Israel and Turkey: What went wrong

by Alon Ben-Meir Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies. Email: 21.06.2010

The now infamous Flotilla incident which resulted in the death of nine Turks has sparked a whirlwind of accusations and provocations between Israel and Turkey that has put the relationship at an all time low. The timing could not have been worse, as Israel and Turkey have struggled to find common ground in their strained relations since the wake of the Gaza war. Yet the political ramifications between both allies are much deeper than the problem of Israel's blockade or Turkey's attempts to break it. Both powers have been intransigent and uncompromising on their views of how to deal with conflict-management, and the latest uproar has highlighted an all around inability to compromise or even see the greater forest through the trees. If there is any prospect of mending their relations, as both sides profess they want, understanding first what went wrong is not only necessary but might help prevent the current conflict from becoming a full fledged crisis. There are a few factors that have contributed to both Turkey and Israel's divergent view of their countries' regional roles that highlight the nature of the disaccord.

One of the first factors behind Turkey's boisterous behavior has to do with its rising position in the global arena in the post-9/11 world. Turkey has benefitted greatly from its status as a member of NATO and the Global 20 largest economies, as well as its customs trade deal with the EU that makes Turkey a major exporting power not dependent on the US market. Add to this Turkey's location, as a border country to the EU, Iraq and Iran, its status as the only other major democracy in the region besides Israel, and its military prowess, and the fact remains that Turkey sees itself in a position to exert a substantial amount of influence in the region. By refusing Turkish airspace to the American's before the Iraq war and very publicly condemning Israel's incursion into Gaza, the voice of the ruling AKP government has also resonated well in the Arab and Turkish street, a factor which plays into a new brand of Turkish populism. The ability to serve as a stabilizing force between Israel and the Arab states, between Iran and its adversaries, and between East and West puts Turkey in a unique position no doubt, but only as it remains in the center of these many poles. But in the wake of the recent events, starting with the Flotilla incident and culminating with Turkey's split from the UN Security Council on sanctions for Iran, it seems Turkey has not only overestimated its power in the region but gambled on some of its most critical relationships.

One factor that has raised concerns about Turkey's role as a mediator is a view that it is trading its impartiality for good favor with its Eastern neighbors. The "zero problems with neighbors" strategy heralded by Foreign Minister Davutoglu sent a message to the world that Turkey was interested in becoming an honest broker and ally to all parties in the region. In theory, the strategy is an admirable one, yet its credibility lies in Turkey's ability to balance its relationships with all parties in practice, without pandering to any one side. Yet since the 2008 Israeli incursion into Gaza, the Erdogan government has consistently used public occasions to rabble rouse and condemn Israeli policies without making much effort to empathize with its Jewish ally or condemn on equal grounds its Arab and Muslim neighbors. The fact is that while improving ties with Syria, Iran, Lebanon, the Palestinians, Iraq and many other Arab states is consistent with Turkey's desire for Middle East stability and to exert regional leadership, undermining its relations with Israel raises serious questions not only about the doctrine of "zero problems with neighbors" but Turkey's ability to be an honest broker. Turkey's leadership in the region will depend entirely on its ability to maintain strong relationships with all parties to the conflict, what it has failed to realize is that as soon as it takes sides it forfeits any potential as a mediator.

Turkey has every right to oppose Israel's blockade of Gaza, to promote a nuclear-free Middle East, or to support bringing Hamas and Hezbollah into the political reconciliation process. But doing so in fiery speeches and PR stints while never acknowledging publicly Israel's security concerns, Iran's nuclear intransigence, or the threats coming from Hamas or Hezbollah have shown a new style of political pandering that the AK Party has adopted in the lead up to elections. Although Mr. Erdogan felt deceived by Israel's former Prime Minister Olmert for not informing him of the pending assault on Gaza, his repeated verbal assaults against Israel without as much as mentioning the 6,000 rockets fired over a period of five years by Hamas gave the Israelis a serious pause as to Turkey's ultimate intentions. Moreover, by singling out Israel as the greatest threat to Middle East peace while standing next to President Sarkozy in Paris, Mr. Erdogan has further invoked a most troubling question about Turkey's desire to restore friendly relations.

Many Israelis have expressed dismay as to how such a strong alliance with Turkey extended over a few decades could come to such an abrupt halt. Here too thereare a number of facts that explain the reasons behind what is happening. It is important to note that however important the strategic alliance between the two countries has been over the years, it did not strike deep roots among the Israeli and the Turkish public. Although hundreds of thousands of Israelis visit Turkey each year, the people-to-people interaction is quite limited. And on an economic level Israel has not been as open to Turkish technology and business deals as would be needed to foster stronger financial ties between businesses and corporations. Thus the relationship has been largely limited to the military realm, which has not been very public at that.

Israel has also failed to live up to the responsibility that goes with a strategic alliance. The Israeli-Turkish strategic alliance covers by its very nature the entire Middle East. As such it is not enough to cooperate on military level without a genuine understanding of either side's regional strategy. Israel never reached out to Turkey in a comprehensive way on Iran, not in just intelligence sharing but in taking into account that Turkey shares a border with Iran and has a vested interest in engagement rather than confrontation with its Iranian ally. Israel also allowed Turkey to invest serious political capital into mediating a peace agreement with Syria before failing to inform Turkey about its incursion into Gaza just as a deal was meant to be signed. Israel has acted as if it is accountable to no one and independent of everyone, which has resulted in its isolation, especially with the Turks who have felt that their peacemaking efforts were rebuked without fair consideration. Turkey feels it has major stakes in all of these issues and it is loath to merely accept Israeli de-facto policies that run contrary to Turkish national interests. From the Turks perspective, a strategic alliance is meaningful only when there is full and open cooperation between the parties.

Finally, Israel has invested little in public relations to inform the Turkish public about its plight with Hamas, Hezbollah and other extremist groups bent on its destruction. Israel, who at one point valued its Turkish relations to be second only to the United States, has not made the effort in Turkey to provide the public with pertinent information or an alternative narrative to what is peddled in the news. Public disgraces like Danny Ayalon's humiliation of the Turkish ambassador have also contributed to an unsavory few of Israel in the Turkish media. But Israel's public relations failure transcends the Palestinian problem; it is the image of intransigence and bullying that the Israeli government portrays which has put Israel on the defensive especially since the advent of the Netanyahu-Lieberman government.

Unfortunately, with both sides there seems to be more smoke and mirrors surrounding gaffe after gaffe than constructive engagement. Mr. Erdogan and Netanyahu do not see eye to eye, but regardless of their discord the fundamentals of the Turkish-Israeli strategic alliance remain solid and central to regional stability and peace. If Israel wants to be accepted as an ally in the region in pursuit of peace, it will need to work with Turkey and listen to its legitimate grievances. It should not have taken the flotilla uproar to force Israel to lift its blockade of Gaza. And just the same, for Turkey to maintain its unique role and position of power as an ally to all sides, it cannot act as if Israel is dispensable. To that end, both nations need to take a step back and commit immediately to a cooling-off period to allow for the resumption of constructive dialogue to mitigate some of thorny issues that separate them. Otherwise, it will become a zero-sum game in which case both countries will end up on the losing side.

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