Israel & Turkey – Trouble in Paradise… for Israel
Operation Cast Lead changed a lot of things for Israel, one of which was its relationship with Turkey. Since the fall of the Shah’s regime in Iran, Turkey remained the only supporter and partner of Israel in the region, but all that changed with the Gaza offensive. Deeply unpopular with the Turkish consistuency, the relationship has always been troubled, but the world was shocked by Erdogan’s outburst at Davos earlier this year, whereas at home he was hailed as a hero. After that incident, tensions calmed down somewhat, it was clear that Israel needed Turkey and the arrangement was mutually beneficial. The ever-pragmatic Israelis wouldn’t let something like that ruin a good ‘friendship’, but was it already beyond saving? The Jerusalem Post reported that “exports between the two countries dropped 40 percent in the first nine months of the year.” That’s the same nine months since that Gaza offensive.
The latest nails-in-the-coffin have proved to be the Goldstone Report and the exclusion of Israel from joint-NATO military exercises, followed by a TV documentary airing in Turkey showing the IDF to be brutal murderers.
So is this truly ideological or is it merely populist politics? Well I’d suggest its probably a little from both columns. I’ve always been one to stress the realist nature of global politics, most states do things for self-interest, not due to the personal whims of their leaders.
For example, the AFP quoted Erdogan saying the following:
“We have taken the conscience of our people into consideration when we decided…. I had to be the voice that expresses the existence of my people and my people were rejecting Israel’s participation.”
Erdogan is seizing on the potential political capital of being the Turkish leader to break with Israel and the window of opportunity is obvious. If you’re in doubt about it, look at the world. The only real critics of these latest Turkish moves have been Israel and the US. The world doesn’t see Turkey as any less ‘moderate’ or any less level-headed. No country is about to break ties with Turkey in response to this. The world has given a collective shrug. This is an indicator of the shifting realities and attitudes to Israel. It is no longer seen as the poor little country bullied by all its bigger neighbours and fighting for its survival. It’s seen, at best, as the dominant military in the region with an unshakeable superpower supporter, and at worst as an aggressive warmonger. So given how much trade has already dwindled and how little risk there is, Erdogan is being a very shrewd politician.
Apart from domestic politics, Turkey is also making it’s regional intentions clear, it is attempting to flex its muscle further on the international stage and play a greater role in Middle Eastern and Central Asian politics. As Zvi Bar’ei points out in a well-thought-out commentary for Haaretz:
Turkey has overcome most of its economic problems and has been transformed into a regional economic power. It is a real strategic asset for the United States, increasing its importance after the Iraq war. It has also developed a different regional strategy.
As part of a broader regional strategy, Turkey needs to make sure it can actively engage with those countries that are openly hostile to Israel but are, to some extent, power-brokers in the region. Commentators who link Israel to the Iranian-Syrian “Axis of Evil” get one thing right, Turkey is seeking to engage these sorts of countries, Syria at least, though that hardly makes Turkey part of any axis.
Proof that this is not a one-off political move is in the rhetoric. They’re in it for the long haul strategically, or so President Abdullah Gul says, criticising Israel from the position of being a friend, much as many suggested Obama should be doing. In these sorts of statements, Turkey is showing its credentials for level-headedness and moderation in the region:
“Turkey is one of the rare states that has strong ties with both Arab countries and with Israel. We will continue to criticize and act when necessary, without undermining the foundations of these ties,” Gul was quoted as saying in an interview with Turkey’s popular state-run TRT1 television station.
Responses from the pro-Israel-at-all-costs lobby have been predictably shrill. A cafe chain has stopped serving Turkish coffee (never mind that they could just as simply sell Greek or Armenian coffee instead), echoing the ‘freedom fries’ idiocy after France condemned the Iraq invasion, and there is talk of boycotting Turkish Independence Day. These actions look as shrill and desperate as they ever have, and are embarassing for Israel. Ridiculous comments like those of Yoel Marcus suggesting that this somehow hurts Turkish international standing are falling on rather deaf ears, apart from perhaps those of Israelis clutching at straws, wanting to nod in agreement, pretending that anyone still cares.
The repercussions of these actions for Turkey are still unfolding. Turkey’s distancing from Israel and establishing of closer ties with Syria is quite alarming for Israelis, Netanyahu has stated that he doesn’t want Turkey to play a role in negotiations with Syria any longer, however this move shows little but Israel’s prolonged contempt for peace negotiations. Also, among other things, Obama is thought to have discussed the issue of Israeli-Turkish relations in a recent phone conversation with President Gul, this being seen as a fairly large departure from usual policy for Israel. Obama is understandably displeased.
Those who are pretending that Israel does not need Turkey, or that Turkey needs Israel more, are fools. Watch the news over the coming months. No doubt there will be a thaw in relations between the two after the very public ice-fest. Erdogan’s political capital will have risen at home, Israel will have lost out on the military exercises and will have to deal with the TV show but will still come back to Turkey, Israel needs Turkey. Israel will be practical and pragmatic as usual and Turkey is already dictating the terms. They say every relationship comes down to a power balance, this power balance is shifting heavily in favour of Turkey.
If there is any more doubt that this is damaging for Israel, read this piece by Stephen Walt for Foreign Policy about how limiting the relationship with Israel really is for the US:
Israel’s pariah status within the region reduces its strategic value significantly. It explains why Israel could not participate in the 1991 or 2003 wars with Iraq, and why it is difficult for Arab governments who share Israel’s concerns about Iran to openly collaborate with Israel or United States to address that issue.
Turkey is behaving shrewdly and reflecting its status as a country who’s star is on the rise. Israel is resorting to boycotting Independence Days, not serving coffee and burning straw-men while dancing around in celebration. You be the judge.