The stalemate in Turkish-Israeli relations

How the rise of Turkey’s JDP party has reshaped Ankara’s foreign policy and its ties to Jerusalem.

Pro-Palestinian activists with Turkish flags 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Pro-Palestinian activists with Turkish flags 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
ANKARA – Last July, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu met with a group of Turkish journalists in an attempt to restore the broken Israeli-Turkish relations in the aftermath of the May 2010 flotilla incident during which nine Turkish citizens died, while dozens were injured as well as several Israeli soldiers. Some analysts in both Israel and the US have emphasized Israel’s growing isolation in the Middle East particularly in the post-Arab Spring period and urged the Israeli government to find an accommodation with Turkey. They suggest that Israel’s declaration of a clear apology to Turkey for the IDF’s killing of those Turkish citizens would be a good start to mend the bilateral relations.
Yet, Israel’s apology is not likely to resolve the crisis between the former allies. And one needs to analyze the deep causes of the stalemate in the Turkish-Israeli relations, namely the Justice and Development Party’s (JDP) Islamist foreign policy toward the Middle East and the fact that the 2003 Iraq war ended the sources of the Turkish-Israeli strategic partnership.
The JDP, which has roots in political Islam, became the party of the government by securing 34.3 percent of the popular vote in the 2002 general elections. The party further increased its vote share to 46.6% in the 2007 general elections, and won the presidency following the elections. The JDP further increased its vote share to 49.8% in the 2011 general elections. The party has successfully mobilized against the secular-democratic state, and has reformulated Turkish foreign policy toward the Middle East according to its Islamist perception of brotherhood among Islamic countries.
In the pre-Arab Spring period, the JDP government formed close political and economic relations with political Islamist regimes such as those in Iran, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Hamas and Hezbollah. The JDP also formed close relations with Syria — Iran’s main ally and until recently a close ally of Hamas. Islamism in Turkish foreign policy clearly manifested itself in the currently strained Turkish-Israeli relations, as well as Turkey’s pro-Hamas stance and its pro-Iranian policy on Iran’s nuclear program.
UNDER THE JDP government, Turkey abandoned its formerly balanced Middle East policy of not involving itself as a party of conflict in regional problems and pursuing a clear stance against terrorist groups. Instead, the country started to follow an Islamist foreign policy, which culminated in Ankara pursuing a common foreign policy with the region’s radical forces and Israel’s competitors — Iran, Syria, Hamas and Hezbollah.
The JDP government, being the defending voice of the region’s radical forces against Israel and the West, aimed at making Turkey a regional leader, while galvanizing electoral support for the party by evoking Islamist sentiments among the conservative/Islamic Turkish electorate.
Another source of contention between Turkey and Israel was the resurgence of the Kurdish separatist PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) terrorist group in Turkey in the aftermath of the Iraq war. One of the major reasons for Turkey’s formation of an alliance with Israel in the 1990s was to counterbalance Syria, Iraq and Iran, which were PKK supporters.
Ankara, by signing a number of military agreements with Israel, purchased advanced military equipment that the West was reluctant to sell due to allegations of human rights violations in Turkey’s war against PKK terrorism. The countries also collaborated on intelligence and counterterrorism. Yet, in the aftermath of the Iraq war, Turkey, along with its former enemies Syria and Iran, focused on preventing the creation of an autonomous or independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq.
The three countries have Kurdish-populated areas in their territories, which might result in irredentist claims of Kurdish separatism. The JDP government formed close political and economic relations with Syria and Iran and, eventually, with Iraq and the Kurdish regional government to counter the threat of PKK terrorism.
THE JDP, particularly by its second term (2007—2011) successfully mobilized against the secular-democratic state by exerting its power in executive, legislative and judiciary branches. Drastic changes in Turkish domestic politics favoring the Islamist movement, while weakening the military’s power, have had a crucial impact on the country’s foreign policy making. The JDP government successfully utilized EU reform packages intended to democratize the country to further strengthen the Islamist movement, while weakening the military’s power in Turkish politics.
