Straddling two worlds

A country’s foreign policy, including Turkey’s, is a function of best interests and expediency, not of friendship and loyalty.

Turks521 (photo credit: REUTERS)
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Ten days ago I was in Turkey to attend the first leg of the UEFA Champions League quarter-final between Spain’s Real Madrid against Turkey’s Galatasaray. This was my second trip to Istanbul, which straddles the Bosporus and Dardanelles straits.
Even though my first visit had taken place just 18 months ago, Istanbul had changed and developed tremendously over this short period.
The road leading to the new Galatasaray stadium, the Türk Telekom Arena, was horribly jammed. While attempting to escape this incredibly annoying situation caused by the endless line of vehicles moving down the road at the speed of molasses, I began an animated conversation with my Turkish host, Burcak Unsal, a young lawyer representing Google in Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey. It became clear quite quickly that he was not an avid supporter of the prime minister, to say the least.
Unsal said that he was among many who were trying to save the last vestiges of secular Turkey.
In short, Unsal believes that while Turkey struts around as if it has always been one of the world’s most powerful Western powers, it also stakes its claim as a leader in the Islamic world.
About 52,000 Turkish fans were packed into this modern stadium. It turns out that the team’s fans, who identify more with the European side of the city, are an inalienable asset of the team. Something about their conduct reminds me of a typical concert audience. They listen in silence that sometimes changes to cries of pleasure after a perfect move. Occasionally they let out rhythmic roars of encouragement that become more and more sophisticated and melodious.
After two years in which Turkey’s economy has had the fastest growth rate in Europe (an average of 9 percent), growth slowed in 2012 to 2.2%, mostly due to the euro zone crisis. Nevertheless, this is one of the fastest growth rates in Europe and the G20 group. This impressive performance has not escaped the notice of economists, who predict that in the next decade Turkey will be among the six leading world economies.
And yet, my Turkish host was not overly impressed by these numbers. He told me that Ankara is in no hurry to join the EU. “Look at what’s happening in Greece,” he told me excitedly. “Even Spain is in dire need of assistance.
Turkey is not so interested in joining this club.”
Despite its impressive economic success, Turkey, a Muslim power, is clearly having a difficult time choosing which leader to hold in esteem: the secular Mustafa Kemal Atatürk or the conservative Erdogan. Both groups have numerous supporters. Erdogan’s success in the last election was not due only to a large number of people who voted for him, but largely because his opponents split the secular camp. This latter group is interested in continuing relations with Israel and leaning toward Europe, not joining the Arab world.
Modern Turkey has no problem clinging to the traditions of their fathers, which led the Ottoman Empire in its glory days to dominate many regions.
But it turns out that Turkey does have a problem with Erdogan’s attempts to be accepted in the Arab Muslim world, which suffers from an inferior image.
For the common Turkish citizen, these countries represent weak and backward dictatorships, whereas the West is modern and enlightened.
There is no doubt that Turkey today, like the US, is striving to become a regional power that would serve the Middle East’s economic and strategic interests. It is quite possible that these interests are influencing Ankara’s public policies, as Turkey strives to become a regional leader. Israel, on the other hand, is outnumbered both in population and in natural resources in this very same region.
Today, Erdogan’s Turkey stands at the forefront of criticism of Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians. However, it is also leading the PR blitz on the Ba’athist regime in Syria. Some people in Turkey, especially among the secular opponents of Erdogan, regard their country’s foreign policy in Syria and on Palestinian issues as sticking their noses into places where it is more likely for them to get hurt than to receive any benefit.
I think that despite attempts at reconciliation between the two countries, relations between Turkey and Israel will never be as they were before. Erdogan’s Turkey is struggling to reach the oil-rich Arab world, and stepping on Israel’s toes along the its way. They hope to continue reaping the benefits from backing the oppressed Palestinians and the bleeding rebels in Syria.
In conclusion: A country’s foreign policy, including Turkey’s, is a function of best interests and expediency, not of friendship and loyalty. These two noble characteristics are what create friendships between people – if such a thing still exists – but not between countries. ■
The writer hosts a show on Radio Tel Aviv.
Translated by Hannah Hochner.