Anatomy of an ongoing crisis

A month and a half after the flotilla affair, relations with Turkey are still at a nadir. Is there any saving what was once regarded, by both countries, as a vital strategic partnership?

erdogan briefed 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
erdogan briefed 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
ISTANBUL – In contrast to the days immediately after Israeli commandos’ fatal interception of the Mavi Marmara on May 31 – when Turkish newspapers ran headlines chorusing the furious anti-Israeli charges of Turkish government officials from Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on down, and most media outlets added their own angry rhetorical flourishes – the media coverage this week of Maj.-Gen. (res.) Giora Eiland’s probe into the incident was muted.
Newspaper reporting of Eiland’s findings, to the effect that the raid was botched by a series of intelligence and operational errors, was relatively dispassionate. Headlines were factual rather than sensational. And there were certainly no large-scale protests in this city’s Taksim Square.
Yet the thrust of the coverage, as reflected in even the most sober of newspapers, was that Eiland’s probe merely maintained what is widely regarded here as Israel’s whitewashing of the violent showdown at sea in those frenetic predawn hours when the commandos intercepted the Gaza-bound flotilla. And there is little explanation that the more grandiose Turkel Commission of inquiry will be any different.
Turkey is seeking to be a bigger player in the Middle East region. But although the Turkish government has made the philosophy of “zero problems with neighbors” a cornerstone of this new regional policy, tensions with Jerusalem remain profound a month and a half after the flotilla raid, prompting many here to wonder if Israel is to be excluded from these designs long into the future.
Relations were sour even before the skirmish that resulted in the deaths of eight Turkish citizens and one Turkish-American. But Turkey’s demands – for an apology for the deaths of its citizens, in addition to an international inquiry and compensation of the victims’ families – and Israel’s refusal to meet them, mean ties are now at a nadir.
Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu may or may not have specified that Turkey will sever diplomatic relations if the demands are not met – there has been a welter of conflicting reports and comments here in recent days – but plainly ties are close to breaking point.
Turkey’s ambassador to Israel is still back here, joint exercises between the two countries’ militaries have been canceled, there are restrictions on Israel Air Force use of Turkey’s airspace, and all joint energy and water projects have been suspended.
Just as alarming is the rhetoric that has emanated from government officials. Erdogan has compared the incident to September 11, moved to characterize Hamas as comprised of “resistance fighters” and lectured the Israeli government on the Ten Commandments, repeating “thou shalt not kill” in multiple languages.
For all the simplistic, bitter rhetoric, however, the ongoing Turkey-Israel crisis is anything but simple. The Turkish government’s intensified Israel-bashing is a consequence of many factors – including Erdogan’s sense of personal betrayal by former prime minister Ehud Olmert, this country’s empathy with the Palestinians, and a variety of domestic political considerations here. And the direction of relations from now on will also hinge on a variety of factors, including domestic public opinion, the stance of the Turkish military, American attitudes, and the sensitivity – or lack thereof – of senior Turkish and Israeli diplomats and politicians.
ACCORDING TO Suat Kiniklioglu, the ruling Justice and Development Party’s deputy chairman for external affairs, the downturn in relations dates back to Israel’s incursion into Gaza in December 2008, before which Turkey was mediating peace talks between Israel and Syria.
“The war in Gaza, the humanitarian crisis in postwar Gaza and [Ehud] Olmert’s attitudes before the Gaza war are key in understanding Turkey’s recent reactions toward Israel,” said Kiniklioglu, linking the Gaza incursion to the flotilla affair. “We feel that the Israeli government – despite assurances to the contrary – has betrayed us in this [flotilla] affair, similarly to what prime minister Olmert did after six hours of talks with Prime Minister Erdogan four days before the war in Gaza. And he never called us back, although that is what was mutually agreed upon.
“Trust is a key factor in modern diplomacy,” he went on, “and we feel that our genuine efforts to facilitate Israeli-Syrian reconciliation before the Gaza war were wasted. Prime Minister Erdogan feels betrayed.”
