Turkey and Israel: ends and beginnings

The new chill between once close middle-eastern neighbours reflects both Ankara’s desire to chart a new course and structural changes in the region’s geopolitics. The outcome of both shifts remains open, says Kerem Oktem.

(This article was first published on 10 December 2009)

Kerem Oktem
3 June 2010

The states of Turkey and Israel have a lot in common, notwithstanding their many differences - in size, history, political background, social character, and religious composition:

  • they were founded and built by old-style ethno-nationalists - Zionists in Palestine, Kemalists in Anatolia - inspired by a desire to create homogeneous nation-states
  • they are the only two democracies - incomplete and contested, yet lively - in a region of authoritarian regimes and brutal dictatorships

  • they have the two strongest armies in the middle east and host the region’s largest non-oil economies

  • they have been staunch military allies whose foreign policies were until recently guided by a securitised perception of their neighbourhood; a culture of power-politics; and a degree of discomfort with their Arab neighbours

  • they share a sense of isolation and fear, which permeates their domestic and international politics.

These structural overlaps underpin the good relations that Turkey and Israel have enjoyed, which however really took off only after the Israeli-Palestinian peace-process reached a new point with the Oslo accords of 1993. In the ensuing period a common strategic culture that perceived its immediate Arab surroundings in terms of security threats helped to create a sense of shared enemies. This was especially true of the two countries’ military elites, and arms-deals between the Israeli and the Turkish military underlined the strategic (and the skewed) dimension of this partnership.

A whiff of cynicism also blew through Turkey’s successful efforts to enlist parts of pro-Israel opinion in the United States to support - at least by non-involvement on the other side - its campaign to thwart recognition by the US congress of the Armenian genocide.

The lead actors of this strategic partnership were politicians, generals, arms- dealers and lobbyists. Theirs was a marriage of convenience - based on perceptions of shared threats and risks, secret politics and big money. It is now - if the growing number of enraged columns in the Jerusalem Post and the alarmist coverage of Turkey’s perceived “drift to the east” in current-affairs journals is an accurate guide - a marriage in tatters. The partners may be still - just - speaking, but the romance is over. What happened?

The screaming-match

A decisive signal of the emerging split came at the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos in January 2009, which coincided with the end of Israel’s three-week military assault on Gaza. Turkey’s prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan used the occasion of a scheduled conversation with Israel’s president, Shimon Peres, to accuse Israel of “barbaric attacks” and responsibility for “crimes against humanity”.

This spectacular diplomatic moment itself followed quieter indications over previous years of a Turkish policy-shift. They include the establishment of contacts between Erdogan’s ruling Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi (AKP) and the Palestinian movement Hamas, mainly through Hamas’s Syrian-based leader Khaled Mashal (who visited Ankara in February 2006). Turkey has also been rapidly improving its relations with another Israel’s adversary, Syria; this process resulted in the scrapping of the visa regime between the two countries in October 2009, an act of potent symbolism.

But it was the Erdogan-Peres spat that brought the new coolness into the open. It was followed by Turkey’s “disinvitation” to Israel from an annual military joint-exerciseon the grounds that some Israeli fighter-jets involved might have been used during the Gaza assault; and by the aggravating broadcast by Turkey’s state broadcaster (TRT) of a soap-opera about the war - Ayrilik (Separation) - whose crude portrayal of Israeli soldiers left a nasty anti-semitic aftertaste.

It’s not you, it’s me

What lies behind the latest Turkish “refusal”? The United States-based Turkish analyst Soner Cagaptay poses the issue in terms of whether Turkey is “leaving the west” and turning its face to international pariahs such as Iran, Syria and Hamas (see “Is Turkey Leaving the West?”, Foreign Affairs, October 2009). He is dismayed about (for example) Turkey’s contacts with Hamas and the turn from the pro-western secular Egypt to anti-western regimes like Syria.

