Tilting the Turkey-Israel-US triangle

Erdogan is bashing Israel less… for now.

Erdogan 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Erdogan 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
It is highly unlikely most Israelis will pay even scant attention to a constitutional referendum in Turkey scheduled for September 12 in which a package of amendments to the 1982 Turkish constitution will be voted on.
The reforms are Turkish inside-baseball, changing the makeup of the country’s constitutional court, making it easier to try army officers, providing union rights for government bureaucrats. Yet while the issues may be difficult to grasp for an outsider, they are pitting the Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) against the secular-military establishment.
Israelis would do well to pay attention, because that referendum could go a good distance toward determining whether the Turkish parliamentary elections, currently scheduled for July 2011, are moved up. And those elections are important for Israel, since they will determine the political fate of the Islamic-rooted AKP and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the man who has done more than any other individual in a generation to dismantle Israeli-Turkish ties.
The AKP has ruled alone, without a coalition, in Ankara since 2002, and – as a result – there are signs inside Turkey of what some are calling “AKP fatigue.”
Like any party that has ruled for eight years straight, there is increasing dissatisfaction with what is viewed as the party’s cronyism, creeping corruption and failure to live up to its promises.
The numbers tell the story. While in 2007 the AKP won a resounding 47 percent of the electorate, with the main opposition partner the Republican People’s Party (CHP) garnering only 21% of the votes, a May 15 Turkish newspaper poll put the AKP’s support at only 34%, as opposed to 27% for the CHP and its surprisingly popular new leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu.
As a result, if the AKP wins the referendum, Erdogan may move to early elections to ride a wave of positive momentum. But if the referendum, backed by AKP, fails, then the opposition parties may push for a return to the ballot box, arguing that the government has lost its moral authority to serve. Turkish elections could, conceivably, be held by the end of the year, or shortly thereafter.
Jerusalem is not deluding itself into believing that Erdogan or AKP will be swept from power, or that Kilicdaroglu is a Turkish Stephen Harper, the fiercely pro-Israel Canadian prime minister. There is not even unanimity here about whether Erdogan will play the anti-Israel card to whip up the voters, since the opposition is also expected to use pro-Palestinian, anti- Israeli rhetoric.
Yet there is still a sense in Jerusalem that the AKP’s complete dominance of Turkish politics may be on the wane, and that if the AKP is not defeated, at least it might have to form a coalition government the next time around that could lead to a degree of moderation in Ankara’s tone toward Israel.
One of the Jerusalem’s biggest regrets about the AKP reign is that Erdogan – who was harshly critical of Israel well before the flotilla and Operation Cast Lead – has been able to change Turkish public opinion toward Israel, and that the negative change is something that will outlast his premiership. Whereas prior to Erdogan’s assumption of power in 2002, Turkey separated its bilateral ties with Israel from the greater Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Erdogan has since erased that separation, making Israeli-Turkish ties hostage to the overall conflict, and in the process poisoning public opinion toward Israel.
Whatever the outcome of the September 12 referendum, it is clear Turkey is occupied with much more these days then just the return of the Mavi Marmara, which Israel released to Turkish authorities on Thursday, or the situation in Gaza. The country is preoccupied with a hard-to-follow military-civilian saga, arrested officers and an obtuse seven-year-old alleged coup attempt, as well as an upsurge of Kurdish violence that is extracting a steady number of Turkish army casualties week after week.
It is also preoccupied with its standing in the world, a standing that – at least in the West – took a huge hit following a series of events that started with the Turkish- Brazilian initiative to undercut efforts to level international sanctions against Iran, a vote at the UN Security Council against those sanctions and the Gaza flotilla incident and the overheated Turkish rhetoric that followed.
IT IS instructive to note that on Tuesday, even as the UN announced the formation of a panel to look into the flotilla incident, which left nine Turks dead after the Mavi Marmara attempted to break Israel’s sea blockade of Gaza, Israel’s envoy to Ankara was called in for a reprimand.
