When friends fall out

At odds with Israel, is Turkey turning its back on the West?

Isreal, Turkey, Ataturk, Erdogan

Umit Bektas/Reuters

Modern Turkey was born out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, which was defeated during the First World War and then dismembered. Turkish nationalists, led by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, rebelled, forcing the withdrawal of the occupying Allied armies, and establishing the Republic of Turkey in 1923. Immediately, Ataturk sought to erase Turkey’s religious and imperial heritage and make it a secular republic. He adopted European laws and jurisprudence, he expanded the rights of women, and he reformed the education system. He shut down religious orders and scrapped Islamic courts. It was a radical transformation, but this new secularism became the basis of modern Turkish identity.

For decades, the Turkish armed forces were the guardians of this secularism, and functioned as a powerful check on Turkey’s political institutions. Three times they deposed elected governments, not to mention executing a prime minister, Adnan Menderes, in 1961. Their power began slipping away in 2002 with the election of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has Islamist roots. But it wasn’t until this February that the extent of the military’s new impotence was revealed. Dozens of senior military officers have been arrested over allegations that they plotted a coup against the AKP in 2003. The arrests have hamstrung the army. For arguably the first time in its history, Turkey’s elected government is in undisputed control of the country.

The apparent triumph of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AKP party over the army is also a victory for the rule of law. Military coups have no place in functioning democracies. But the crippling of what was once Turkey’s strongest secular institution raises questions about its future. What sort of country will Turkey become? Will it hold on to its republican identity with a strict separation between mosque and state? Or will the influence of political Islam grow and ultimately change what until now has been Turkey’s political foundation?

The answers to these questions have enormous implications for Turkey’s relations with its partners in the NATO military alliance, and also with the European Union—which it still hopes to join, despite unwavering opposition to membership from Germany. But nowhere is unease about Turkey’s future direction more pronounced than in one of its oldest and once strongest allies, Israel.
Turks and Jews share a long history. During the Inquisitions, thousands of Jews were driven from Spain and Portugal and found refuge in Ottoman cities. The Ottoman sultan reportedly mocked Spain’s King Ferdinand because he had, by expelling the Jews, made “his land poor and ours rich.” During the Second World War, Turkish diplomats saved hundreds of European Jews from extermination in the Holocaust. And Turkey was the first Muslim majority state to recognize Israel.

There were also sound strategic reasons for the modern state-to-state partnership. “Turkey and Israel are both outsiders in a region that is dominated by Arabs,” a former American diplomat with experience in the region said in an interview with Maclean’s. “So they found reasons of mutual interest to have relations.”

From Turkey’s perspective, good relations with Israel are proof of its Western orientation, and solidify ties to the United States. For Israel, Turkey is a friend in a region where it has few. As a powerful Muslim country, it also has the potential to connect Israel to the rest of the Muslim world. Efraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, describes Turkey as an “important buffer between the barbarians in the East, and Europe and the West.”

According to Barcin Yinanc, an associate editor at the Hurriyet Daily News in Turkey, ties linking her country with Israel are cultural as well as strategic. “The two countries have endorsed the same way of living in a region which is away from democratic reflexes, liberal market economies, and tolerance,” she told Maclean’s. “They enjoy the same culture of democracy and Western values. They see eye to eye on many things in a region that is defined by autocracy and kingdoms.”

But regardless of what once bound Israel and Turkey together—shared values or coldly calculated geopolitics—these ties are fraying. “Of late there is a shadow over the relationship,” Mark Regev, spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said in an interview with Maclean’s.

Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan was not nearly so diplomatic. In January, he told the Euronews channel that Israel “should give some thought to what it would be like to lose a friend like Turkey in the future.” At an Arab League summit in March, he described Israel’s policy of considering all of Jerusalem its undivided capital as “madness.”

Erdogan’s comments followed a year of acrimony that began with Israel’s incursion into the Gaza Strip in December 2008, which killed more than 1,000 Palestinians. The following month, during a debate with Israeli President Shimon Peres at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Erdogan said of Israel: “When it is time to kill, you know how to kill well.” Erdogan was particularly angry because Turkey had been hosting informal peace talks between Israel and Syria immediately before the Israeli attack and was given no advance warning that it was coming.