Moreover, particularly since 2008, prominent secular JDP critics have been continuously arrested as suspects of the Ergenekon terror organization. The Ergenekon lawsuit is based on an allegation that a number of nationalist-oriented crime bosses, along with intelligence officers, retired generals, military officers, journalists, university presidents, professors, politicians, businessmen, civil society association members and artists tried to initiate a coup against the JDP government by resorting to violence.
Similar to the Ergenekon case, there is also the Sledgehammer (Balyoz) lawsuit, which is based on an allegation that current and retired generals and military officers tried to initiate a violent coup against the JDP government. The Sledgehammer case was later combined with a branch of the Ergenekon lawsuit. The Human Rights Watch, The Washington Post and a number of Turkish professors of computer engineering reported that much of the evidence in both cases looked flimsy and fabricated. However, in September 2012, a Turkish court sentenced over 300 current and retired generals and military officers to prison terms of between 16 and 20 years in the Sledgehammer case.
The JDP government successfully utilized the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer cases to mobilize against the secular military. Moreover, the JDP has dominated Turkish foreign policy making.
The JDP government, while forming close political and economic relations with Israel’s competitors, made the Gaza issue, the Arab- Israeli peace process, and the Iranian nuclear program a top priority of Turkey’s foreign policy agenda. The JDP cadre calculated that if Turkey brought a solution to the Middle East peace process and the Iranian nuclear issue favoring Israel’s competitors, this would increase Turkey’s power and prestige in the Muslim Middle East. For this reason, the JDP has been pursuing a strategy of isolating Israel in the region as a means of putting pressure on it.
THE MAJOR source of contention between Turkey and Israel with respect to the Palestinian problem is that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan does not regard Hamas as a terrorist organization; instead, he calls it a “political party,” which came to power democratically through elections. He also criticizes Israel and the West for not accepting Hamas as a party along with the Palestinian Authority in the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, even if Hamas does not renounce violence and continues not to recognize Israel’s existence.
In August 2008, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who calls for the destruction of Israel and denies the Holocaust, paid his first visit to Turkey after he came to power in 2005. And in November 2008, Turkey and Syria announced that they would send humanitarian assistance to the Gaza Strip, and put pressure on Israel to lift the blockade of Gaza. In order to prevent the smuggling of weapons and fighters to Hamas and other anti-Israel militants, Israel and Egypt imposed a blockade on Gaza in 2007 after Hamas violently seized control.
Israel’s military strike against Gaza, Operation Cast Lead, in the winter of 2009 became a turning point in Turkish-Israeli relations. It is important to note the Turkish- Iranian cooperation in the form of highlevel exchanges during the Gaza war. The JDP government involved Turkish Islamist civil society associations, the Islamist media, and the state-owned TRT-1 (Turkish Radio and Television) television channel as actors in its foreign policy making by cultivating anti-Jewish public opinion in Turkey. Statements of Erdogan, his government’s policies and anti-Semitic slogans during the Islamist mass demonstrations were successful in creating anti-Jewish sentiments among the Turkish public.
At the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos in January 2009, Erdogan further escalated tension between Turkey and Israel. And in October 2009, Turkey excluded Israel from the Anatolian Eagle military exercise, and announced that it would expand the scope of the military exercise with Syria. Shortly after this declaration, Erdogan visited Tehran and called Ahmadinejad “our friend,” while downplaying the Western fears that Iran wants to build an atomic bomb as “gossip.”
Meanwhile, Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon’s undiplomatic attitude toward the Turkish ambassador to Israel further alienated the Turkish public from Israel and only benefited the JDP government, which sought to maintain the tension with Israel.
YET, THE most intense crisis between Turkey and Israel occurred during the flotilla incident in May 2010. The JDP government successfully utilized the Islamist civil society association the Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief, organizer of the six-ship flotilla, and Turkish Islamists as actors in its ambitious Islamist foreign policy goal of ending the Gaza blockade and ending the strategic partnership with Israel by making Turkey a party of conflict with Israel. Prior to this incident, there had never been a violent clash between the two countries.