This is overstated. Hamas is, after all, a key player shaping the future of Palestine, and talking to it is no different in principle from (say) the United States cooperating with former Sunni insurgents in Iraq; and any regime critic, civil-society activist or gay man or woman in (say) Egypt or Saudi Arabia might question whether their experience of state repression, police brutality, arbitrary rule and political disenfranchisement is any different in principle from those in countries not allied to the “west”. Turkey’s calculations of its interests may be shifting, but it is hard to see a change of principle here.

But there is a fatal attraction in seeing Turkey’s move as part of a definite “eastern turn” - even part of a sinister plan to derail the Barack Obama administration’s cautious revision of its own middle-eastern policy, by outflanking its efforts to engage (if somewhat erratically and feebly so far) more proactively with Israel and more realistically with Syria and Iran.

Some, especially in Europe, would even like this to happen. Nicolas Sarkozy, France’s president, is adamant that Turkey should never become a full European Union member and instead should act as a regional power in its own right; Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, insists that a nondescript “special partnership” is all that Turkey can aspire to; and the appointment of the categorically anti-Turkish former Belgian prime minister Herman von Rompuy as the EU’s first president will do nothing to stem the growing alienation from Europe among Turkish elites.

Indeed, a spreading Euroscepticism - and the realisation that Turkey’s long- nourished dreams of a European future might remain only these - have fostered the country’s “rediscovery” of its eastern neighbours. But in any case, if the public mood has cooled towards the European Union, to understand the current reorientation of Turkey’s foreign policy requires moving beyond binaries (east vs west, Europe vs Asia) and seeing the change in the context of the country’s geographic, historical and political complexities.

For this reorientation also reflects larger transformations (regional and domestic) which have had the effect of diminishing Israel’s relative importance to Turkey. The Turkish government’s intensifying engagement with the middle east and the Caucasus, for example, has undermined the foundations of the relationship; Turkey’s growing economic power and its reshuffle of political institutions have further limited its focus on Israel; and the imperatives of political Islam - always present if often muted in the AKP’s political DNA - have become more pronounced.

An outgrowing

Barack Obama has not yet made a big departure from the middle-eastern policy of George W Bush and many other of his predecessors (especially its pro-Israel bias), and he may never do so. Yet his administration has reframed its terms of engagement in the area: instead of confrontation with Russia, Iran and Syria, and reckless support for mavericks like Georgia’s Mikheil Sakaashvili, the United States has chosen to return to public diplomacy and a more calibrated interaction.            

The Turkish government’s own new approach is in many ways a regional variant of this new US foreign policy. The emerging implicit consensus between the US, Russia and the European Union over ensuring safe energy-corridors for oil and gas from the Caucasus to Europe - the Nabucco, and Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipelines - has been an important part of both processes; it has also worked in favour of the cautious rapprochement between Turkey and Armenia.

Many analysts, especially in the Armenian diaspora, have criticised the protocols signed in October 2009 by the respective foreign ministers, Ahmet Davutoglu (Turkey) and Edward Nalbandian (Armenia). They argue in particular that the proposed joint history commission would result in compromising the aim of clear ackowledgment of the Armenian genocide. Whether that is true, the rapprochement is likely to remove the “history war” from the theatre of US congressional politics (meaning less chance of legislators formally recognising 24 April as a day of genocide). In this circumstance, Turkey is more confident about revising its links with those (including pro-Israel groups) who had helped it to contain Armenian initiatives.

There is a significant overlap between the US administration’s “smart” regional policy and classic European modes of engagement with Ahmet Davutoglu’s concept of “strategic depth”, involving the use of “soft power” in Turkey’s historical area of influence. Davutoglu’s approach, though dismissed by some as imperialist “neo-Ottomanism”, well fits European and now US foreign-policy approaches: promoting good neighbourly relations founded on pro-active but not maximalist positions, and encouraging free trade in goods and services.

Davutoglu has elaborated his project by calling for a “zero-conflict” zone with Turkey’s neighbours. This too is a departure from a security-based foreign-policy culture and predicated on the maintenance of conflicts with almost the entire neighbourhood. Its success is evident: a decade ago Turkey was experiencing conflicts of varying intensity with Greece, Armenia, Syria, northern Iraq and Russia, whereas on the eve of 2010 today only Cyprus remains stalled (and here the main responsibility no longer lies with Turkey).

