Analysis: Israel, Egypt, Turkey - shifting sands

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.

September 18, 2011 03:31
Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan.

Erdogan press 311. (photo credit: Umit Bektas/Reuters)


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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.

In other 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.

The 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 with Israel.

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.

Erdogan then 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 community.

Turkish threats also prevented Lebanon from ratifying the agreement it had signed with Cyprus regarding their respective maritime borders.

The US and even Russia are clearly unhappy about Turkey meddling everywhere in the eastern Mediterranean.

According to information from, 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 territorial waters.

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.

Turkey 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 government.

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 revolution.

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.

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