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This article is based on one commissioned and published by PajamasMedia. I have added additional material to this more extensive version. Turkish readers: see a special note to you at the end.
By Barry Rubin
Why have Israel-Turkey relations gone from alliance to what seems to be the verge of war?
The foolish think that the breakdown is due to the recent Gaza flotilla crisis. The merely naive attribute the collapse to the December 2008-January 2009 Israel-Hamas war in the Gaza Strip.
Such conclusions are totally misleading. It was already clear—and in private every Israeli expert dealing seriously with Turkey said so—well over two years ago. For example, the Justice and Development (AK) party government did not permit a single new military contract with Israel since it took office. The special relationship was over. And the cause was the election in Turkey of an Islamist government.
After all, Turkey needed Israel as an ally when a secular government in Ankara regarded Iran, Syria, and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq as the main threats. Once there was a government which regarded Iran and Syria as its closest allies, Israel became a perceived enemy.
When the Turkish armed forces were an important part of the regime, they promoted the alliance because they saw Israel as a good source for military equipment and an ally against Islamists and radical Arab regimes. But once the army was to be suppressed by those who hated it because of the military's secularism and feared it as the guardian of the republican system it sought to dismantle, the generals' wishes were a matter of no concern and depriving them of foreign allies was a priority of the AK party government.
(Incidentally, how secure is the high-level military technology sold by the United States and Israel to Turkey, and will it end up in the hands of Russia, Syria, and Iran? Presumably the Turkish army is still reliable on such matters but is that certain and for how long?)
And when Turkey thought it needed Israel as a way to maintain good relations with the United States, the alliance was also valuable. But once it was clear that U.S. policy would accept the AK and was none too fond of Israel, that reason for the alliance also dissolved. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced, "It's Israel that is the principal threat to regional peace." Not Iran, Israel.
At first, this outcome was not so obvious. The AK Party won its first election by only a narrow margin. To keep the United States and EU happy, to keep the Turkish army happy, and to cover up its Islamist sympathies, the new regime was cautious over relations with Israel. Keeping them going served as “proof” of Turkey’s moderation.
Yet as the AK majorities in election rose, the government became more confident. No longer did it stress that it was just a center-right party with family values. The regime steadily weakened the army, using EU demands for civilian power. As it repressed opposition and arrested hundreds of critics, bought up 40 percent of the media, and installed its people in the bureaucracy, the AK’s arrogance, and thus its willingness to go further and throw off its mask, grew steadily.
And then, on top of that, the regime saw that the United States would not criticize it, not press it, not even notice what the Turkish government was doing. President Barack Obama came to Turkey and praised the regime as a model of moderate Muslim democracy. Former President Bill Clinton appeared in Istanbul and, in response to questions asked by an AK party supporter, was manipulated into virtually endorsing the regime’s program without realizing it.
Earlier this year, the situation became even more absurd as Turkey moved ever closer to becoming the third state to join the Iran-Syria bloc. Syria’s state-controlled newspaper and Iranian President Ahmadinejad openly referred to Turkey’s membership in their alliance. And no one in Washington even noticed what was happening. Even when, in May, Turkish policy stabbed the United States in the back by helping Iran launch a sanctions-avoiding plan, the Obama Administration barely stirred in its sleep.
Then there is the theatrical demagoguery of Erdogan himself who threw a choreographed fit at the Davos conference because Israel's President Shimon Peres, the mildest and most dovish of men, "offended" him. He returned home to an excited demonstration.
Bashing Israel to gain popularity and stir nationalist and religious passions is not the oldest of such tricks. It is merely a variation of doing the same historically to Jews in general. And yes it still works. Boy, does it work!
Then there's Turkey's new foreign minister. Ahmed Davudoglu. It's a pity that his writings in Turkish haven't been translated because when he writes in English Davudoglu says Turkey wants to be everyone's friend, but in the Turkish version he makes clear that his goal is to be friends with those who hate the West. Davudoglu's appointment completes the AK party's conquest of the Foreign Ministry, another institution that hates Islamism.
And so with electoral victories; advancing control over Turkey's bureaucracy, military and society; and Western complaisance, the regime has become continually bolder.
A few weeks ago, the Turkish prime minister said that Iran isn't developing nuclear weapons, that he regards President Ahmadinejad as a friend, and that even if Iran were building nuclear bombs it has a right to do so. And still no one in Washington noticed. Turkey was not only what the Obama Administration wanted in a Muslim-majority country, it was also one of the “responsible powers,” to quote the administration’s national security strategy document, that the White House saw as necessary attendants to shore up a weak America at the Home for Aging Senile Superpowers.
The current Turkish government hates Israel because it is an Islamist regime. Note who its friends are: it cares nothing for the Lebanese people, it only backs Hizballah. It never has a kind word for the Palestinian Authority or Fatah, the Turkish government’s friend is Hamas.