That sense of betrayal, noted Yavuz Baydar, a columnist for the English-language Today’s Zaman, caused the government to intensify its posturing on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. “The flotilla raid only further poisoned the government’s anti-Israel rhetoric,” said Baydar.
Yet Erdogan’s personal frustration and sense of betrayal is not the only factor at play in determining Turkish policy. Following the Gaza incursion, Turkish public outrage, in part fueled by Islamist groups to the right of the Islamic-rooted AKP – namely the Felicity Party (SP) – encouraged Erdogan to ratchet up his rhetoric, leading ultimately to Erdogan’s public denunciation of President Shimon Peres at the World Economic Forum in Davos 18 months ago.
According to Ayhan Kaya, an international relations professor at Bilgi University, the AKP leadership learned “that generating an anti- Israel position pays off very much among the Middle Eastern public as well as among its own electorate in Turkey.” During the Gaza incursion, polls had SP pulling 8 percent of the vote, enough to pose an electoral threat to the AKP before local elections scheduled in March.
The IHH, the Turkish Islamic humanitarian aid organization at the head of the flotilla crisis, is affiliated with the SP. The raid on the Mavi Marmara, which the IHH bought from the Istanbul Municipality at a cut-rate price, rejuvenated support for the party, perhaps again prompting the AKP leadership to harden its rhetoric. Additionally, the AKP is under electoral pressure from other opposition parties, most importantly the secularist-oriented Republican People’s Party (CHP), which has gained in the polls following its election of a new party leader.
A survey conducted by METROPoll on June 3, just four days after the flotilla raid, found that nearly two-thirds of the 1,000 Turks surveyed thought the government response was too weak, a finding of which the AKP is no doubt aware. Winning votes is important for any government, and with the possibility of early elections looming next year as a constitutional reform package waits to be ruled on by the Constitutional Court, it certainly figures into AKP decision-making.
“The real worry for the AKP is that a Felicity Party that is making headway combined with a reemergent CHP could take serious votes away and that is a very real possibility,” said Semih Idiz, who writes a column for the daily Milliyet. According to Idiz, though the SP is not likely to capture the 10 percent of the national vote required for Turkish political parties to enter parliament, the party could take votes away from the AKP at a time when early elections are looming.
ADDITIONALLY, THE government is facing criticism for its policies toward the Kurds following an intensification of attacks by the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), which launched an attack on a Turkish naval base in the southern city of Iskenderun just hours before IDF commandos boarded the Mavi Marmara, prompting AKP and opposition politicians to speculate that the two incidents were connected and that Israel might be cooperating with the PKK.
“Linking Israel with the PKK is an apparent attempt to divert attention away from something the government did that had a domestic impact,” said Idiz. “It is an easy way to take the heat off the government for the Kurdish initiative when it did not go so well.”
Anti-Israel and anti-Semitic rhetoric scores political points, explains Turkey analyst Henri Barkey, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. “Sympathy for the Palestinians runs very deep with Turks and therefore they have been particularly harsh in attacking Israel on Palestine,” said Barkey. “Despite Turkish government claims to the contrary, anti-Semitism runs deep in Turkey.”
Denis Ojalvo, a leader within Turkey’s small Jewish community of approximately 23,000 people, mostly in Istanbul, concurs with Barkey and expressed concern with the government’s rhetoric.
“The AKP from its very inception used anti- Israel rhetoric, [recognizing] that it was good to hound Israel to garner votes in domestic politics,” said Ojalvo. “Then, post-Davos, it decided to make the Palestine-Israel issue the linchpin of its foreign policy. The AKP’s rhetoric is not anti-Semitic because it does not target Turkey’s Jews, but uses Israel as a means to get votes. However, Turkish Jews are the indirect victims because this rhetoric raises anti-Semitism in society.”
Yet the government’s rhetorical and diplomatic maneuverings do not pass without criticism, within and outside its support base. While demanding that the government restore Turkey’s dignity after the flotilla embarrassment, opposition CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu said he has a “more moderate and careful approach,” though he also accused the AKP of “harboring Tel Aviv advocates” in its ranks.
