On the ground in Ankara

Don't blow the Turkey crisis out of proportion.

July 11, 2010 00:38
A mosque in Ankara (illustrative)

On the ground in Ankara. (photo credit: Uri Fields)

One Monday morning, as I walked in the Mount Scopus library, my boss called: “Hello, Uri, good morning. Listen, some of our Israeli employees in Ankara were evacuated and I need a technician there tomorrow morning, can you go?” Without a moment’s hesitation, I said yes.

It was a couple of days after the flotilla takeover and the news depicted a Turkey on fire, burning with hate and hostility toward Israel. I did not really know what I was going to encounter when I landed.

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Heading to the airport, I was picked up by an old taxi driver, the type who has already seen everything. I think even he was surprised for a moment when I told him I was flying to Turkey, but he quickly relapsed and asserted: “Poor Turks, their religious types just kept breeding... You’ll see, we’ll get the same thing with the Orthodox here in 15 years.”

I kept silent, as we were passed by a group of yeshiva kids outside Romema, once a stronghold of secular Jerusalem.

I stayed silent in the airport and on the plane. At the terminal, I was picked up by a Turkish driver, escorted by one of the Israeli security personnel.

“So... how are things? A huge mess?” I asked tentatively.

“What, here? No, not really,” he answered. “The Turks, they don’t really care.”

That couldn’t be right, I thought to myself. But, as we drove to the embassy, I learned from the driver crucial facts that go unreported in our sensationalist media. Ankara, Turkey’s capital, is home to more than 4.5 million inhabitants. At the post-flotilla demonstration outside the Israeli embassy, only 1,000 Turks participated. Twice that number showed up a day later to protest in front of the Turkish embassy in Tel Aviv. Moreover, according to the Ankara police, the 1,000 Turkish protesters received about 20 TYL ($15) each from the AKP.

WHILE IN Ankara, I enjoyed a window into the heart of secular Turkey. Turkish villagers tend to be conservative and anti-Israel, but the secular urban population isn’t. I spoke to as many Turks as I could and discovered that both the rich and poor in Ankara are fairly friendly to Israel and quite hostile toward the AKP.

I was struck by the consistency of opinion across socioeconomic lines: A belief repeated to me by students, police and hotel bellboys was that the current crisis is temporary. One woman pointed out to me that Turkey and Israel have been through much worse, noting the 1982 withdrawal of Turkey’s ambassador for many years after the annexation of the Golan Heights.

Ankara’s streets showed no great love for Iran. A driver commented that Sunni Turkey and Shi’ite Iran share a deep hate. With a history of mutual conquest, war and occupation, the two great non-Arab Muslim peoples have kept alive old enmities.

A review of local media also gave a narrative markedly different from the one in Israeli newspapers. A range of domestic issues, predicated on growing disillusionment with the corrupt CHP, Kemal Ataturk’s founding party, drove Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s electoral success. AKP’s Islamic identity played a far less significant role.

These voices are not heard because of the Turkish cultural attitude against dissent, and because of active measures by the government to silence critics. YouTube, Google Translate and Google Books are all under restrictions ranging from partial to complete. There are almost no independent think tanks left in Turkey, and even the army is actively monitored.

But, even the fairly sympathetic secular Turks I encountered saw Operation Cast Lead as a turning point, not out of sympathy for Palestinians, but out of a sense of damage to Turkish honor and interests. Prime minister Ehud Olmert’s visit to Ankara, three days before the initial attack in December 2008, is perceived as an enormous insult. According to the local narrative, Turkey is interested in utilizing its uniqueness as a cultural bridge to broker peace in the Middle East. The lack of minimal coordination by Olmert with the Turkish leadership was taken as a blunt and direct disregard of honest Turkish efforts.

OUR TOP diplomat, Avigdor Lieberman has estimated that the Israel- Turkey relationship has effectively reached its end. Turkey, Lieberman argues, is going through “deep cultural, demographic transitions,” which make it a lost cause. Despite our $2.5 billion of annual trade, Turkey is simply on the other end of a civilizational fault line that cannot be bridged. But even if Lieberman is right, and the views expressed to me in Ankara represent a dwindling minority, we can still navigate this crisis wisely.

We need to understand Turkey’s sensibilities, especially honor, and its attempts to serve as an independent broker between East and West. Even in Ankara, Turks expressed this in their defense of Turkey’s attempts to broker a deal with Iran. They felt Turkey offered a unique solution, which was torpedoed by American and European stubbornness in pushing their sanctions.

This sentiment also came out in their thoughts on the flotilla affair.

In many Turks’ eyes, it was reasonable and acceptable that Israel blocked the ships. But like many in Israel, they strongly disapproved of the manner in which the apprehension took place. For that and for the death of their citizens they demand an apology. The Turkish government and media insist that a simple apology will solve everything.

We must also understand how Turkey views its economic and political relationship with us. The importance of relations between the two states is as clear to Turkey as it is to Israel. While Turkey relies on Israel for advanced drones, computer chips and tanks, Israel imports from Turkey peripheral items likes shoes and outdated spare military parts. In Turkey’s eyes, beyond the wide array of technological and military acquisition, trade and tourism, good relations with Israel connote good relations with the West. Within the first week after the flotilla raid, many congressmen and Jewish leaders officially renounced promotion of Turkish interests in the halls of Congress. Distrust of Turkey was expressed in many Western capitals as well.

This is undoubtedly a crisis, but I suggest we not blow events out of proportion. Political crises are often influenced by complex domestic considerations and processes, including internal bureaucratic rivalries. As a student of history, I was immensely curious to see up close the powers which drive such crises, an amalgam of coincidence and mistake, of human agents and structural trends, of pride, stubbornness and the power of ideas.

Presently, I can’t do more than watch the pawns move and keep my fingers crossed.

Due to the sensitive nature of his visit to Turkey, under the auspices of a company involved with the security establishment, the name of the author has been changed.

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