By Jeremy Salt
Is Turkey’s relationship with Israel going through a rocky patch or has it passed the point of no return?
A week in politics is a long time, and all the rest of it, but it does seem that Turkish foreign policy has undergone a sea change since the election of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2002. Continuing difficulties in relationships with that amorphous package known as ‘the west’ is one reason. Excitement at the prospect of joining the EU has given way to cynicism. Angela Merkel is against accession, so is Sarkozy and so is the Pope (although he says different things at different times to different audiences). Criticism and often insults continue in the European Parliament and in European governments, no matter what Turkey does to try to meet European human rights standards. So it is probably fair to say that many if not most Turks are pretty fed up with the EU and as they have gained confidence in themselves and their country, many of them have concluded that, actually, we can do quite well without the EU.
As for the United States, since 1945 it had no more reliable friend in the Middle East region. For half a century Turkey gave it all the US all it wanted, from military and electronic surveillance bases to troops for Korea and membership of NATO. The scales began to fall from Turkish eyes in 1964 when Lyndon Johnson sent a note warning Turkey not to even think of intervening at a time of high tension between Greeks and Turks in Cyprus. Israel aligned itself with the US and refused to support the Turkish position. During the 1967 war Turkey responded to the actions of both countries by refusing to allow US aircraft flying arms supplies to Israel to use Turkish air space or bases. From the 1960s it adjusted its position in the western ‘camp’ to develop a more purposeful relationship with the Soviet Union.
Its stance in the Cold War changed. Still, up to the advent of the AKP government the two countries had forged what many (incorrectly) regarded as an ‘alliance’. The same word was used to describe the developing relationship with Israel. In 1998 Daniel Pipes described the relationship between the two countries as the ‘birth of a new Middle East alliance’. This it never was but certainly the links between the two countries, especially between the military high commands and the intelligence services, were close.
The two decades between the military coup of 1980 and the electoral success of the AKP in 2002 marked the high point of the relationship between Turkey and Israel. Constitutional life in Turkey was not resumed until 1983, with some banned politicians prevented from returning to the political arena for several years after that. The continuing strength of the military in politics ensured the stability of the ‘defence’ relationship with Israel. From the late 1980s to the late 1990s all the centre-right governments in power endorsed the relationship with Israel. Between 1994 and 1997 the two countries signed 19 agreements, mostly dealing with ‘defence’ matters. Twelve of them were initialled during the Prime Ministership of the Islamist Necmettin Erbakan, who was finally squeezed out of power in 1997 at the tail end of a ‘soft’ or ‘post modern’ coup by the military. It is certain that Erbakan, a strong Islamist and critic of Israel, would never have willingly gone along with these agreements. They were more or less imposed on him. Furthermore, they were signed by the chief of staff and not the Defence Minister and never ratified by parliament, because of a confidentiality clause signed by previous Prime Minister Tansu Çiller in 1994, which prevented parliamentarians from knowing the detail of what was in them. In the views of critics within the AKP party, the agreements are therefore unconstitutional.
Between 1997 and 2002 the relationship with Israel moved ahead in strength. In 2002 the two countries signed a $1 billion agreement under which Israel would modernise Turkey’s M-60 A1 tanks by 2003. This was subsequently pushed back to 2007 but the work has still not been completed. As the cost of refurbishing a single tank has been put at $4.5 million, it has been pointed out that Turkey could have bought Leopard tanks from Germany for $1 million apiece. It has also been pointed out that Turkey’s own ASELSAN company modernised 162 Leopard tanks for a total cost of $160 million.
These military contracts have been caught up in the sea change which seems to have taken place in Turkish foreign policy. Partly this is the consequences of factors already mentioned, i.e. the footdragging of the EU on accession; the continuing criticism of Turkey at the highest levels of European government; the open opposition of the heads of governments whose support Turkey must have before entering the EU; and the chicanery over Cyprus, where the Greek south was given a guarantee that it would be admitted to the EU whatever the outcome of a referendum on the unification of the island. Of course the Greeks voted ‘no’ (75 per cent against) and were admitted while the Turks in the north voted ‘yes’ (65 per cent for) and were kept out.
In the context of the relationship with the US, in 2003 the Turkish parliament voted against allowing Turkish territory, ports and military bases to be used for the opening of a second front in Iraq. Colin Powell was visibly irritated. Signals were sent out that unless Turkey cooperated with the US against Iraq the Kurdish question would be activated. Indeed, the US and Britain had already created a difficult situation for Turkey by creating a ‘safe haven’ for the Iraqi Kurds without taking the responsibility for policing it. In the 1990s the Turkish military had adopted a policy of the hot pursuit of PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) fighters returning to bases in northern Iraq after launching attacks inside Turkey. The US showed no signs of taking Turkish interests into consideration when creating a regional government of Kurdistan and did nothing to stop the PKK until Turkey threatened to resume the policy of hot pursuit. Up till this point both the US government and the Kurdish regional government had said there was nothing they could do. The situation remains fluid to this day with both the PKK and PEJAK, its Iranian counterpart (openly supported by the US) operating from bases in the Kandil mountains. In the meantime, Turkey has acknowledged the reality and is dealing with the regional Kurdish government.
Turkey is not the country that it was two decades ago. This is not just because of the cultural revolution which has changed the way Turks see themselves, or the way they see the outside world and their place in it but because of demographics. The Islamists rose to power (first as Necmettin Erbakan’s National Salvation Party in the 1970s and then as the Refah Party in the 1980s) on the shoulders of the people of eastern Anatolia. Implicitly part of a broader ‘east’ (Ottoman, Arab and Muslim world) on which the Turkish republic turned its back in 1923, their interests and needs were largely neglected by the parties which governed Turkey until the advent of the Refah Party. It was they who were in most need of the social services the state was not delivering. Their culture was more conservative, more mosque-centred than Turks of the west and they were moving westward in large numbers – hence the shock delivered to the mainstream parties when the Refah party did well at municipal elections even in western Turkey in 1994, following this up with victory at the national level. The banning of Refah and the arrest of its leading figures (including Erdogan) was an attempt to stop a tide which could not be stopped by constitutional means (an attempt was made but failed).
