Turks cast leery eye on Israel

Demonstrators hold Palestinian flags during a protest against Israel at Taksim Square in Istanbul Monday
Demonstrators hold Palestinian flags during a protest against Israel at Taksim Square in Istanbul

By Seyfeddin Kara

Animosity between Arab regimes and Iran after the 1979 Islamic revolution had long acted as a buffer for Israel, and its security apparatus rested comfortably in intimate relations with autocratic leaders forged by the signing of the peace treaty with Egypt in the same tumultuous year. Three decades of confidence have now been shattered in the revolutionary wave sweeping the Middle East.

The prospect of an unfriendly, if not downright hostile, government in Cairo means that Israeli policymakers are looking to their neighbors with increasing anxiety and discomfort.

Fawaz A Gerges, professor at the London School of Economics, assessed the implications of the Arab revolution for Israel in an article published on the BBC News website:
Regionally, Israel is the biggest loser. It has put all its eggs into the basket of Arab dictators and autocrats, like Egypt's deposed Hosni Mubarak. Israel fought tooth and nail to support Mr Mubarak, who played a key role in tightening the siege of Gaza and the noose around Hamas's neck. Time and again, the Israeli political class has proven to be its own worst enemy.
At such a difficult time, the Israelis will be feeling the loss of Turkey as an ally keenly. Support of a strong and reliable friend would be a reassurance that could muffle the alarm bells over Iran's rise as a regional player.

Aluf Benn of the Israeli daily newspaper Ha'aretz expressed frustration over the loss last year of Israel's long relationship with Turkey, but blamed the wrong person: "Jimmy Carter will go down in American history as 'the president who lost Iran' ... Barack Obama will be remembered as the president who 'lost' Turkey, Lebanon and Egypt, and during whose tenure America's alliances in the Middle East crumbled."

It was not Obama who lost Turkey. Rather, it was foolish Israeli policy that distanced Turkey and led to an almost irreversible decline in ties. A survey by MetroPOLL Strategic and Social Research Center, published on February 28, 2011, showed where Israel stands in the Turkish public opinion. Israel was considered Turkey's number one enemy by 23% of respondents, while 42% singled out the United States.

The Turkish public has been building up negative opinions of Israel since the Israeli attack on Gaza in November 2008. Anger escalated on May 31, 2010, when Israel assaulted the Mavi Marmara - part of an aid convoy that set sail from Turkey in May - off the coast of Gaza on the pretext of "defending" the illegal blockade of Gaza. Israeli marines who boarded the boat in international waters killed nine Turkish citizens and wounded many. An apology and compensation were demanded by Turkey for the victims, but Israel refused.

The attack on Gaza in 2008 undermined the possibility of a peace agreement between Syria and Israel and caused the deaths of many Palestinian civilians, which outraged the Turkish public. Just a month before, then-Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert had met Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey to discuss the initiation of direct Israel-Syria peace talks. Both parties were optimistic and Erdogan was hopeful that under Turkey's mediation a peace deal could be achieved, as he mentioned in an interview with the Washington Post later.

An opportunity to express the outrage of the Turkish public arrived at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. In a public debate, Erdogan lambasted President Shimon Peres for Israel's crimes against Palestinians and walked from the platform in what he later referred to as a protest against the moderator's impartiality.

Aside from angering Turks, the attack on Gaza enabled the Turkish government to realize that the real troublemaker in the region was Israel. If they wanted to achieve their vision of a Middle East in which Turkey would employ a dynamic multi-dimensional foreign policy as a key regional if not yet a global player, they needed to confront aggressive Israeli policies. Erdogan made this clear in his critique of Israel after the Gaza war, referring to Israel as the "main threat to regional peace".

Relations with Israel have become a matter of internal politics in Turkey since the Mavi Marmara was assaulted. On March 6, Erdogan addressed a large crowd in the city of Samsun. He referred to recent remarks made by Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of main opposition party, the Republican People's Party (CHP), during a visit to the United Kingdom:
Of course, these people (CHP) were quiet when Israel bombed and murdered your brothers in Gaza. This suits CHP. But it does not suit the Muslim people of Turkey. Because we always stood by the oppressed, throughout history ... In the piracy against the Mavi Marmara, they were quiet again. In the international waters Israel attacked, from air and from sea, a ship carrying our flag and humanitarian aid. Not a word from you! What are you [Kilicdaroglu], what do you do? What do you do? What are you good for? Whose politician are you? The leader of main opposition party [Kilicdaroglu] says: "They would not permit the relations to deteriorate." The other side [Israel] deteriorated the relations. If Israel wishes to break its relations with Turkey, we say to them, "as you wish". As simple as this!
Two days later, Erdogan delivered another speech at his Justice and Development Party's meeting at the Turkish National Assembly. Erdogan hailed a British court's decision against the Daily Mail, which was ordered to pay ฃ25,000 (US$40,200) in libel damages for claiming that Iran was to pay up to $25 million to aid the AKP's bid for the forthcoming election.

However, there is more to it than simple rhetoric exchanged by rival parties. Relations between Turkey and Israel are abysmal and it seems there is no way to restore them to "normal", a situation in which Israel enjoyed unwavering political, economic and military support over nearly half a century.

Israel's frustration
Indeed, losing Turkey has frustrated Israel more than it is affecting the Turks. In a major conference held on February 6-9 in Tel Aviv, Major General Amir Eshel, head of the Israel Defense Forces Plans and Policy Directorate, mentioned Turkey as a point of concern. "We do not see it as radical, but where it is heading is a big question."

Eshel has every reason to be concerned. Turkey has been developing its ties with Iran. Turkish President Abdullah Gul paid a four-day official visit to Iran last month to discuss further increasing bilateral cooperation. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu accompanied Gul to discuss possible solutions for Iran's nuclear issue.

Along with the recent rapprochement, Turkish-Iranian trade has rapidly grown. In 2010, bilateral trade reached around $10 billion. In an earlier visit paid by Erdogan in October 2009, he vowed to raise trade to $30 billion. Gul took a large group of businessmen with him to discuss possible trade deals with Iranian partners.

Turkey also has been defending Iran's right to peaceful nuclear energy and vehemently opposed economic sanctions and military intervention. In June 2010, Turkey voted against the United Nations Security Council resolution that imposed a fourth round of sanctions on Iran for its enrichment of uranium. Earlier in the same year, a joint Turkish and Brazilian effort led to a deal with Iran to reduce nuclear tensions that did not satisfy either Israel and the US.

Turkey has also developed strong relations with Syria. Rapidly growing economic and military relations gave rise to a joint military drill in April 2010. The drill focussed on border protection against terrorist activities, namely preventing infiltrations into Turkey by the Kurdish rebel group, the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). According to Anatolia News Agency, in January, Turkey and Syria also agreed for the Turkish military to provide training for the Syrian army.

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