In these new conditions, Turkey’s foreign-policy actors are now taking the country’s relations with the eastern neighbourhood more seriously. Hence they calculate that it is in Turkey’s best interest not to cause offence by joining a definition of its new partners in the region as rogue states threatening common security.

A makeover

A big part of Turkey’s current emergence as a regional power is also owed to its growing economic influence, driven by dynamic - and internationally minded - entrepreneurial classes. Turkish companies have been active in Russia and the former Soviet bloc, and increasingly visible in the middle east, since the late 1980s and 1990s. Turkish products are available from Tbilisi to Tehran, Damascus to Yerevan; the word “Antalya” evokes dreams of a Mediterranean luxury holiday; in the Kurdish towns of Sulaimaniya and Arbil, most buildings and (significantly) the government compounds are built by Turkish companies.

Turkish TV soap-operas, often set against the electrifying backdrop of Istanbul’s matchless mix of Islamic heritage and contemporary lifestyle, further contribute to a composite new “product” popular in the Arab countries of the Levant but also in the Balkans: the “great city” as the new centre of an imagined post-Ottoman geography and site of licentious fantasies with an Islamic tinge.

In terms of foreign trade, Israel figures mostly as a potentially expandable market for Turkish goods. The booming number of Arab and east European holiday-makers means that the Israeli factor is relatively negligible also in the tourism market.

A turn to faith

The area of ethno-politics is one where the affinities between Turkey and Israel are most clearly marked. Both states have been responsible for the displacement and oppression of indigenous peoples - though in the Israeli case the wounds are intensified by the fact that the very project of Jewish statehood in Israel was predicated upon the colonisation of a territory populated by others.

In a broader context, Palestinians in Israel and Kurds in Turkey have been the victims of late-European nationalisms. Israel’s ethnocratic mode of governance has turned Palestinians into effectively second-class citizens in Israel proper, and into disenfranchised subjects in the West Bank and the Gaza strip. Turkey’s “military democracy” has tried forcibly to assimilate Kurds into the Turkish national corpus by denying the language, customs, oral and written traditions of a people who now number close to 15 million.

Turkey’s assimilationist policies also created channels of integration into positions of power for many of those Kurds who were ready to downplay their identity. This was not true in Israel, where ethnicity and religion is far more central to the state’s modus operandi; at the same time, Turkey’s relative inclusiveness does not lessen the formidably exclusionist underpinning of the republic.

Turkey’s Kurds have at the worst undergone experiences which Palestinians would recognise as their own. The low-point of Turkey’s policy was in the mid-1990s, when war with the Kurdish nationalist Turkish Workers’ Party (PKK) spiralled out of control and resulted in the death of up to 40,000 combatants and civilians, most of them Kurdish.

Since then, and with many reversals and waves of anti-Kurdish racism, Turkey has moved from an ethno-nationalist military democracy towards a more civilian and inclusive polity. A seminal social contract between Turks, Kurds and other ethno-religious groups is not yet imminent, a politics of liberal multiculturalism still remote, and human rights are far from secure amid a deepening social conservatism - but Turkey is not the “country of Turks” anymore, and certainly not the ethnocratic dictatorship that it was in the 1920s and 1930s.

There is a long way to go. But the situation of Kurds - and non-Turks and non-Muslims in general - today is considerably better than at any point in Turkey’s republican history. It is also much more promising than the situation of Palestinians in the occupied territories as well as that of Palestinians with Israeli citizenship. The ethno-nationalist foundations of Turkey are being challenged, and even in some cases dismantled. The situation in Israel is if anything the reverse. 

There, the government of prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu and foreign minister Avigdor Libermann has introduced a new language of exclusion towards Palestinian citizens of Israel proper. It is fair to argue that the sense of commonality that Turkish and Israeli military and political elites may have felt over their threat-perceptions and disregard for the rights of their internal “others” - in socio-psychological terms, an alliance based on shared guilt - has ceased to have relevance.