Here, Kilicdaroglu was referring to Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc, who urged caution following the remarks of influential Turkish spiritual leader Fethullah Gulen, who is at the head of Turkey’s largest Islamist movement and is tied to several key figures in the AKP leadership.
In an interview with The Wall Street Journal just days after the imbroglio flooded television screens, Gulen argued the IHH’s failure to secure an agreement with Israel before attempting to land in Gaza was “a sign of defying authority, and will not lead to fruitful matters,” seemingly warning that the AKP leadership should proceed with caution.
The move was interpreted by some in the Turkish press as a call for the AKP to distance itself from the IHH, to forestall empowering Islamist groups to the right of Gulen and the AKP. In his column in Hurriyet Daily News, Mehmet Ali Birand wrote that Gulen appeared to be warning that IHH’s actions “might go as far as cutting off relations between Turkey, the United States and Israel. He draws attention to how dangerous the situation is. It seems as if he says, ‘These guys are about to cause trouble for the country, stop them.’”
According to Idiz, the government is now “reconsidering its position because it has discovered that it is isolating itself,” including endangering relations with the US.
“Turkey’s driving line has been to isolate Israel, but the United States does not want to see Israel isolated,” said Idiz, remarking that the hard-line Erdogan policy has yielded nothing in terms of the demanded international inquiry and apology. “The effect has instead been to bring Israel and the United States closer together.”
Following Davutoglu’s talk of severing ties, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has encouraged a more moderate approach, while President Barack Obama has held a notably upbeat meeting with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. So far, the US has refrained from endorsing UN Secretary-General Ban Kimoon’s proposal of an international inquiry.
“Debate in the AKP on Middle East policy is now more intense than before, and it is hard to say if Erdogan’s is driven more by domestic political concerns or regional ambitions,” said Bulent Aliriza, director of the Turkey Project at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Erdogan’s anti-Israel rhetoric and the tours of Middle Eastern capitals he made while calling for an immediate cease-fire during the Gaza incursion earned him comparisons to Arab nationalist leader Gamal Abdel Nasser. A recent poll found that 43 percent of Palestinians view Turkey to be the most supportive of their cause.
Yet, as Aliriza indicates, the picture may be more complicated when it comes to actually executing Turkey’s Middle East policy, which includes efforts by the Turkish government to expand business in new markets and secure valuable energy deals. “Popularity with ‘the Arab street’ is not the most important factor in enhancing Turkey’s influence in the region, and in fact, it could work the the other way,” said Aliriza. “The Arab governments are not comfortable with the current pro-Palestine rhetoric of Turkey, although they will not say so publicly, because it undercuts them with their populations.”
JUST AS importantly, the Turkish military, headed by the august authority of the Turkish General Staff (TGS), is possibly reluctant to see the country involve itself so heavily in internecine Arab politics, especially at the cost of jeopardizing the alliance with Israel.
The TGS helped fostered rapprochement with Israel when the costs of doing so were significantly lessened by a decline in oil prices, the end of the First Lebanon War, and a welcoming of Egypt back to the Arab League, not to mention disappointment with Arab governments’ unwillingness to recognize the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus and provide financial assistance to Ankara.
In 1996, Israel and Turkey cemented a strategic partnership, signing a series of military cooperation agreements paving the way for joint military training exercises and arms sales between the two countries. Israel began to supply the Turkish military with defense equipment without the conditions imposed by European and American firms during the height of Turkey’s conflict with the PKK.
Still a powerful institution in a state in which the civilian government does not have full control of the military, and standing at the helm of this strategic partnership with Israel from its inception, the TGS weighs in on foreign policy matters. And as Lale Kemal, Ankara bureau representative at the Turkish daily Taraf noted, it rarely sees eye-to-eye with Turkish governments.
According to Kemal, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the TGS does not see eyeto- eye with this government in particular. “There is a rift between the military and the government on how to handle Israel,” said Kemal, noting that the TGS is no doubt uncomfortable with some of the grandiose rhetoric coming from the government. “The military does not want to cancel arm sales with Israel and certainly does not want to see an arms embargo imposed.”
