Turkey has been pursuing a new foreign policy since the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in November 2002. Although Turkey maintained its special ties with Israel during the early years of the AKP administration, there was growing concern among Israeli leadership regarding Turkey’s increasing activism in the Middle East, particularly its relations with Iran and its support for Hamas. Evidently, Turkish policy towards Israel has changed in the last three years. Erdogan’s government has become much more pro-Palestinian and much more critical of Israel’s policies in the West Bank and Gaza.
Israel–Turkey relations: historic overview
The relationship between Turks and Jews goes back to the late fifteenth century, when thousands of Jews fled Spain to the Ottoman Empire. They settled in Constantinople as well as Salonika, which came to be known as the “Mother of Israel” due to its overwhelming Jewish majority.1 Turkey played a significant role in helping the European Jews flee from Nazi persecution during the 1930s and 1940s. It was also the first Muslim majority country to recognize the State of Israel in 1949.
Following the establishment of Israel, Turkey grew increasingly dependent on the supply of Israeli arms. A form of military and economic cooperation between Turkey and Israel emerged during the 70s and 80s. In the 90s, both parties signed strategic agreements whereby Israeli expertise was used to help modernise the Turkish army. The signed agreements include cooperation in the “domains of air, sea, land, intelligence; and the manufacturing of aircraft, armaments and missiles”. They cover “mutual military visits, training and exercises, dispatch of observers to oversee military exercises, staff exchanges and military know-how.” They also include modernising the F-4 Phantom fleet of the Turkish air force, upgrading 170 of Turkey’s M60A1 tanks, parching Popeye-I and Popeye-II missiles; range Delilah cruise missiles and Popeye-II surface-to-air missiles. Also parching Arrow anti-ballistic-missiles (approval of the United States is awaited).
Diplomatic and economic relations
Turkey and Israel maintain full diplomatic relations. There are two Israeli diplomatic missions in Turkey: the embassy which is located in Ankara, and a Consulate General which is located in Istanbul. Official visits involve high officials. In November 2007, Israel’s President Shimon Peres addressed the Grand National Assembly of Turkey, this was the first time an Israeli President had addressed a Muslim country’s parliament.
On the economic side, Israel and Turkey signed a free-trade agreement in 1996 making it the first Muslim country to sign such an agreement with the Zionist state. Economic trade between Turkey and Israel increased after the agreement, about seven fold from $446 million in 1996 to $3.38 billion in 2008.
According to official statistics, Israel exports an annual $1.5 billion in goods and services to Turkey, and imports about $1.1 billion. Talks between the two governments in recent years were focusing on building a massive pipeline from Turkey to supply water, electricity, gas and oil to Israel.2
The Izmit catastrophic earthquake showed how close the two countries were. Israel carried a large scale operation to assist in search and rescue efforts after the earthquake which claimed over 17,000 lives in 1999. The Israeli team included hundreds of personnel from the IDF SAR team, paramedics, surgeons and administrative personnel.
The position of Turkey on the Arab-Israeli conflict
During the cold war Turkey was seen by Arabs as pro-western and an ally to Israel. However, Turkey has tried to maintain a policy of neutrality on the Arab-Israeli conflict. On many occasions Ankara was extremely critical of Israeli behavior towards the Palestinians. Turkey joined the universal condemnation of Israeli over the Six Days War in 1967. It supported the UN resolutions which demand the withdrawal of the Israeli army from the occupied Arab territories. Turkey also supported the right of “self-determination” of the Palestinian people and showed sympathy towards the victims of “Israeli oppression” during the Second Intifada, and in 2004 Turkey described the Israeli assassination of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin as a “terrorist act”. It went on to describe the Israeli policy in the Gaza Strip as “state-sponsored terrorism“. Nevertheless, strategic cooperation between the two countries grew from strength to strength during the last three decades.
The new Turkish policy towards Israel has been designed by the leaders of the new ruling party, the Justice and Development Party. As a consequence Israel is no longer such a valuable asset to Turkey.
The impact of Gaza on Israel-Turkey relations
The relationship between the two countries has become strained, particularly following the official visit of Khaled Meshal, the political leader of Hamas to Turkey in 2006, and the Israeli war on Gaza in 2008-2009. The whole world watched Turkey’s Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, strongly criticise Israel’s conduct in the Gaza war at the 2009 World Economic Forum Conference in Davos. Erdogan became even more popular after he shouted in the face of Israeli President, Shimon Peres, saying: “You know how to kill people”. Israel and the US did not take part in the Anatolian Eagle military exercise set to take place in October 2009 when Turkey took a decision to bar Israel from them. As a result, trade declined to $2.52 billion in 2009. The number of Israeli tourists visiting Turkey also dropped by 44% from 511,535 in 2007 to 311,000 in 2009.
The tension escalated even further in January 2010 over a Turkish soap opera depicting the Israeli intelligence service, Mossad, kidnapping Turkish babies and taking the Turkish ambassador in Tel Aviv and his family hostage.
The relationship is now experiencing an extremely drastic down turn after nine Turkish civilians were killed following the Gaza flotilla raid on 31 May 2010.
