The trouble with Turkey

The trouble with Turkey is that while it is a valuable member of NATO and aspires for EU accession, it has been all too obvious that Turkey’s ruling Islamists concluded already some time ago that their bid to pose as the regional leader of Sunni Muslims could be easily boosted by an openly hostile attitude towards Israel.

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Tensions between Israel and Turkey are on the rise
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Petra Marquardt-Bigman
On 7 September 2011 09:13

When a country that is a NATO member and has aspirations to join the EU pursues policies that justify grave doubts about the supposed “moderation” of its Islamist government, it is inevitable that in the West, pundits and politicians would feel the need to ponder the question: who “lost” Turkey?

Over the past year, this has also been a hotly debated question in Israel since the Jewish state’s reasonably good relations with Turkey came under great strain after nine Turkish activists participating in a “flotilla” intent on breaking Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza were killed in a clash with Israeli forces in May 2010.

Although a subsequent UN investigation confirmed Israel’s stance that the naval blockade of Gaza was legal and that the flotilla activists offered “significant, organized and violent resistance” when their vessel was boarded by Israeli commandos, the Turkish government chose to insist on its previously stated demands. These included not only an Israeli apology and compensation payments to the families of the injured and deceased Turkish activists, but also an end to the naval blockade.  

The fact that Israel had already expressed regret about the loss of life and offered to sponsor a fund for the families of victims did not prevent Turkish officials from announcing a series of hostile measures such as the effective expulsion of senior Israeli diplomats from Turkey, a complete suspension of all defense ties, including military trade, and threats of additional future “sanctions against Israel.”

Based on remarks by Egemen Bagis, Turkey’s minister for European Union accession, some analysts have suggested that the threatened “sanctions” might include the use of Turkish naval patrols to disrupt the implementation of a recently concluded gas-exploration deal between Israel and Cyprus. As noted in a recent report in Hürriyet Daily News, Turkey considers this deal “as an agreement between two hostile countries against Turkey.”

This is only one of many indications that support the conclusion that the sharp deterioration of Turkish-Israeli relations is not just due to the dispute about Israel’s use of force against the Turkish flotilla activists in 2010.

For one, it has been obvious for some time that Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu is far from achieving the policy of “zero problems toward neighbors” that he used to advertise widely.

Instead of blaming the difficult neighborhood for this failure, it may be more useful to consider the problematic implications of Turkey’s “neo-Ottoman” ambitions to become the preeminent regional power.

Particularly with respect to Israel, it has been all too obvious that Turkey’s ruling Islamists concluded already some time ago that their bid to pose as the regional leader of Sunni Muslims could be easily boosted by an openly hostile attitude towards Israel.

This “strategy” certainly worked well when Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan gained enormous popularity after he furiously left a televised debate at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January 2009 where Israel’s President Shimon Peres had defended the recent military campaign against Hamas.

Subsequently, Turkey insisted on excluding Israel from an important air-defense exercise with several NATO countries that was scheduled for October 2009; shortly afterwards, however, Turkey decided to hold military exercises with Syria. Commenting on these decisions, Foreign Minister Davutoglu highlighted Turkish “sensitivity on Gaza, East Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa mosque.”

Additional factors that had a negative impact on prospects for continued military cooperation between Turkey and Israel included the appointment of Hakan Fidanas the new head of Turkey’s national intelligence organization (MIT), essentially because Fidan played a central role in developing Turkish ties with Iran, especially on the nuclear issue.

There can be little doubt that these developments are not in Israel’s interest.

At the same time, Israel has few realistic options to bring about a rapprochement as long as Turkey believes that an escalation of tensions with the Jewish state will benefit its quest to become the region’s leading power.

Revealingly, Turkey’s Prime Minister Erdogan boasted after his recent election victory that “Sarajevo won today as much as Istanbul, Beirut won as much as Izmir, Damascus won as much as Ankara, Ramallah, Nablus, Jenin, the West Bank, Jerusalem won as much as Diyarbakir.”

While Israeli officials have dismissed some of Turkey’s recent threats as posturing, there is concern that Erdogan’s brinkmanship could lead to moves that might provoke a military confrontation with Israel. Though, thankfully, it seems reasonable to assume that Turkey’s membership in NATO as well as its aspirations to join the EU will ultimately impose some restraints on Turkey’s conduct.

At the same time, it is worth keeping in mind that Turkey remains a highly valued NATO member despite its repeated failure to accommodate US and NATO interests.  Similarly, Turkey can apparently always count on ardent supporters who are prepared to ignore voices that describe a “republic of fear” and argue – as former EU Commissioner for External Affairs Chris Patten has done – that Turkey could provide the answer for the “existential question” of Europe’s “moral purpose.”

Indeed, the problem with Turkey is that, as the ostensible "bridge" between East and West, it's anchorage blocks are forced to support a host of conflicting interests.

Petra Marquardt-Bigman is an Israel-based freelance writer and researcher with a Ph.D. in contemporary history. She blogs at the Jerusalem Post

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