Kemal pointed to the recent publication by the official IDF magazine of a speech made by Chief of General Staff Gen. Ilker Basbug, during an international meeting held by the military in Ankara, as evidence of the rift. The IDF publication was released on the same day Davutoglu was quoted here as issuing the Turkish government’s severing-ties ultimatum. According to Kemal, it is unlikely that the TGS would have allowed the speech to be published if it shared the foreign minister’s stance on Israel.
Israeli arms sales to Turkey include military contracts to secure parts for Turkey’s outdated F-4 and F-5 jets and M60 tanks, which Kemal adds might be all the more a concern for the TGS now that the PKK conflict has intensified.
Another factor, notes Barkey, is the TGS’s unwillingness to let the government become even more popular at a time when civil-military relations are strained, largely the result of ongoing investigations into the organized criminal network known as Ergenekon, thought to have links with the military and be involved in elaborate plots to overthrow Turkey’s popularly-elected government.
“What the military would not like to see is a breaking of relations with Israel, not so much because they like Israel but because they do not want to see the AKP succeed so much,” said Barkey.
In the past, the TGS has used the alliance with Israel to publicly demonstrate its authority over Islamist political actors it considered particularly unsavory, most notably former Welfare Party prime minister Necmettin Erbakan who, unwillingly and much to his political embarrassment, was forced to sign the 1996 military agreement providing for Israel to sell Turkey the F-4 and F-5 parts.
WHILE MINISTER of Industry, Trade and Labor Binyamin Ben-Eliezer’s meeting with Davutoglu earlier this month raised hopes that the two sides might reach some sort of agreement, Davutoglu’s reported ultimatum has dented such optimism.
Incidents involving the Israeli-Palestinian issue have often complicated the Israeli relationship with Turkey over the years – notably including former prime minister Bulent Ecevit’s statement that Israel was committing “genocide” against the Palestinians – but the two sides have hitherto always been able to work through the difficulties, explained Baydar.
“The root sources of distrust should be worked out and the governments should stop seeing each other as extremists and fanatics,” said Baydar.
Yet today neither side seems prepared to budge an inch. Asked about the prospect of mending relations, Kiniklioglu repeated Davutoglu’s ultimatum, saying, “It is really up to Israel to make the necessary move. I do not think that it is realistic that we forget about the deaths of our citizens.”
“Turkey is a democracy and our citizens rightly demand to know what has happened on the Mavi Marmara, who is responsible and who should be penalized,” said Kiniklioglu. “Unfortunately, Turks have passed a threshold vis-à-vis Israel regardless of their political persuasion.”
According to Aliriza, Erdogan is waiting for elections, and the Israeli government – wanting to get rid of Turkey’s current government – is unlikely to apologize lest it enable Erdogan to be seen as the victor in the standoff.
Yet according to Aliriza, Turkish elections will not be about foreign policy, but about bread-and- butter issues more important to the majority of Turks.
“The AKP came to power because of the effects of the 2000-01 economic crisis, and it is economic conditions that will determine whether Erdogan wins again, not foreign policy,” said Aliriza.
Agreeing that one of the governments will most likely have to change for progress to be made, Barkey wonders why the Turkish government is rushing things by threatening to sever diplomatic relations completely rather than gradually scale them down, allowing the AKP to take advantage of each scaledown to bring the Israel issue into the Turkish political spotlight and score political points each time it does. According to Barkey, there are two possible explanations: that the AKP leadership made a mistake, or that Davutoglu’s reported ultimatum was an attempt to influence Netanyahu’s meeting with Obama, in which case it failed.
While there is no certain answer, Davutoglu’s ultimatum certainly raises the possibility that the AKP is prepared to break Ankara’s ties with Jerusalem.
But on this point, Idiz sounded an optimistic note, saying, “Both countries will eventually realize that, no matter how thin the cord tying them together, it is still a strong cord.”