Since its first election the AK party has consolidated its hold as the governing party. It has brought substantial change to the country’s foreign policy profile. The close relationship with the US and the close relationship and the close if difficult relationship with the EU both continue, but Turkey is also striking out on its own. More confident of its place in the world, it seems no longer willing to play the western game in the Middle East. It has normalised its relationship with Syria to the point where it is now planning joint military exercises with Syria. As for Iran Turkey is not buying into the campaign of sanctions and exclusion orchestrated by the US for the benefit of Israel, Erdogan remarking recently that Iran was Turkey’s ‘friend’. On the question of Palestine Erdogan has spoken out forcefully and consistently. He says he has the people behind them and there is no doubt that he is right.
Turks have been disgusted by Israeli and western violence in the Middle East since the attack on Iraq in 1991 and the massive civilian toll caused by war and sanctions which followed. They were outraged by Israel’s attack on Lebanon in 2006, especially by the killing of hundreds of children, so it was no surprise that their anger boiled over again during the Israeli onslaught on Gaza from December 2008 to January 2009.
Below the citadel in old Ankara the taxi drivers plastered the front pages of Turkish newspapers showing photographs of children killed by the Israelis on the rear windows of their cars. Shopowners put posters in their windows – ‘we are all Palestinians’ – and textile manufacturers turned out scarves with Palestinian and Hamas motives. In the tourist cities of the south shopowners said Israelis would not be welcome. Travellers talking to taxi drivers of waiters will find no support for Israel but only condemnation. Its murderous attacks on civilians in Lebanon, Gaza and the West Bank have stimulated interest in all aspects of the Palestine question as never before.
Erdogan was further personally angered by the fact that the attack on Gaza was launched without warning while he was trying to broker quiet negotiations between Israel and Syria. The Turkish Prime Minister has been willingly to speak out where most other world leaders hold their tongues. In Sharon’s time he described Israel as a terrorist state. He has called it a ‘persecutor’ and described its crimes as being worse than those committed by the government of Sudan in Darfur. At the Davos economic summit in January 2009, he walked out of a televised debate after being cut off while trying to respond to Shimon Peres’ justification of Israel’s actions in Gaza. ‘When it comes to killing you know well how to kill’ he remarked. Amr Moussa, the Arab League Secretary-General, also taking part in the debate, had said nothing as Peres attempted to pin all blame for Israel’s atrocities on Hamas. The contrast was very striking.
Speaking before the UN General Assembly in September 2009, Erdogan was the only head of government to refer to Gaza, remarking afterwards in discussion with reporters that war criminals should be held accountable for their crimes. His government shares his views. Ahmet Davutoglu, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, refused to visit Israel on being told that he would not be allowed to go to Gaza.
In October the Anatolian Eagle joint military exercise (Turkey, the US, Italy and Israel) was cancelled after Turkey refused to take part alongside Israel. The reason was Israel’s attack on and continuing blockade of Gaza, with Turkey making it plain that relations with Israel could not improve until it changed its attitude. Turkey recently cancelled one military contract with Israel and has sent out signals that it is ready to cancel others unless Israel complies with the terms of agreements signed long ago. Non-fulfilment by Israel and warnings by Turkey are clearly political in nature but Erdogan is showing no signs of backing off. In early December Barack Obama reportedly ‘rebuked’ him for his ‘anti-Israel’ rhetoric on the grounds that it damaged Turkey’s profile.
This might be true of Washington but it is not true across the Middle East and around most of the world. Turkey’s strong stand against Israel’s disgraceful behavior have won it kudos across the Arab world. Erdogan has made it plain that Turkey is not interested in joining the campaign against Iran. He told an Egyptian reporter there would be an ‘earthquake’ if Israel violated Turkish air space to spy on Iran. This would seem to preclude any possibility of Turkey allowing itself to be used for a military attack, and again there is no doubt at all that the great majority of the Turkish people support the Prime Minister’s views.
Turkey has now turned into a conundrum for Israel and the US. They are critical of its apparent change but their reaction indicates that they are unsure of how to react. Barak Obama’s criticism and Avigdor Lieberman’s crude and contemptuous rejection of Turkey as a possible broker in talks with Syria can be taken with a grain of salt. Too much is involved for either the US or Israel to take actions they might later regret. Temporarily or permanently Israel may /have lost a strategic ally in the Middle East but it needs Turkish water and the oil being pumped into Turkey’s southeastern ‘energy hub’. The Medstream pipeline project – currently the subject of feasibility studies – would bring water, oil, natural gas and fibre optics to Israel from Turkey’s southeastern Mediterranean coast. In other words, while Israel has cards in its hand that it can play, it has a lot to lose by offending Turkey.
For the Palestinians, Turkey, its people and its outspoken Prime Minister have emerged as strong champions of their cause on the world stage at a time when the rest of the ‘international community’ seems to be shutting its eyes.
– Jeremy Salt is associate professor in Middle Eastern History and Politics at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey. Previously, he taught at Bosporus University in Istanbul and the University of Melbourne in the Departments of Middle Eastern Studies and Political Science. Professor Salt has written many articles on Middle East issues, particularly Palestine, and was a journalist for The Age newspaper when he lived in Melbourne. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.