In the aftermath of the incident, Turkey recalled its ambassador from Israel and demanded the end of the Gaza blockade as a condition for restoring full diplomatic relations with Israel; a public apology and payment of reparations by Israel; and an international investigation into the Israeli flotilla operation. Turkey also declared that it cancelled military exercises with Israel, which were already not in operation since 2009, and closed down its airspace and military airports to Israel. It should be noted that the UN’s Palmer Commission report found that Israel acted within its legal rights in stopping the flotilla. In response to the Turkish demands, Israel agreed to express regret for the flotilla incident and pay reparations, but refused to lift the blockade.
Meanwhile, the JDP government maintained its pro-Iranian stance. In June 2010, Turkey vetoed a fourth round of UN sanctions against Iran. Moreover, following a revision of the National Security Policy Paper in August 2010, Iran, which was listed as a primary external threat to Turkey, is no longer defined as a threat. Even though in September 2011 Turkey agreed to have in its territory a missile shield to defend Europe against a potential Iranian missile attack, around the same time Turkey expelled the Israeli ambassador.
Additionally, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu stated in October 2011 that Turkey had the right to annul the radar system whenever it wanted. He also later declared that Turkey firmly opposed any military strike on Iran.
THE ARAB Spring resulted in a revision of Turkey’s foreign policy toward the region. In the post-Arab Spring era, Sunni Islamism represented mainly by the Muslim Brotherhood has become a popular movement in the Arab world. Even in the most Westernized of all Arab countries like Tunisia and Morocco, Sunni political parties became part of governments by winning parliamentary elections. In Egypt, following the fall of the pro-US Mubarak regime, the Muslim Brotherhood both dominates the presidency and the parliament.
Libya seems to be an exception to this trend as after the fall of the Gaddafi regime, a moderate pro-Western government came to power by winning elections. Yet, given the predominance of tribal identities over a national one in Libya, it remains to be seen for how long the current government will be able to sustain its power. Moreover, a radical Islamist attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi during which the US ambassador and three other American officials died in September, reveals that stability is fragile.
Among many unknowns, the Arab Spring has one clear message for the Middle East: The era of semi-secular states, which were remnants of Arab nationalism, have finally come to an end. And Islamism is now the region’s new political reality.
The Arab Spring resulted in a recent change in Turkish foreign policy as the country started to side with an emerging Sunni axis represented by Gulf states like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, Egypt and Hamas vis-à-vis the Shi’ite axis represented by Iran, Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon.
The Sunni-Shi’ite sectarian divide in the region has visibly resurfaced since the start of the Syrian crisis that ended the Turkish- Syrian axis and damaged the Turkish-Iranian alignment. Presently, Turkey has been collaborating with the US in the latter’s initiative to topple the Assad regime in Syria.
While the US has been providing communications and logistics to the anti-Assad Free Syrian Army (FSA), Turkey, Jordan, Israel and the United Arab Emirates provide intelligence support on the ground. And Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Gulf states provide financial assistance and weapons to the FSA. Since last July, over 100 al-Qaida terrorists from Iraq started to operate in Syria. Salafists also came from the Gulf region to assist the FSA. Given the Brotherhood’s leading role in the anti-Assad Syrian National Congress, the Assad regime’s support for Hamas has come to an end.
HAMAS’S FLEEING from Damascus, the turmoil in Syria, weakening of Iran as a result of both economic sanctions over its nuclear program and the civil war situation in its main ally Syria and a possible weakening of Hezbollah in Lebanon in the near future seem to be advantageous for Israel in the short-run. And some analysts expect a renewal of Turkish-Israeli relations, given Turkey’s deteriorating relations with the Assad regime in Syria and its ally Iran. Yet, this is not likely to happen.
