Israel and Turkey flags.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Turkey and Israel are resuming their normal relationship. This turn in Turkey’s foreign and regional policy comes after reaching an impasse in its relationship with most of its neighbors and after the grandiose ambition a few years ago to become a power center in the Middle East.
The crisis six year ago shifted the relationship between Israel and Turkey to a different stage. Israel’s image has been transformed, in the eyes of the Turkish population, to being seen from an apocalyptic religious viewpoint, rather than a political one, which overlaps with the rest of the Arab world.
As two regional powers, the nature of the relationship between the countries will affect the balance of power in the wider region. Today in the Middle East, as a result of the regime change in Iraq and the “Arab Spring,” the post-Cold War order is no longer in place. The current order and power balance in the Middle East is fragmented and in many countries the center is not holding.
Lack of order in the Middle East will invite regional and global powers to intervene to impose their own agendas and plans. This has been the pattern since the Great Game in the 1800s – the protracted confrontation between the British and Russian empires centered around Afghanistan and its surrounding regions.
For the sake of understanding one can divide the Middle East states into two main categories, namely the pillars (the regional players: Iran, Turkey, Saudi and Israel) and those which are between the pillars, the fillers.
The pillars interact in a variety of modes, and are rarely directly engaged in conflicts. The absence of a regional power strong enough to impose its hegemony puts these countries in a perpetual struggle and consequently each suffers from a security dilemma. This is the source of most of the tensions. The pillar countries are taking advantage of the tensions within the weak, filler countries to widen their spheres of influence and push away any security threat.
For any pillar country in the region to appear hegemonic it has to establish itself vis a vis the other pillar countries.
Israel and Turkey are no exception.
For almost a decade Turkey enjoyed the feeling of being a regional power and a model to the rest of the region. To accomplish that Turkey played the classic game in the region: demonize Israel.
Israel is seen as an easy tool to mobilize the Islamic population; a game played by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
In other words, there are Sunni, Shi’ite and secular versions of this game.
Kurds are among those affected by these dynamics. Kurdish ambition for self-determination is usually described in terms of creating a second Israel. This framing is appealing to a religious crowd, to nationalists, pan-nationalists and realists as well. It is cliche in the Middle East to see Kurds as similar to Israel.
This makes the Kurdish-Israeli relationship resemble a good traditional Middle East love story. It is a secret, others are more bothered by it than the two parties, and, more importantly, it is haram – forbidden. Kurds, who are the same as Israelis, are not allowed to have a relationship with Israel. This is a complex formula; neither easy for Israel nor for the Kurds. For these reasons, the relationship has prompted most regional experts to refrain from studying the subject in detail.
When the Turkey-Israel relationship went sour, Israelis started to express their support for Kurdish self-determination more vocally.
Turkey was the only country among the four countries in the region that divided Kurdistan to have a relationship with Israel. This relationship with Turkey was an obstacle for better relations with the Kurds in the past. The question is, will this become the reality again? As observers highlight, in the current normalization “the Kurds are driving Turkey back to Israel.” Thus, one of the main items on the agenda is the Kurds.
If in the past the Kurds Turkey opposed were the Iraqi Kurds, today the situation is different. The Iraqi Kurds, today, are close to Turkey, however in a very shaky and weak relationship that has mainly been established between the elites of the two main parties on both sides. This makes the Kurds at the negotiation table the Syrian Kurds, or as they are known, the Rojava, mainly by the two big global players in the region, namely Russia and Americans. The apology to Russia and the rehabilitation of the relationship with Israel marks a turn in the Turkish policy to stop international recognition of the Rojava. Through the new normalization Turkey aims to get a better hearing on their concerns about Syria’s Kurds from Rojava’s de facto patron, the United States.
Kurds, because of their being stateless, a status Jews suffered from for millennia, are never around the table when deals and arrangements of their land are discussed. Being stateless and unable to partake in negotiation and unable to represent themselves, Kurds are always on the losing side of the negotiation tables.
Against this background, will Israel through the current normalization stand against Kurdish ambition in the region? Will it lobby for Turks against the Kurds in Washington? As people who are affected directly and have a history of suffering from others’ deals, Kurds deserve to know the answer of these questions.
The author is a writer based in Kurdistan, Iraq.