Galal Nassar assesses recent shifts in Turkey’s regional role
Many wonder whether the crisis in Turkish-Israeli relations has reached the point of no return. Did the show-down in Davos between Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Shimon Peres permanently damage the once “special ties” between Israel and Turkey?
Israel has been trying to play down the crisis. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, while admitting that some damage has been done, claimed that bilateral ties were too important for either side to allow them to be sacrificed over the Gaza squabble. Turkish officials, both in the Foreign Ministry and the army, were equally quick off the mark to draw a line between the Gaza crisis and the long-term interests of Turkey and Israel.
European and US figures, including Jewish activists, also tried to mediate between the two countries. The success of these efforts depends largely on the reasons for the current strains in Turkish-Israeli relations. If it is all about Gaza, and Gaza alone, then perhaps it is a storm in a teacup. But I suspect there was more to the recent show of raw nerves than meets the eye.
Let’s think for a moment of the regional relations of the Erdogan government. The Turkish government has old ties with Hamas, as well as with other political parties that use Islam as their rallying call. Ankara has been actively trying to persuade the Europeans and Americans to treat Hamas better, arguing that the group could play an important and positive role in the peace process. Turkish officials roundly denounced Israel‘s assassination of Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin.
Eyebrows were raised in Israel when the Erdogan government dragged Syrian-Turkish relations from the brink of decisions. Israel is fine with Turkey mediating with Syria though it tolerates, rather than encourages, closer Syrian-Turkish ties.
Erdogan felt that Olmert’s attack on Gaza was a direct insult to Turkey, especially that Olmert had been warmly received in Ankara just a few days before launching the attack. The visit by Olmert to Turkey was supposed to bring about further progress in talks with Syria.
Apart from the Turkish official position ordinary citizens feel solidarity with the population of Gaza. Not only was this support evident in Istanbul, where Islamic and leftist groups alike have traditionally voiced sympathy with the Palestinians, but in dozens of other Turkish cities.
Erdogan, with his keen grasp of public opinion, knew all along that the Turkish people were going to be moved by the horrors unfolding in Gaza. And then there is the complication of what I will call neo-Ottomanism, for want of a better term.
The Turks have been quite active in the region of late. Turkey is playing a significant role in Iraq. It has forged closer ties with Syria, economic as well as political. It has signed a major tariff exemption treaty with Egypt. Turkish businessmen and industrialists have been coming in droves to work in Egypt. Turkey has close ties with Qatar. It is becoming particularly friendly with the Saudis. It is sending officials to visit most Arab countries on a regular basis. Turkish contractors are engaged in development projects across the Arab region.
Because of the Islamic ideology of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), the Erdogan government has had an easy time communicating with Arab Islamic groups, including Hamas. The Turkish, or Ottoman, flag is returning to Arab territories for the first time in 80 years. In the aftermath of the 2006 Lebanon war the Turks offered to participate in the international peacekeeping force on the Lebanese-Israeli border. Turkish soldiers were thus back to being deployed on Arab land, albeit under the UN umbrella.
Turkey has been a NATO member since the early 1950s. Its army is described as one of NATO’s largest, second only to the American. As such Turkey is a major player in the Western bloc and acted accordingly throughout the Cold War. Even during last summer’s Georgian crisis, when Ankara adopted a neutral position, it was no secret that Turkey had contributed, directly and indirectly, to the arming of Georgia.
Turkey was the first Islamic country to recognise Israel and in 1996 the two countries signed a military cooperation agreement. Dozens of Israeli companies operate in Israel. And Turkey has been trying hard to join the EU for some years now.
There is a dichotomy in all of the above. Turkey is being torn in two directions, pulled by opposing forces. The AKP is facing a dilemma, if not an identity crisis.
Turkish governments, including those of Turgut Ozal and Bulent Ecevit, showed compassion to the Palestinians and acted generally to boost Turkish relations with Arab countries. But none of these prime ministers, certainly not since WWII, has seen Turkey‘s future as outside the Western alliance. Since the AKP came to power a change of perspective seems to have taken place, leading to the emergence of contradictions that must be worked out.
The AKP government is doing all it can to enter the EU. Accession negotiations, though stalled, are having a favourable domestic impact. Turkey is becoming a more democratic and humane place, less radical and generally softer in its commitment to secularism. Turkey is also trying to restrict the intervention of the military in politics.
Turkey‘s leaders are not dreamers. They realise that Europe may not, at least in the foreseeable future, grant Turkey full EU membership. Meanwhile, they see a chance to make diplomatic gains outside Europe, in the region that used to be the Ottoman Empire, including the Arab world, the Balkans, the Caucasus and Central Asia.
I am not suggesting that Turkey‘s current leaders harbour imperial ambitions or are solely reliant on a nationalist discourse. But they do see a chance to consolidate relations with neighbouring countries, empire or no empire.
Turkey‘s new policy is not based on past ties. Turkey is coming to realise that a country’s identity is not a one-dimensional thing. A Turk remains a Turk even if he sees himself also as a Muslim, a Kurd, an Arab or a European.
What goes for the Turks goes also for Syrian and Egyptian Arabs, and for everyone else in this diverse region. The Turks have much in common with the inhabitants of the region and are trying to forge relations of a new type with them. It would be an oversimplification to deny the heritage of the empire. A large section of Turks, including those in the ruling party, see present day Turkey as heir to the Ottoman imperial legacy. But it would be unfair to see Turkey as acting out of a crude expansionist policy rather than a sense of responsibility towards its own neighbours. As Turkey‘s sense of stature, power and self-confidence grows so does its sense of responsibility.
The new Turkey sees itself at the heart of the world, including the Western world. It sees itself as a secular republic even as it seeks to become more humane, tolerant and free. The Turkey of the AKP is not about to leave NATO. Nor is it inclined to sever ties with Israel over Palestine.
Turkey is not part of the Arab game of shifting alliances. It has firmly opposed the Western campaign against Iran without condoning Tehran‘s expansionist policies. The Turkish government is primarily concerned with the welfare of the Turkish people, and that concern is what inspires its economic activities in neighbouring countries.
The new Turkey hasn’t abandoned the nationalist foundations of the republic even as it tries to open the door to ethnic and cultural pluralism. What I call neo-Ottomanism is far from having assumed its final form.
Israel will try to keep Turkey on its side. The Israelis were not just shocked by the public statements of the Turkish government. They have been horrified by the mobilisation campaign conducted by the Turkish Ministry of Education in schools around the country. And they were dismayed at AKP participation in demonstrations that urged the Turkish army “to march on Jerusalem“.
But just as Israel has problems with the Erdogan government the latter has complaints of its own. Turkish leaders were shocked by reports of cooperation between Israel and Kurdish secessionist groups. These reports are no longer secret. US journalist Simon Hersh has just published a full report on Mossad links with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). So furious were Turkish officials that their reaction was described by Israeli papers as a wave of anti-Semitism.
Israel still harks back to a time when the Turks would have acted anti-Arab and anti-Palestinian just to appease the West. Now, though, it is difficult to imagine Turkish-Israeli relations returning to the “special relationship” of yore. Rising resentment of Israel among Turkish public opinion is enough to put a damper on ties for some time to come. According to recent polls, 80 per cent of Turks support the AKP’s tough stand on Gaza.