Relations took another downturn this January, when Israel’s deputy foreign minister Danny Ayalon summoned the Turkish ambassador to Israel, Ahmet Oguz Celikkol, and scolded him about a Turkish television show that depicted Israeli agents kidnapping children. He instructed camera crews not to film them shaking hands and to show the Turkish ambassador sitting on a lower couch with only an Israeli flag present.

It was a foolish stunt, and it raised tempers in Ankara. But Ayalon was forced to apologize for it, and alliances are not forged or broken by diplomatic snubs—nor even by more overt hostility such as was on display in Davos.

What most threatens the Israel-Turkey alliance, as least in the minds of some Israelis, is the concern that the current chill is not the result of the Gaza invasion or of anti-Semitic television shows in Turkey. Instead, they fear that a more fundamental shift has taken place, and that Turkey is sliding away, not only from Israel, but from the Western democratic world. “This is about how Turkey sees herself,” said an Israeli government official who did not want to be named. “In the past, Turkey saw herself very much as a country with a modernist outlook, with a democratic outlook, and saw its fate tied up with the democratic world, with the West. Is it possible that we’re seeing a fundamental change in Turkey’s own orientation and that their attitude toward Israel is unfortunately just a manifestation of that change? That would be our concern—that it’s not just about Israel.”

This official cautioned, “no one in Israel has sold Turkey out,” meaning the Israeli government hopes the alliance could be repaired. But Efraim Inbar, the Bar-Ilan University professor, isn’t sure this is possible. “There is an Islamic colouring to their policies,” he said. “I’m afraid they’ve crossed the Rubicon.”

Inbar, and others who fear Turkey is turning its back on the West, point to Turkey’s improved relations with Iran and Syria, and its hosting of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who has been indicted by the International Criminal Court on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Turkey is also frustrating American efforts to gather support for tougher international sanctions against Iran. “We have specifically stated that the questions can be resolved through diplomacy and diplomacy only,” Erdogan said at a press conference after discussing the issue with President Barack Obama in December.

Yinanc, the Turkish journalist, says this fear also exists among some secular Turks. But while she notes that Turkey’s ties to anti-Western countries in the region have strengthened since the AKP’s election, she doesn’t think the country has fundamentally changed its political orientation.

“When you have the geographic location of Turkey, it is only natural that Turkey has good relations with its neighbours who happen to be in the East,” she said. “It’s only natural that Turkey has good relations with Iran. It’s only natural that Turkey has good relations with Syria and Russia. This doesn’t mean that Turkey is no longer part of the West. It is and will always remain so. But it is only natural for Turkey to expand its relations.”

As Israel’s relations with its primary ally, the United States, become frayed, its ties to other allies in the region assume greater importance. Yet Turkey and Israel are unlikely to repair their fraying bonds soon. Factions in both countries that value the alliance are marginalized. Turkey’s military has been weakened, and the secular Republican People’s Party got trounced in the last election. While some senior Israeli politicians, such as Defence Minister Ehud Barak, value strong ties with Turkey, those in the Foreign Ministry, led by Avigdor Lieberman, do not.

Ofra Bengio, a professor at Tel Aviv University and the author of a book on relations between Turkey and Israel, is pessimistic about the immediate future. But she thinks ties between the two countries are too important to be allowed to completely disintegrate. “We need Turkey in order for us to open up to the Muslim world,” she said. “The Arabs are not going to help us. Turkey helped us in the past and can help us again. We cannot live alone in this region. We need to open up as much as possible.”

Much of the West looks to Turkey for similar reasons. “Turkey is bound to Europe by more than bridges over the Bosphorus,” Obama said when he addressed the Turkish parliament in April. During that same visit, Obama visited Ataturk’s tomb in Ankara, the Turkish capital. He described Turkey’s secular democracy as Ataturk’s greatest legacy.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made a similar visit to Turkey less than a year earlier. It was to be held in Ankara. But then Ahmadinejad made it clear he would not visit Ataturk’s tomb. Under a different Turkish government, this might have been a major diplomatic incident. Ahmadinejad, however, was accommodated. The visit was rescheduled to take place in Istanbul.

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