Turkey: The longer view

The Turkish premier's outbursts are attributable to his strong sense of personal betrayal by Ehud Olmert.

Erdogan 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Erdogan 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
In considering the Israel-Turkey relationship, Israelis have reason to feel let down by the behavior of the Turkish government and people. From the start of Operation Cast Lead on December 27, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been on a diplomatic rampage. His words - coupled with the unbalanced media coverage prevalent worldwide - incited the Turkish masses into an anti-Israel, anti-Jewish frenzy. Turkish leaders declared that Israel was committing atrocities against Gaza and would be punished by Allah. Israel's Ankara embassy has been in a virtual security lock-down. Turkish basketball fans chanted "Death to the Jews" during a recent match against Bnei Hasharon. Signs in Anatolia declare: "No Armenians or Jews. Dogs OK." In the latest outrage, Erdogan stormed off the stage in Davos after shouting, "You are killing people" at President Shimon Peres; he was welcomed home as "The Conqueror of Davos." No wonder Israeli tourists - over 500,000 in 2008 - are staying away. The 25,000-member Turkish Jewish community doesn't have that luxury. Anti-Jewish prejudice is endemic. The Izmir synagogue has been vandalized; anti-Jewish posters in Istanbul urge patrons to boycott Jewish shops. Jewish schoolchildren felt compelled to stand during a nationwide moment of silence for the Palestinian dead in Gaza. SO Israelis have good reason to think Turkey has chosen Hamas over Israel, and Iran over the West. But it may not be quite that simple. Turkey, a nation of 71 million people, a quarter under age 25, is too multifaceted to pigeonhole. While its masses are unsophisticated and easily manipulated by demagoguery, key segments among the elite oppose Erdogan's policies. In the old days the army might have intervened; the generals saw themselves as Turkey's "constitution," charged with defending Kemal Attaturk's legacy in the face of tyranny, governmental incompetence or threats to civil liberties. Paradoxically, as Turkey has moved closer to EU membership - a prospect now on hold - the army's overt role as the system's final arbiter has diminished. Nowadays the army has pro-Iranian elements, and the Islamist government is suspected of trying to discredit pro-Western generals. The state of play is truly Byzantine. Erdogan's tirades against Israel have not been uniformly popular, notably in the Western-oriented press. Many in the elite care deeply about Turkey's relationship with Israel. They argue that only 7 percent of Turks are hardcore extremists, but the complicated political system gives them disproportionate influence. They claim the number of anti-Israel demonstrators has been exaggerated and is small in ratio to the population. They point, further, to $6 billion a year in bilateral trade (factoring in military sales); Turkey will take delivery of Israeli-manufactured armed drones next month. The IAF has used Turkish airspace to train, according to foreign press reports. As for Iran, our friends in the elite explain that Persians and Turks have a long history of animosity, but Turkey needs to import oil and gas from its neighbor. Beyond all this, the Turkish premier's outbursts are attributable, those friends emphasize, to his strong sense of personal betrayal by Ehud Olmert. During the prime minister's farewell visit to his Turkish counterpart, Erdogan invested his energies in ironing out a deal for direct talks between Israel and Syria. With Olmert in an adjacent room, he spent hours on the phone with Bashar Assad teasing out a statement that would have led to face-to-face talks. We don't know what price Israel would have been expected to pay for such contact. Nevertheless, before departing for Jerusalem on the eve of the war, Olmert told Erdogan to keep at it. So when Israel launched its operation mere hours after Olmert's departure, Erdogan was accused by members of his Islamist coalition of "conspiring with the Zionists to betray the Palestinians." If he knew the Gaza operation was imminent, the pro-Israel Turks say, Olmert should have stayed away. With critically important regional elections set for March 29, Erdogan switched tracks - from being tirelessly helpful on Syria to verbally bludgeoning Israel. CAN the relationship survive Erdogan's term, which expires in 2011? Ankara may well have forfeited its role as honest broker for a long time to come. Still, those who care about the bond between Turkey and Israel want to see relations back on an even keel.