Talk tough with Turkey

As Ankara slides towards Islamic authoritarianism, Israel must take measures to remove its former ally’s masks.

Tayyip Erdogan 311 (photo credit: REUTERS/Murad Sezer)
Tayyip Erdogan 311
(photo credit: REUTERS/Murad Sezer)
The Turkish demand for an Israeli apology over last year’s flotilla incident is not reasonable.
Even a UN investigation (the Palmer Committee) dealing with the issue has apparently concluded that Israel’s actions were perfectly legal – much to Turkey’s chagrin. Moreover, the Turks on the ship were provocateurs, members of a terrorist organization, and violently resisted a legal attempt to take over the ship. As a matter of fact, Jerusalem deserves an apology and compensation.
Yet justice is not always triumphant and/or relevant in international relations. Indeed, Defense Minister Ehud Barak is reportedly willing to bow to Turkish demands, not because justice is on the Turkish side, but because he thinks that only an apology can repair Israeli-Turkish relations.
While good relations with Turkey are indeed quite valuable, the deterioration in relations is not due to Israeli actions in the Arab-Israeli arena or elsewhere, but to a major reorientation in Turkish foreign policy under the ruling Islamist AKP party.
The recent electoral victory of the AKP will only hasten the abandonment of the traditional Kemalist foreign policy, with its pro-Western orientation and reluctance to be drawn into Middle East politics. In contrast, AKP-led Turkey is purposefully distancing itself from the West, wants to improve relations with its Muslim neighbors, and entertains ambitions to lead the Muslim world.
Moreover, Ankara has aligned itself with radical Islamist forces in the Middle East, siding with Iran, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Hamas in Gaza, and Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Within this framework, good relations with Israel are a burden.
Indeed, Israel-bashing has become a tool with which to overcome the historic suspicions of Arabs and Shi’ites toward the Sunni Turks. So Turkey’s Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, hardly lets a week pass without disparaging Israel and/or the Jews, which undoubtedly suits the anti-Israeli and anti- Semitic sentiments so prevalent in the Muslim world.
AN UNJUSTIFIED Israeli apology will not repair relations, as Turkey is no longer interested in a strategic partnership.
Moreover, such an apology will only be used to humiliate the Jewish state and strengthen the posturing of the Turkish premier as a champion against Israel. Israel’s reluctance to enter a duel of words with Erdogan is construed as weakness, and only invites additional diatribes.
The new Turkish leadership is taking advantage of the weakness displayed by the Obama administration through rejecting American regional preferences, and in the attempt to weaken its ally Israel. Furthermore, tensions between Jerusalem and Washington lead the Turks to believe they can get away with a strong anti- Israeli posture.
Unfortunately, as long as the AKP stays in power, Israel should shy away from security and intelligence cooperation; the current Turkish government cannot be trusted with Israel’s secrets. After all, they may be transferred to Tehran the next day.
Similarly, Israel should not be fooled by the emerging competition between Iran and Turkey – two historic rivals – as the pro-Iranian Assad regime in Syria is challenged from within by forces (partly Islamist) supported by Turkey. Even if Syria remains a bone of contention between Iran and Turkey, the two countries still have many areas of cooperation, such as opposing Kurdish nationalism, dividing spheres of influence in Iraq, aiding Muslim Brotherhood elements in the Arab world, weakening a regional rival such as Israel, and a preference for an inactive US.
Israel should do more to present its case to the Turkish public. Large swaths of Turkey dislike the Islamist tendencies of its government. The reservoirs of sympathy for Israel among the educated, the business elites and the military should not be underestimated even though they are all without much political influence at the present. Crucially, while infringements on freedom of the press have been spreading, anti-AKP voices are still heard from outside.
Furthermore, Israel should stop trying to avoid exacting a price from a hostile Turkey. Turkey should no longer enjoy the “moderate Islam” label as its policies increasingly deviate from the West on an increasing number of issues. Small Israel can contribute to the removal of the “moderate Islam” mask Turkey is wearing and point out that it has become a Trojan Horse in NATO.
Israel has often sided with Turkish interests in Washington. This must stop.
TURKEY’S DEMOCRATIC credentials need to be scrutinized The direction of Turkish politics is worrisome, as freedom of press is curtailed, as the independence of the judiciary is threatened, and as Erdogan attempts to build a centralized presidential system to suit his ambitions. As a matter of fact, Turkey is moving into greater authoritarianism as it gets closer to the Middle East.
Israel should not allow Erdogan to bully it. Our leverage in Ankara is limited, but we can fight back – and have nothing to gain from an increasingly authoritarian and Islamist Turkey.
The writer is Professor of Political Studies at Bar-Ilan University and director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.