There remains a further, decisive structural factor in the unravelling of the Turkey-Israel relationship. The AKP belongs to a tradition of political Islam to which the rejection of the Zionist state - and by extension an affinity with anti-semitism - are core constituents. It’s true that the party differed from most Islamists in the Arab world and has approached Israel more pragmatically, opting for proactive political engagement and economic interaction; Recep Tayyip Erdogan even repeatedly defended Israeli investment projects in Turkey against vicious criticism from the “secular” opposition.

Even until the Davos incident of January 2009, many observers believed that Turkey could become an effective peacemaker between Syria, Israel and the Palestinians. But Israel’s assault on Gaza in December 2008-January 2009 destroyed the foundations of the government’s pragmatic engagement with the country. Ever since, the AKP - fuelled by the blazing remarks of a prime minister who prides himself in calling things by their name - has been retreating to its foundational anti-Israeli political ancestry.

The good times

The global and domestic conditions for the remarkable Turkish-Israeli partnership have ceased to exist. There is no going back between these two pivotal middle-eastern states. As I have sought to show, the strategic relationship was built on derisive Realpolitik calculations: a securitised worldview, shared threat-perceptions, generals’ bonding, oppression of “others”, cooperation over the denial of the terrible fate of the Armenians in 1915. That this “cynical partnership” has now collapsed is not worth tears.

But the change does raise three concerns. First, the Turkish government’s new hostility to Israel (including Erdogan’s rhetoric) can easily tip over into the killing fields of violent anti-semitism. The members of Turkey’s dwindling Jewish communities are feeling the brunt of the prime-minister’s vitriol.

Second, Turkey and Israel are bound by a shared historical legacy: the experience of the Ottoman empire under which Turks, Arabs, Jews and others lived (if not always peacefully) side by side. It was in the Ottoman empire that Jews thrived; in Ottoman Salonica that the pre-Zionist new Jerusalem - Madre de Israel - flourished; and during the protracted process of the empire’s dissolution that the foundations of the Yishuv were laid. Even if textbooks won’t tell the story and few Israelis would recognise it, Israel’s history is part of the larger Ottoman experience; this is a legacy that cannot be discarded with the stroke of a pen.

Third, Turkey’s Jewish population may have receded to only a few communities in Istanbul, Izmir and Bursa with less than 30,000 members; but it would be impossible to imagine contemporary Turkish culture without the many rich contributions of its Jewish intellectuals and artists.

The many synagogues in Turkish cities; the Jewish quarter in Istanbul’s Balat and Pera districts; the care-homes for the elderly; the charitable organisations; the newspaper Shalom; the Ottoman-Sefardi musical tradition; the Ladino language and its music and lore; not least the sizeable Turkish-Jewish community in Israel - all these are important markers of an existing relationship that is more precious than strategic considerations. They are reminders of Turkey’s responsibility to defend and support the well-being of her Jewish citizens and her Israeli guests, no matter where the larger foreign-policy reshuffling will take Turkey in the end.

Indeed, where the AKP government’s rapprochement with Iran and Syria will ultimately lead remains unclear. For now, it looks as if the balancing-act between regional power-politics, realignment with Muslim-majority countries and European policy-deals will continue.

In the longer term, if Turkey can move beyond Kemalism, avoid the traps of political Islamism, and evolve into a liberal democracy - admittedly a series of big “ifs” - Israel might too one day become a post-Zionist polity that would be more welcoming to its Palestinian members. Maybe, when multiculturalism has dislocated exclusionary nation-building projects in both countries, their governments can embark on a strategic relationship of democracies that choose to live in peace with their neighbours and their internal “others”. In the meantime, it can be hoped that the emerging void left by the lobbyists and the generals will be filled not by anti-semitic and anti-Turkish warmongers - but rather by those critical minds, peace-activists, responsible scholars, intellectuals and artists who are accountable to none but their conscience.

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