Interestingly enough, Gaby Levy was called in to hear a protest not about the panel or anything having to do with the ship, but with comments Defense Minister Ehud Barak made a few days earlier questioning whether sensitive security and intelligence shared in the past with Turkey had, because of the appointment of a new intelligence chief with ties to Iran, made it into enemy hands.
Barak, at a closed Labor Party meeting last week, expressed concern over the recent appointment of Hakan Fidan as chief of Turkey’s intelligence organization.
Apparently unaware that his comments were being recorded, Barak said, “In recent weeks a man who is a supporter of Iran was appointed to head Turkey’s Mossad. There are a fair number of our secrets that are in [Turkish] hands. The thought that in the past two months they could have been open to the Iranians is quite disturbing.”
The Web site of the Turkish paper Today’s Zaman quoted Turkish security experts as complaining that Barak’s statements “are not only discourteous, but also an effort to delegitimize the Turkish government.” Coming from a country whose leaders have for years consistently unleashed vicious anti-Israel rhetoric, culminating when Erdogan said following the flotilla episode that the world perceives “the swastika and Star of David together,” there is something rich about the Turks complaining that Barak’s comment were discourteous or aimed at delegitimizing the Turkish government.
But the summoning of Levy showed that Barak stepped on an open sore, and that with all the talk about Turkey turning its back on the West, and embracing Syria and Iran, Ankara is still extremely, immensely concerned about its relations with the West.
Syria and Iran, the Turks very well realize, are poor substitutes for NATO, the US and the EU.
And what the Turks have been hearing increasingly, and not only from Israelis like Barak, is a concern that its new foreign policy orientation is placing at risk its security and intelligence cooperation with the West. Turkish anger over Barak’s comments is an indication of how worried they are about this narrative gaining traction.
Increasingly, what Israel and others are concerned about is not just the usual slippage that occurs when the military technology and hardware of one country is sold to another. The concern is not that the Turks, during a military exercise with Syria, will let Syrian soldiers go for a whirl in one of their new Israeli-upgraded tanks. But rather the concern is that entire military platforms – like UAVs – might be handed over to enemy hands.
And it is not only Israel’s concern. While a large military supplier to Turkey over the years, Israel was not the only one, and this fear is shared by others in the West, including the US. These concerns are reaching Ankara, and Turkey’s interest in quelling them may help explain why Erdogan and his foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, have in recent weeks tamped down the overheated, anti-Israel rhetoric.
And not only has the rhetoric changed a bit, but there has also been a slow change of what the Turks – who recalled their envoy from Tel Aviv immediately after the flotilla incident – are demanding in order to resume normal diplomatic ties.
IN THE immediate aftermath of the incident, Turkey demanded an Israeli apology, an international investigative committee, Israeli compensation payments to the families of those killed or wounded and a lifting of the Gaza blockade. Over the past couple of weeks, however, there has been an erosion in those demands, with the Turks no longer demanding all four conditions, but rather asking for one of the following: an Israeli apology, compensation or an international investigative committee.
The decision on Monday by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to take part in the UN panel established by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to look into the incident was largely viewed as an attempt to meet one of these demands, and thereby significantly reduce the tension. While Israel came under US pressure to agree to the panel, the Turks – too – are feeling US heat to cool things down.
The Israel-Turkey-US relationship has often been described as a triangle. If, during the golden days of the relationship in the late 1990s and the first three years of the 21st century, the Turks looked at the triangle and saw Israel as a gateway to Washington, following Operation Cast Lead and Erdogan’s berating of President Shimon Peres at Davos in 2009, Israel increasingly saw Washington as the doorway to bettering its ties with Turkey.
And now, in the aftermath of the flotilla and the Turkish vote on UN sanctions against Iran, the triangle has been tilted again, with the US saying to Turkey, “If you want improved ties with us, improve the atmosphere with Israel.” Any change in Ankara’s rhetoric, and any lowering of Turkey’s demands regarding what needs to be done to normalize diplomatic ties with Israel, needs to be seen through the framework of that old triangle tilted at a new angle.