Lately for the first time, however, the AK government began to run into domestic problems. The poor status of the economy, the growing discontent of many Turks with creeping Islamism in the society, and finally the election for the first time of a popular leader for the opposition party, began to give hope that next year’s elections might bring down the regime. Indeed, polls showed the AK sinking into or very close to second place. With the army neutered, elections are the only hope of getting Turkey off the road to Islamist .
Now, however, the corpses of those killed after they or their colleagues attacked Israeli soldiers will probably guarantee AK's victory. As one Turkish columnist put it, the AK, "will sail on this wind into a third term in power."
This is a prize well worth sacrificing Israeli trade and tourism. And the action is all the more attractive since Turkey in doing so will not have to sacrifice any Western and particularly U.S. support. By making this behavior so cheap, the U.S. government has made it inevitable.
But even that is not all. On September 12, Turkey will come to a crossroads when a referendum will be held over constitutional amendments introduced by the government. If passed, these changes will give the government control over the court system, virtually the only remaining institution it hasn't taken over. As one Turkish analyst wrote, "This would be the end of checks [and balances] and democracy."
In light of national solidarity and outrage over the Gaza incident, how can the government not win?
A Turkish colleague gave a good guideline for dealing with the Turkish government's defection to the other side and march toward Islamism some time ago, an analogy most ironic given the nautical nature of the Gaza flotilla issue. It was very important, he explained, that the Turkish people not become the enemy for the West and Israel. They were, he continued, merely the passengers. The regime—the captain and the crew—was the problem.
Even within the AK party there were more moderate elements, mostly those who joined from non-Islamist center-right parties. When I hosted the Turkey-Israel parliamentary friendship committee, these were the people most eager for good relations, because they saw this alliance as a check on the more extremist forces in their own party.
But then the Gaza flotilla sailed in. Many Turks who support opposition parties see this as close to a conspiracy, and one can hardly blame them for doing so. A radical Islamist group close to the government organized this whole affair which, while nominally independent, enjoyed the Turkish government’s patronage. This flotilla was a semi-official operation by the AK-ruled state apparatus.
This campaign set up the intensification of the regime’s manipulation of the two powerful symbols in Turkey that motivate people: nationalism and Islam. This is an anti-nationalist government, dismantling the traditional traditions of Atatirk's republic. But it has managed to wrap itself in the Turkish flag. Thus, the less than 30 percent who support the AK and would back an attempt to help Hamas has been turned into 100 percent by turning this from an Islamist into a nationalist issue.
A national hysteria has been whipped up. In huge demonstrations, Palestinian flags were waved and slogans should like: “Stop military collaboration with the Israeli army,” “Kill all the Israelis,” “Allah akbar,” “Death to the Jews,” and “Attack Israel.”
This has taken on dangerous proportions. For example, an article in the Islamist newspaper Zaman claims that Israel "ordered" the Kurdish PKK to attack a Turkish naval base. This is a blood libel. The PKK declared it would renew attacks long before the Gaza incident and the Israeli government went out of its way to declare the PKK a terrorist group years ago in order to support Turkey! Given such behavior, all Israeli tourism to Turkey is likely to end for a long time given the danger and the government might not be able to stop terror attacks on Jewish and Israeli targets in Turkey even if it wants to do so.
Even the opposition parties, persuaded or intimidated by nationalist fervor, shouted their outrage, with a unanimous vote in parliament supporting the regime's stance. The Turkish media censored out almost everything that challenged the narrative of peace-loving demonstrators brutally attacked. Thus, Turks--largely locked into only there own media due to language--don't have the basis to question what they are being told.
The AK government had three demands: all Turks be released immediately, something Israel had already announced would happen but the regime pretended only came about due to its tough stance; there should be an international investigation; and Israel must pay compensation. Turkey’s top leaders spoke of Israel as committing “piracy” and “terrorism,” the latter term one never applies to Hamas or Hizballah.
Indeed, Erdogan said something very revealing of his true intentions. Turkey, he said, chose to side with law, peace, justice, Palestine and the Gaza Strip. In other words, this is a political alliance, theoretically with the Palestinians but actually only with his fellow Hamas Islamists.
Incidentally, I think there is one hidden price Turkey will pay for this strategy. Although its chances of getting into the EU were already quite low, a view of Turkey as extremist will put the last nail into the coffin of its candidacy succeeding. Even if European states don't like Israel, a display of Islamic fervor in Turkey will not make them feel good.
Another is the increased antagonism in the United States which, up until now, has treated the regime uncritically. In a remarkable editorial, the Washington Post blames Erdogan. It is a signal of a significant potential rift in U.S.-Turkey relations.Is this demagogic mobilization of nationalist and religious passions the magic weapon the AK will use to gain reelection next year? Many Turks think so and are angry at Israel for, in their eyes, helping the survival of the regime they hate.