First, the JDP government is still pursuing a pro-Hamas stance. And the fact that the Assad regime no longer supports Hamas may not refer to the latter’s weakening. Hamas may choose Sunni Islamist Egypt or Turkey as its new foreign supporter. Indeed, the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) announced in September 2011 that Hamas established a command post in Turkey that it used for recruiting new operatives and overseeing some of its operations in the Middle East.
Second, given the strength of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, it is very likely that in the post-Assad period, Hamas will come back to Syria, with which Turkey will have close relations. Hamas, which already controls Gaza, maintains good relations with the Brotherhood in Egypt. Israel’s isolation of Hamas by imposing a blockade over Gaza seems to be weakened as a result of the Brotherhood’s opening of the Rafah crossing between Egypt and Gaza after the Mubarak regime’s fall.
Third, even though the Syrian crisis resulted in a stalemate in Turkish-Iranian relations, Turkey under the JDP government maintains its pro-Iranian policy on Iran’s nuclear program. Erdogan, during his visit to Tehran in March 2012, reiterated his support for Iran’s nuclear program. Areas of cooperation between the two neighbors still exist, such as weakening Israel in the region and opposing Kurdish separatism.
In the Kurdish-populated eastern and southeastern Anatolia, the JDP receives the highest votes when compared to the pro- Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party. Increased activity of the Turkish Hezbollah under the JDP rule in this region and the release of all Hezbollah members from prisons starting by January 2011 should be emphasized in order to project Turkey’s Kurdish problem for the coming future.
Finally, even though in the post-Arab Spring period the Sunni-Shi’ite divide has resurfaced in the Middle East, Egypt under the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood formed close relations with Iran. For example, in April 2011, Iran appointed its first ambassador to Egypt in over 30 years. Moreover, the Brotherhood allowed the passage of Iranian warships through the Suez Canal. Thus, even after the eventual fall of the Assad regime in Syria, Iran may still reformulate its foreign policy by opting for improving its relations with Sunnis like the Brotherhood by defining Israel and the West as the common enemy of the Muslim Middle East. And Turkey may maintain its policy of playing the Israeli card in order to increase its influence in the region.
THE END of the Turkish-Syrian alliance and the decline in Turkish-Iranian relations as a result of the current dominance of Sunni Islamism in the JDP government’s foreign policy seems to have weakened Turkey’s ability to combat PKK terrorism. The rise of PKK terrorist attacks almost on a daily basis since July 2012 created a challenge for the JDP government. An August public poll conducted by the Istanbul-based Andy-Ar research firm showed a decline in the JDP’s votes to 46.7%. Yet, the JDP can successfully utilize the PKK problem to further increase anti-Israel public opinion in Turkey. Indeed, the aforementioned National Security Policy Paper, while no longer defining Islamist reactionism (fundamentalism) as a crucial domestic threat to the secular-democratic state, defined PKK terrorism as the foremost domestic threat to the Turkish state.
Moreover, during the National Security Council meeting in February 2011, the National Intelligence Organization presented an intelligence report suggesting that the PKK was forging new ties with Israel. The report also asserted that Mossad officials were training PKK terrorists in northern Iraq. The JDP’s consolidation of its power over the current military high command, which seems to support the government’s foreign policy actions, should be emphasized.
MENDING ITS relations with Turkey is a difficult task for Israel. The German Marshall Fund’s 2012 Transatlantic Trends revealed that only 9% of Turks expressed a favorable opinion of Israel. Israel’s public apology to Turkey is not likely to resolve the crisis between the former allies. In order to mend its relations with Ankara, Israel needs to pursue a policy that will appeal to the JDP government’s Islamist sensitivities, particularly toward the Palestinian problem, and also formulate a clear policy on the Kurdish issue by assuring Turkey that, despite the allegations, it does not support Kurdish separatism in the region.
The writer is an assistant professor at Baskent University in Ankara in the Political Science and International Relations Department. She received her Ph.D. in Political Science from Brandeis University, where she taught courses on Political Islam and Civil Society in the Middle East as a visiting assistant professor. She is the author of The Mobilization of Political Islam in Turkey.