The many commentators who have lamented in the past few days about the isolation
of Israel in the Middle East have apparently forgotten that this is nothing new.
Arab armies tried to destroy the newborn state in 1948; successive attempts
having failed as well, Arab states dealt with the existence of the Jewish state
as with something which had to be endured, not accepted. Yes, peace was achieved
between Israel and Egypt, then Jordan, but this was a peace between governments,
not peoples. Incitement against the Jewish state never stopped, finding fertile
soil in the minds of youngsters taught from the cradle that Jews are the enemies
of Islam and will be destroyed on Judgment Day.
What was left were
agreements fueled by transient political interests.
Turkey had been the
first Muslim country to recognize Israel – in 1949. Ataturk had been dead
a mere decade and the country was firmly launched on the path of secular
modernity. Relations between the two countries have had their ups and
downs – in 1980 Ankara downgraded diplomatic relations with only a Second
Secretary left in charge. But trade exchanges amounted to 4.5 billion dollars
yearly, half a million Israelis vacationed in Turkey each year and Israel
supplied Turkey with sophisticated weapons and technology.
times, the flotilla episode – which would probably not have occurred in the
first place – would have been settled easily. However, today’s ruler, motivated
by religious fervor and the dream of restoring the country’s former empire, set
himself on another path, with the active support of Davutulu, the minister for
Foreign Affairs, author of a book in which he states that Turkey is on its way
to reclaiming its authentic role and its hegemony in the Middle East.
fact is that the present crisis has its roots in the election which in 2002
brought Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Islamist party – well known for its
hostility to the Jews – to power.
Erdogan dismantled one after the other
the bulwarks built by Ataturk, father of modern Turkey, that ensured that the
country would remain secular. Making use of an unlikely ally, the European
Union, which saw in the strong army and its special powers a threat to democracy
and an obstacle to Turkey joining the union, Erdogan started promoting officers
who were faithful to him and threw 400 high ranking officers into jail without a
trial on charges of plotting against the regime. When the commander in chief of
the armed forces and the heads of the different branches resigned in protest,
Erdogan happily accepted their resignation and put his men in charge. The army
was thus effectively neutralized, which brought about an end to the cooperation
Erdogan targeted the judiciary as well, changing laws and
rules and reversing the steps painstakingly taken by Ataturk to build a secular
country. Secular forces having been effectively rendered powerless, Turkey
became more and more Islamic while hailed by Europe as being a model of moderate
Islam. No thought was given to the fact that Ataturk’s revolution, which had
turned Turkey into the strong country it is today, had been thoroughly
undermined and that the Islamic revolution of Erdogan was only beginning. The
present hostility to Israel must be seen in that context.
tried to set up a strategic front under his leadership by strengthening ties
with Syria and Iran. The ongoing popular uprising in Syria and Iran’s growing
estrangement from the West and its support for Syria demonstrated the fragility
of those alliances.
Turkey dramatically changed tack. Solicited by
NATO, of which it is a major member, it agreed to install on its territory a
tracking station to monitor Iran’s missiles, which could be directed towards
Europe and Israel.
Though Turkey was now without any ally in the region,
Erdogan went on boasting that it was the greatest power there and that its
influence was felt in every country. His highly vocal attacks on Israel and his
support for the Palestinians are to be seen as efforts to position himself in
the Arab world – a world made of countries torn by internal strife and so deeply
divided that they would be shaky allies at best. He nevertheless went to Egypt
to see whether a strategic alliance could be made with a country which had long
been his rival.
The visit was not an unmitigated success. Though the
Turkish leader, basking in popular applause, negotiated a number of commercial
agreements, the ruling Supreme Military Council would not commit
itself. Egypt has enough troubles of its own without taking a stand which
would put it at cross purposes with the United States. Even the Muslim
Brotherhood, Erdogan’s longtime ally, was offended by his recommendation to turn
Egypt into a secular democratic state, and declared in no uncertain terms that
Turkey should mind its own business.
To put it in a nutshell, Turkey is
not only isolated, it is facing serious troubles. Its alliance with Iran
and with Syria is in ruin.
Turkey and Syria have reinforced the forces
stationed at their border with Turkey. The Kurdish minority is still fighting
for its independence; old conflicts with Armenia and Greece are smoldering with
occasional flare-ups. Relations with Cyprus are tense since Turkey ordered that
country to stop drilling for gas in the Mediterranean because of a potential
infringement on the rights of the northern part of the country under Turkish
occupation which is not recognized by the international
Turkish threats also prevented Lebanon from ratifying the
agreement it had signed with Cyprus regarding their respective maritime
The US and even Russia are clearly unhappy about Turkey meddling
everywhere in the eastern Mediterranean.
According to information from
Defencenet.gr, quoting a Russian FM spokesman.º Russia has sent two
nuclear-powered submarines to patrol Eastern Mediterranean waters around Cyprus
and enforce the island’s right to explore for undersea oil and gas in its
Such is the country threatening Israel: 40 times the
size of the Jewish state, with 10 times the number of inhabitants and a powerful
army. Yet there is no common border between Turkey and Israel, and Israel does
not threaten Ankara in any way and aspires to have good relations with that
country as in the past for the greater benefit of both countries.
has no real quarrel with Israel beyond rhetoric and religious extremism. Can
reason triumph over passion? The situation with Egypt is singularly different.
Israel and Egypt are bound by a peace agreement guaranteed by the US and have an
extended common border. Ruled by the army today, Egypt is looking at a lengthy
period of instability before new institutions are elected and steps are taken to
revive a failing economy, a process which will take at least two years. Radical
Islam could claim a significant victory and be part of the new
The process could run into trouble – including violent
protests from an increasingly frustrated population, as Egypt imports 50 percent
of its wheat, drawing on its already depleted reserve to subsidize basic
foodstuffs. Tourism, its main source of revenue, is facing its worse crisis
ever; the situation does not encourage investors. With its 83 million people,
nearly half living on less than $2 a day, Egypt may soon find itself depending
on outside help to survive.
For the past 32 years peace with Israel and
quiet on their long common border has afforded Egypt the stability it needed as
well as substantial help. Egypt has no real reason to change the situation,
occupied with solving sufficient internal issues to engage in a military
confrontation which the army does not want. Unfortunately the rise of radical
Islam and years of media incitement unchecked by the government have turned many
Egyptians against their neighbor. Israel makes a convenient scapegoat for the
failure of the temporary rulers to achieve any of the goals of the
Here again, will reason triumph over passion? Turkey, Egypt,
and Jordan too, are three real challenges Israel faces as a possible vote on the
Palestinian question at the UN looms. Yet the crisis is not of Israel’s making.
The basic political, strategic and economic interests of the region have not
changed. One can only hope that calmer heads will prevail and that the Jewish
state will weather the present storm as it has so many in the past.The
writer is a former ambassador to Egypt.