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Anatomy of a broken marriage: Israeli-Turkish Relations on the rocks

January 28, 2014 at 4:38 am

By Dr Daud AbdullahTayyip Erdogan

No war has tarnished the image of Israel and damaged its vital international relationships as the “Operation Cast Lead” it waged on Gaza last winter. There are times when a single event can change the history of nations. Many, including Israeli supporters, view the Gaza War as a turning point in its history.  In the last few weeks, much attention was focused on the Goldstone report and its potential damaging consequences on Israel and its leaders.  Other consequences are no less ominous.  After 10 months, the war on the Gaza Strip continues to unsettle the strategic relationship between Israel and its long-standing regional Muslim ally, Turkey.  Ankara recognized Israel in 1949; until Egypt’s recognition at Camp David, Turkey was the only Muslim state (apart from Iran at the time of the Shah) that had diplomatic ties with Israel.

From the beginning, Turkey was vehemently opposed to the war on Gaza. It made no secret of its absolute abhorrence with the aerial attacks on one of the world’s most densely populated areas. All pleas for restraint were of no avail with the Israelis. What added salt to injury is the fact that the Turks felt especially “betrayed” and “stabbed” in the back.  A few days before the attack Ehud Olmert, Israel’s then prime minister visited Turkey and did not disclose to his erstwhile ally what he was about to do.

The Turkish sense of national pride was further wounded by the fact that while the Israelis were secretly planning war, the Turks were for years trying to promote peace in the region by opening conduit of relations between Israel and other major Muslim countries incluing Pakistan. More importantly, they were at the same time deeply involved in mediating involved in mediating between the Syrians an Israelis between the Syrians and Israelis. The war naturally constituted a major set-back to those efforts and forced a re-thinking on the Turkish side.

In retrospect, it seems the Israelis underestimated the power shift in Turkey. For decades the Israeli relationship with Turkey was coordinated through the latter’s military establishment.  Turkey’s military grip on the political life of the country endeared it to the Israelis. Things have however changed.  The military elite which sought to steer Turkey away from its historic regional ties and into a strategic marriage with Israel has lost much of its influence. The growth of democracy has shifted the centers of power from the military to the people shifted the centers of powers from the military to the people.

The war on Gaza has been a rude awakening to the Turkish people. It brought out unprecedented numbers on to the streets of Istanbul and Ankara in solidarity with the Palestinian people and in protest against Israel.  There is at present growing anger among Turks over Israel’s continued settlement expansion in the Occupied West Bank. More tellingly, Israel’s illegal judaization of Jerusalem and threats to Al Aqsa Mosque have struck a raw nerve in the Turkish national psyche. Their government, unlike western democracies, felt obliged to respond to the popular will and sentiment.

Notwithstanding, the government in Ankara is itself well-aware and proud of its identity and historical role. While it refuses subservience and dependency it seeks good relations with all. Hence it has recently sought successfully to open a new chapter in relations with Armenia new chapters in relations with Armenia.  It has established strong bilateral ties with its neighbors, Iraq, Iran and Syria.  And on the domestic front it has taken tangible steps to resolve the long festering sore regarding its Kurdish community.  Clearly, while it does not seek to punch above its weight, Turkey is by no means isolationist or adventurous.

TurkeyNonetheless, the war on Gaza was a shock. Tayeb Ergdogan never concealed his personal outrage over the war. During the operations he delivered a major speech in the Turkish parliament in which he spoke of the Ottoman history and their support for the people of the region. We always stood by the oppressed including Jews, he remonstrated. He did not hesitate to describe the Israeli actions as crimes against humanity.  His speech contrasted markedly with the opaque rhetoric emanating from the Arab capitals at the time. While his was distinguished for its candor and forthrightness, theirs was a discourse of ambivalence, hesitancy and vacillation. To their discredit among their domestic constituencies the Arab leaders could not even gather for a summit in Doha to discuss war.

Erdogan’s outrage reached boiling point at Davos when he confronted the Israeli president Shimon Peres and stormed out of the conference leaving in his wake the Secretary General of the Arab League sitting beside Peres as dumfounded as the latter.  Erdogan was given a hero’s welcome in Istanbul after he returned from Davos while the Turkish flag waved high along the Palestinian flag in many Arab capitals by demonstrators in admiration and pride. Since then, he has continued to speak of the war crimes in the Gaza, unreservedly supporting the findings of the Goldstone report which calls for Israeli accountability and an end to the siege of Gaza.

Three weeks ago Turkey’s foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu was invited to visit Israel. When his request to include the Gaza Strip was turned down by the Israelis he cancelled the entire trip he cancelled the entire trip.

Speaking in Ankara recently Davutoglu said every morning when his daughter goes to school he remembers the children of Gaza and the fact that many of them don’t have shelters above their heads or schools to attend.

On the ground, Turkey has substantially increased the volume of its trade with Syria now estimated $2.5 billion per annum. With Iran, its trade relations have grown to $10 billion while its trade with Israel declined by 40% over the last nine months down to $800 million. Not only this, Turkey has stepped up military cooperation and exercises with Syria, while at the same time cancelling long-standing joint exercises with Israel. The latter has since turned to Berlusconi’s Italy to do joint air exercises.

Clearly a new Turkey is emerging; one that is stable, confident and progressing. It has a democratically elected civilian government that is outward looking and deeply protective of its national interests.  With an economy that is buoyant and growing – Turkey is ranked 12th among the G20 states and its good relations with the US, it is in a unique position. The Gaza war gave Turkey an opportunity to illustrate its independent foreign policy and vision for the region that is distinct from that of Israel.  It is increasingly looked upon as the leading state by the people of the region who lost trust in the Arab regimes and in particular that of Egypt which failed internally and internationally including its inability to reconcile the main Palestinian factions, Hamas and Fateh.

As a mark of how fraught relations have become Israelis are today calling for a boycott of Turkish coffee and its independence day celebrations. Israel recently attacked Turkey for broadcasting a television series presenting Israeli soldiers as murderers of innocent children television series presenting Israeli soldiers as murderers of innocent children. The Army Radio has more over announced that many Israeli businesses have decided to stop subsidizing employee vacations to Turkey. The strategic marriage of convenience appears not only on the rocks but headed for divorce.


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The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.