Diplomatic Affairs: Angering the Great Mediator

Diplomatic Affairs Ange

peres erdogan 248.88 (photo credit: Bloomberg)
peres erdogan 248.88
(photo credit: Bloomberg)
It was a small news item in September that barely registered a blip on anyone's radar screen: Jerusalem turned down a request from Turkey's new Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu to go to the Gaza Strip from Israel, where he would meet Hamas officials before coming back to the Jewish state. This decision was part of Israel's long-standing policy of not meeting with international statesmen who, on the same trip, meet Hamas officials. The rationale is simple: provide a disincentive to meeting Hamas representatives for statesmen, and avoid the impression that Israel is indirectly dealing with Hamas through a third party. But it is exactly the second element, creating the impression of "mediation," that Davutoglu wanted to create. Otherwise, according to government sources, he could have entered and exited Gaza from the Egyptian side. He wanted to enter and exit from Israel precisely to help create the impression of Turkey as the Great Mediator. Israel's refusal to allow this, said Ephraim Inbar, the head of the BESA Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University and a veteran observer of Turkish-Israeli relations, left the Turks infuriated. That anger, he said, was partly responsible for this week's nosedive in Turkish-Israeli relations, a nosedive that began last Thursday with Turkey informing Israel it wasn't welcome in the annual Anatolian Eagle military exercise, picked up steam with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's most recent harangue on Monday against Israeli actions during Operation Cast Lead, and culminated in Jerusalem's decision Wednesday night to summon Turkey's charge d'affaires to Jerusalem to protest an inflammatory new anti-Israeli drama series on Turkey's state-controlled television station. "Someone has decided to teach Israel a lesson," Inbar said. And the incident with Davutoglu was not the first time Israel foiled Turkey's efforts at mediation. Erdogan was far and away one of Israel's most caustic critics during Operation Cast Lead and its immediate aftermath, variously saying Israel should be barred from the UN and that it was perpetrating inhumane actions that would lead to its destruction, and famously upbraiding President Shimon Peres at the Davos economic summit before walking off the stage in a tiff. Part of this anger is a reflection of the sympathy that Erdogan feels for his co-religionists, said one diplomatic source. But part of it is also personal, a feeling that Israel somehow "betrayed" him by attacking Gaza without informing Ankara in advance, especially since just a few days prior to Operation Cast Lead, then-prime minister Ehud Olmert was in Turkey, and Erdogan was directly conveying messages on the phone between Olmert and Damascus. At the time Syria and Israel were holding indirect contacts through Turkey. Erdogan was quoted after the Gaza operation as saying that Olmert "betrayed me and harmed the honor of Turkey." Indeed, what Erdogan apparently feels Israel harmed was his vision of attaining regional and global importance based on Turkey's status as the proverbial bridge, the mediator. Erdogan seriously buys into the metaphor of Turkey as the bridge between east and west, Islam and everything else, and in his view Israel is gumming up the works. According to assessments in Jerusalem, Turkey is trying to boost its status in Europe, central Asia and the Middle East by coming across as an indispensable link. In this case, a privileged relationship with Israel, but not necessarily the strategic relationship of the past, is important. BEFORE ERDOGAN'S rise to power in 2002, there was a great deal of suspicion inside the Turkish ruling class of the Arab world. Erdogan has, to a certain extent, done away with that, embracing the Arab world and emphasizing the commonality of religion. For the Kemalists who preceded Erdogan, Islam was not important, the national element was - a national element that created divides with the Arab world. The opposite is true now. Erdogan is re-calibrating that policy, as is obvious from the tremendous inroads he has made toward improving relations with Syria, evidenced by a high-level strategic dialogue the two countries held this week, and with Iraq, where Erdogan visited on Thursday. He is also keeping the door open to Iran, and this month has publicly opposed sanctions against the country. One senior official in the Foreign Ministry said that Turkey - which wants to be the bridge to everyone - is in the gripes of a tectonic shift, and that tamping down its ties with Israel is one manifestation of the direction the country is turning. That shift, however, is not an easy one, and, Erdogan's Islamic-rooted AKP is not without its secular opposition concerned by the eastward direction Erdogan is leading the country. Indeed, according to former Foreign Ministry director-general Alon Liel, who served in the early 1980s as Israel's charge d'affaires to Ankara and has written a number of books on the country, it was this opposition within the military and foreign policy establishment that was responsible for reports that Israel's being dropped from participation in the military exercise was due not to the Gaza operation, but rather to an Israeli delay in delivery of Heron unmanned aviation vehicles (UAV). Liel did not take these reports seriously, saying that the deterioration in ties is both clear and worrisome, and that the UAV reports were an "effort from the bureaucratic level to paint a rosier picture." Liel said that nearly every month Erdogan has fired some kind of diplomatic salvo toward Israel, but that few were paying attention. "He wants the noise," Liel said. "He is a very ideological actor who is very strong politically, and believes that Israel is holding up the peace process." The military and foreign ministry are trying to convince him otherwise, Liel said, but without success. "He is showing us that he doesn't like the Israeli approach, and is making corrections to Turkish foreign policy." As to the oft-heard argument that the Turkish military establishment would not let him go too far in altering the relationship with Israel, Liel said that every year that passed with Erdogan in power - he won the elections in 2002 - gave him more strength, and eroded the military's say on non-military matters, such as foreign policy. "There is a new Turkish foreign policy, more assertive and aggressive, that says Turkey is not in anyone's pocket and is a regional power and can play in all the regions - the Balkans, the Caucasus, Euro-Asia," he said. Liel said Turkey's self-confidence was on the rise, even as its efforts to join the EU were faltering, and it felt less dependent than in the past on what Israel could offer - lobbying help in Washington, military hardware they couldn't get elsewhere, and technology. "Between 1993 to 2002 the Turkish leadership saw us as a very important actor in Washington and in Europe," Liel said. That Turkey has clearly drifted away indicates for Liel that they now believed Israel had less of an ability to impact events in European capitals and in Washington, especially during US President Barack Obama's era. Davutoglu said so much in the answer he gave a Syrian reporter this week, who had asked whether he was worried about pressure from pro-Israeli groups in Washington. "Turkey's foreign policy has always been based on principles. When there have been bad policies, as in the Gaza incidents, we have shown our position," he said. "I'm telling this to you as the foreign minister of the Turkish Republic. There is nothing over which the Turkish Republic should feel worried." His remarks came in response to a comment Inbar made earlier in the week to the Jerusalem Post, that if Turkey continued down the current path, Jewish groups should consider withholding lobbying effort in Washington on behalf of Turkey when the perennial Armenian genocide resolution again comes before Congress. Liel, who has developed close ties to Turkey over the years and is not someone who is ever considered a diplomat looking for confrontation, criticized the Israeli government's policy of restrained response to the continued Turkish statements and actions, saying it was time to call back Israel's ambassador to Ankara for consultations. "This is starting to be humiliating," Liel said, adding that while such a move would have little or no impact on Erdogan and Israeli-Turksih bilateral ties, it was important to show the world that there was a limit to what Israel could take diplomatically. "They are used to us not reacting," Liel said. "They take us for granted, and they don't think we will ever respond because of how important and sensitive the relations are." But, he said, if Israel doesn't do anything, the Turkish model will be used by other countries in their relations with Israel - something Israel must make clear it simply cannot tolerate.