Analysis: Turkey re-enters orbit of the West

Ankara takes small step toward Jerusalem, but no giant leap.

Davutoglu, Clinton and Ashton 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Davutoglu, Clinton and Ashton 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
WASHINGTON – Turkey took a small step toward Israel in December when it dropped its opposition to Israeli participation as a partner nation in certain NATO activities planned for 2013.
Israel interpreted the move as an unspoken quid pro quo, coming as it did at the same time Turkey, a NATO member state, was asking the military alliance to station Patriot missile batteries along its border to defend it against Syrian violence.
NATO, a consensus-based organization, has been frustrated with Turkish obstruction of Israeli participation since relations between the two Mediterranean countries broke down in 2010 and has long been urging them to reconcile.
Neither Turkey nor NATO has confirmed that Ankara’s easing of its objection to Israel’s inclusion in 2013 NATO activities – which consist of conferences, courses and seminars – was a condition for approval of the Patriot missile deployment.
But whether that easing was part of a quid pro quo or not, it is consistent with other recent overtures toward Israel. These overtures, coupled with Turkey’s request for NATO military assistance – complete with the stationing of Western forces on Turkish soil to operate the Patriot batteries – indicate Ankara is moving back toward the Western orbit after years of distancing itself.
Since the Islamist AKP came to power a decade ago, Turkey has pursued a policy of “zero problems with neighbors” that precipitated a Turkish reorientation toward the East, where it improved its relationships with Syria, Kurdistan and other former adversaries as part of a bid to become a regional powerbroker and even a hegemon. It was under this banner that the country facilitated indirect negotiations between Syria and Israel in 2008.
But as Turkey nurtured ties with other Islamist parties such as Hamas in Gaza, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and even the Iranian leadership, it began to disassociate itself from Israel.
Israeli-Turkish ties seriously deteriorated when an Israeli strike on Gaza to eliminate rocket fire on the South ended the negotiations with Syria, provoking Turkish ire, and then ruptured in 2010 when a Turkish-flagged ship tried to break the Gaza blockade and Israeli commandoes used force to stop it, resulting in the death of nine Turkish citizens.
“If you want to be the leader of the Arab and Muslim world, good relations with Israel is not necessarily the ticket you want to run on,” points out Dan Arbell, who served on Israel’s team during negotiations with Syria and is now a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
Turkey’s strategic approach to the region, however, suffered a major blow amidst the upheaval of the Arab Spring.
Syria returned to its historic antagonism, even letting a few stray shells ostensibly aimed at opposition fighters land in Turkish territory this fall, and Egypt’s emboldened Muslim Brotherhood, rather than the AKP, was the party to lead November’s cease-fire talks between Israel and Hamas.
Around that time, reports emerged of two rare rounds of conversations between Israeli and Turkish officials, which dealt with Gaza but also touched on the relationship between the two nations.
Arbell says the conversations stemmed from an emerging understanding on the part of Turkey that shutting out Israel was damaging its regional role.
“There are many similar interests and a similar view about what should be done in Syria,” he says, mentioning a shared aversion to regional instability and massive numbers of refugees flowing over the Syrian border. “A lack of dialogue between Turkey and Israel was seen as hurting those interests.”
When Syrian mortars started landing in Turkey, the government saw that its own security in the region could be at stake.
Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says Turkey realized “it cannot be alone in this neighborhood and needs friends and allies.”
And so, he says, “NATO has come forth to the rescue as Turkey’s indispensable ally.”
The Turkish embrace of NATO, which Cagaptay described as stronger than at any point in the last 10 years, has been at the popular as well as governmental level.
Despite the presence of American and European troops, Cagaptay notes, “Not a person has made an objection.”
Still, these changes don’t mean that Turkey has reverted to its pre-AKP posture; ties with Israel remain deeply strained and the move toward the West hasn’t been accompanied by a rejection of the East.
Israeli officials say even at NATO the new Turkish stance “is not a total solution,” as Ankara continues to oppose upgrades in Israel’s status and other more substantial actions within the alliance.
Turkish diplomatic sources, meanwhile, say that, “Turkey’s position did not change on this matter.”
Arbell characterizes the shift as a “refocus or a calibration,” since Turkey feels it has rotated its orientation too much and wants to put itself firmly in the camps of both the East and the West, but not sacrifice the former for the latter.
“It puts Turkey more in the framework of a Western democratic context, rather than that of leaders such as [Syrian President Bashar] Assad or [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad or others, so perhaps it makes it easier to deal with Turkey,” Arbell says. “The dialogue has broadened and deepened, but we’re not there yet.”