arab League, Amr Musa. (See the video clip here or at the end of this post.)
The panel was charged with tension from the beginning as first Moon, Erdoğan, and then Musa all directed criticism toward Israel. An exasperated Peres then ratcheted emotions up further, lecturing to Erdoğan in a dismissive tone at moments and shouting toward the end. His rambling presentation made the case for Israel poorly, the low-point being his citation of Husni Mubarak’s approval, as if the Egyptian president were a disinterested and impeccable moral authority. Peres came across alternately some times as condescending and at other times bewildered as to how some could find fault with Israel’s use of force.
When Peres finished, Erdoğan insisted on getting in the last word. Ignoring the request of the moderator David Ignatius to speak no more than a minute, he proceeded to lash into Peres, declaring that his shouting betrayed a guilty conscience and imputing to him expertise in killing children at beaches, before going on to cite the Torah’s prohibition against murder and throwing in criticisms of Israel from Israelis for good measure. Not content with blasting Peres, he declared that those audience members who applauded Peres too were guilty of a “crime against humanity.” Offended by Ignatius’ insistence that he stop speaking and let the panel conclude, Erdoğan stormed off.
The public exchange of such harsh and emotional words between leaders of two states that enjoy ostensibly close relations was extraordinary, perhaps unique in modern diplomatic history. Yet Erdoğan in a later press conference was wholly unrepentant, declaring that he was neither an effete “mon cher”diplomat, nor some “tribal leader” to be belittled but the Prime Minister of the Turkish Republic and had defended Turkey’s honor. Although afterwards Peres allegedly called Erdoğan in an attempt to smooth over the incident, it is difficult to see how the damage to Turkish-Israeli relations can be contained.
The fact that several thousand cheering supporters greeted Erdoğan upon his return to Istanbul is itself not very telling; Erdoğan is a charismatic politician and can easily rally that many on any given issue. More indicative is that columnists from a wide spectrum of newspapers and political positions have expressed their support for the frankness of Erdoğan’s message, if not his style of delivering it.
If, as many now predict, the U.S. Congress this spring does pass a resolution recognizing an Armenian genocide, the effect will not be to spur Turks to critically examine late Ottoman history. To the contrary, the Turkish public will interpret the resolution as nothing more than a cheap insult against the whole of Turkey delivered by an imperious America and facilitated by vindictive supporters of Israel. Because the issue commands considerable emotional resonance across all sectors of Turkish society, the possibility that Congress might pass the resolution right before Turkey’s municipal elections on March 29 could hand Erdoğan an irresistible opportunity to demagogue the issue. For one, playing up the issue would reinforce his contention that Turkey’s honor is under assault and that he is the man to defend it, thereby immunizing him against criticism that his habit of indulging in inflammatory drama has harmed Turkey’s image and interests. But more significant is that the issue would force even his hard-core opponents to rally behind him in a show of defiant national unity. The damage to Turkish-American and Turkish-Israeli relations could be considerable.
Salvaging the wreckage. If Turkish and Israeli policymakers are to salvage anything from Davos, they will have to start by acknowledging the uncomfortable reality that the opinions expressed by the leaders of the two countries were heartfelt and reflect the dominant public sentiments in their respective countries.
Polls demonstrate that the overwhelming majority of Israelis supported Operation Cast Lead. They did so not because they enjoy bombing Palestinians (Erdoğan’s claim at Davos that two former Israeli prime ministers boasted of receiving pleasure when riding into Palestine on tanks notwithstanding), but because they see Hamas as unremittingly hostile and bent on the destruction of their society. Whereas outsiders see Israel as a robust and powerful state and ask why they must resort to massive force so readily, Israelis themselves are acutely conscious of their small country’s vulnerabilities and believe they must demonstrate an unyielding will to defend themselves lest they lose the ability to deter their enemies.
If Erdoğan and other Turks truly aspire to a more influential role for their country in the region, they will have to address directly Hamas’s refusal to acknowledge Israel’s right to exist and condemn Hamas’s use of violence against innocents with the same intensity that they have condemned Israel’s. They might remind themselves that whereas the Kurdistan Workers Party (PPK) has never aimed for the destruction of Turkey, Ankara has consistently refused to negotiate with it. Turkey is indeed in a unique position to contribute to the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but to do so it must act deliberately and responsibly.
For their part, Israeli officials would do well to recognize that, no matter how justified they believed Israel to be, the campaigns in Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza in 2009 have done tremendous damage to Israel’s image in Turkey. The attempt to achieve absolute deterrence can be counter-productive. While anti-Semitism exists in Turkey and is a concern for the Turkey’s Jewish community, it cannot explain the recent broad declines in Turkish support for Israel.
In remarks addressed to Ankara on February 1, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni suggested, “It is possible to fix everything, we have to talk, put things on the table, keep our common interests as well as our differences in mind.” Livni’s proposal is sound, and Ankara would be wise to take it up, for the sake of Turkey’s relationship with Israel but also for the sake of the Palestinians and the rest of the region. A frightened and further isolated Israel is not one that will benefit Turkey or any of Israel’s neighbors.
Finally, given that Turkish-Israeli relations are bound up with bilateral American relations with both states, American officials have little choice but to be involved in repairing those ties. The Bush administration’s aborted project to remake the Middle East started a process of estrangement that inevitably spilled over into Turkish-Israeli relations. The rift in Turkish-Israeli relations, if not repaired soon, may develop into a chasm between America and Turkey.
MESH Pointer: See the subsequent thread, In the name of Islam: a liberal appeal.
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