But for the AK government to succeed in gaining a political advantage, it’s going to have to create several more crises to keep nationalist fervor stoked.
Unnoticed in the hoopla and hysteria surrounding this incident was the Turkish government’s insulting treatment of the United States, as an errant schoolboy to be bullied and punished. President Barack Obama seems to have swallowed this meekly. Davutoglu said, “We expect the United States to show solidarity with us….I am not very happy with the statements from the United States yesterday.”
Quickly, U.S statements came into line. One might ask why the United States should show solidarity with a regime that organized a massive and aggressive operation on behalf of Hamas and had just stabbed it in the back by cooking up a deal with Iran to sabotage sanctions against Israel, an ally which had supported U.S. policies and made several tough concessions at Obama’s request.
Yet such is what has become normal in these times and under this U.S. government. The message has thus been sent: The Turkish government can do anything it wants and its American counterpart won't even squeak in protest. Indeed, in his interview with Larry King, Obama went out of his way--in a situation where it was totally unnecessary--to praise Turkey and urge that it play a central role!
He said: "I think Turkey can have a positive voice in this whole process once we've worked through this tragedy. And bring everybody together to figure out how can we get a two-state solution where the Palestinians and Israelis can live side by side in peace and security." Presumably, the second sentence was meant to say that the United States would "bring everybody together" but it could be read as if he were referring to Turkey.
Ironically, Turkey's own behavior--which no other government or even news media seems to be mentioning--runs rather counter to its protestations. Since 1993, Turkey has blockaded Armenia in support of Azerbaijan. One wonders how it would respond to a humanitarian convoy trying to cross the border and attacking Turkish soldiers. It has repeatedly sent soldiers into Iraq to attack Kurdish rebels, too, even as the incident at sea unfolded. And the regime's human rights' record has many spots on it.
Any idea of saving Israel-Turkey warm relations is an illusion as long as the AK party remains in power in Turkey. Any thought that Turkey can be an acceptable mediator for Israel, a country the regime loathes, with the Palestinians or Syria is ridiculous.
As long as the AK party remains in power this is only the beginning of its unfolding friction with the West. For one thing, the regime will demand that Israel be found guilty, that the United States support this verdict, and that Israel pay compensation. If not, Erdogan will go into more fits of outrage and tens of thousands of angry demonstrators will be unleashed into Turkey's streets.
This internal battle, however, is far from over. Turkey remains enough of a democratic state that the voters can either throw out that party or so reduce its votes as to force it into a coalition where its power would be reduced and policy moderated. A good scare at the polls could also force the AK regime to resume the moderate mask, pulling back on foreign policy while continuing its effort to transform Turkey.
One of these options is the best hope for Turkey at present. For as bad as things seem, if a different party took leadership in Ankara, while the old days of a warm Turkish-Israel relationship could not return so easily, a more normal situation would prevail. In other words, Turkey's defection is not necessarily permanent if the AK party does not remain in power for a long time.
The question now becomes: how much will this Turkish government sabotage U.S. interests before U.S.-Turkish relations go the same way? The defection of Turkey to the other side is the biggest strategic shift in the Middle East and loss for the democratic West since the Iranian revolution three decades ago. Pretending that this isn't happening will make no difference in reality.
A note to Turkish readers. I can hear some of you saying: You are blaming Turkey for the breakdown of relations, what about Israel's responsibility? First, I'm not blaming Turkey but the current government. A lot of you know that's basically true. Indeed, many of you have told me that you are really angry at Israel because you feel the situation has been successfully exploited by the regime to further its ends, which are very bad for the Turkish people and democracy. Second, I'm glad to debate over the Gaza flotilla issue with you (and have been corresponding with many Turkish friends on this issue) but before this latest event Israel has done nothing that anyone can claim has damaged Turkey or is against Turkish interests and yet the relations were already terrible.
Think also of what this is doing to your country. When martyrdom is celebrated as public funerals; when individual Turks can decide to take over the country's international policy by choosing to attack the soldiers of another country; when Jihad replaces "peace at home, peace in the world," is this not taking Turkey down the path that Arabs have followed for sixty years?
Will this approach bring to Turkey the dubious benefits of such "heroism" that have fallen upon Lebanon and Iraq: fanaticism, instability, intolerance, dictatorship, endless bloodshed, long-term conflict with the West; social stagnation, and financial ruin? This is precisely the kind of thing that Ataturk sought to ensure never came to Turkey.
May this dreadful prophecy never come to be.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (PalgraveMacmillan). His new edited books include Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict and Crisis; Guide to Islamist Movements; Conflict and Insurgency in the Middle East; The West and the Middle East (four volumes); and The Muslim Brotherhood. To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.