In his statement condemning the Israeli attack, the Turkish Foreign Minister said that “This deplorable incident, which took place in open seas, and constitutes a flagrant breach in international law, may lead to irreparable consequences in our bilateral relations”. This is what has been reaffirmed by the Turkish president when he said that “Israel will soon find out how big its mistake was” adding that “there is no doubt that Turkey will never tolerate attacks against its citizens and ships in international waters”.
New Turkish strategy
Since his early days in office, and in an important departure from Kemal Ataturk’s legacy, Erdogan set a new policy for his country in the region, built on active engagement and mediation in conflicts’ resolution. “This requires the trust of all those involved – and Erdogan, a devout Muslim, has managed not to alienate Israel while at the same time regaining the confidence of the Arab world in his country. Turkey has taken on a leadership role in the Arab world that is just as useful for the West as it is for the Muslims”.3
However, things started to get out of hand during the last three years and Turkey has increasingly found itself in confrontations with Israel and closer to the Arabs.
In his speech at the third meeting of the Foreign Ministers of Turkish-Arab Cooperation Forum (TAC) and the fifth meeting of the TAC Economic Forum, where 700 dignitaries from both sides were brought together, Erdogan said: “Those who have tried to obstruct Turkey’s relations with the Arab world for a long period are trying to do the same thing today”.
Turkey has enhanced its relationships with neighbouring Arab countries by resolving disputes with Syria and Iraq, increasing trade exchange and lifting mutual visa requirements.
Turkey has signed agreements for the liberalisation of visas with Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Libya. Erdogan said that “artificial obstacles between certain countries were being ended and relations placed where they should be”.
Trade between Turkey and the Arab world reached $29 billion in 2009, from $13 billion in 2004.
There are more than 2,000 Arab companies investing in Turkey. Foreign direct investment from Arab countries between the years 2002-2009 mounted to $6.2 billion. Also the number of tourists coming from Arab countries has risen from 400,000 in 2002 to 1.4 million in 2009.4
The Turkish-Arab Economic Forum has attracted more Arab senior officials and businessmen. 42 ministers from Arab countries took part in the 5th round, in addition to more than 600 Turkish and Arab business leaders and major Arab companies, banking and investment groups.
One of the prominent goals of the Forum is to create a zone of free movement of goods and persons among Turkey and Arab countries. Turkey signed a deal at the 5th Forum with Syria, Jordan and Lebanon to establish a cooperation council to create a free movement area of goods and people. Turkish Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, invited all other interested countries to join.
After two days of serious deliberations the result was the initial signing of mutual agreements. The 5th conference issued a statement expressing “grave concern and condemnation for the Israeli aggression” on the aid flotilla. They called on the United Nations to investigate in a “credible, thorough and transparent manner” the Israeli storming of the ships. The Arab nations and Turkey pledged to work together “until Israel is held accountable and the siege of the Gaza Strip is lifted”.
In Libya, the Assistant Secretary of the Authority for Administrative Institutions revealed his country has signed, during the last couple of months, 206 contracts with 51 Turkish companies, amounting more than 6 billion USD.
Enhancing mutual interests
Judging from the current circumstances, there is considerable potential for strong political and economic ties between Turkey and the Arab world. The Turkish economy has been growing at a rapid rate since 2002. Turkey is currently rated as the world’s 17th largest economy and the sixth largest European economy. According to OECD estimates, Turkey will be the most rapidly growing economy among OECD countries in 2011-2017 with 6.7% annual rate. The AKP Party is pursuing a strategic plan with an aim to make Turkey a world power by 2023.
On the other hand, the oil rich Arab countries – 8 countries with a total GDP of approximately $800 billion – are presumably searching for safer investment areas especially after the disastrous consequences of the world financial crisis. The unprecedented oil surpluses that occurred during the last five years are encouraging the Arab countries’ policy makers to adopt new economic reform policies and set up huge development projects, especially in the Gulf countries, Algeria and Libya.
Moreover, the political and geographical factors would serve any potential cooperation strategies between Turkey and the Arab world.
In addition, while not only seen as a defender of Arab causes, Turkey’s experiences with reconciling Islam and democracy are inspiring many Arab intellectuals who are willing to support closer relations between their countries and Turkey.
With regards to developing their relationships with Turkey, the Arab countries lack trust and will, as well as the strategic vision of their leaders. Forming strategic ties with Turkey built on strong economic cooperation could be the first steps towards solving the Arab problems, particularly the Palestinian issue. As such, an alliance would ease the pressures from the West, notably the US, and allow a new era of Arab relations with the EU.
Since Davos, Turkish companies operating in Israel have been facing a number of difficulties, ranging from restrictions in the extension of work visas to increasingly hard working conditions. Those firms, and other Turkish firms, can operate effectively and profitably in Arab countries, where hundred of billions of USD worth of infrastructure projects were set up for the coming five years.
A mutually beneficial cooperation between Turkey and the Arab world can succeed if the main Arab leaders envisage what is happening in the region as an opportunity to establish a new regional partnerships that can benefit their countries without bearing the burden of including Israel or being controlled by advanced countries as many previous American and European initiatives intended.
1. Israel–Turkey relations: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Israel%E2%80%93Turkey_relations
3. Rainer Hermann: Turkey as Model for the Middle East:http://www.qantara.de/webcom/show_article.php/_c-476/_nr-681/i.html
4. Turkish Press 10/7/2010
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.