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Istanbul attacks and hidden agendas
By K Gajendra Singh

The two synagogues attacked in Istanbul on November 15 in which at least 23 people died are located in the center of Istanbul's Jewish community, which has thrived throughout history in Turkey.

Ottoman Sultan Fethi , who conquered Constantinople, the Byzantine capital, and named it Istanbul in 1453, in Turkish tradition allowed all religious communities to live as protected people, and he even settled many Jews in the new capital. When they were expelled from Spain, the Ottoman empire gave them shelter.

Even after the gut-wrenching events of World War I, when the Ottoman empire collapsed, Armenians were massacred and Christians exchanged with Turks in Greece, the Jews continued to live in Turkey, mostly in Istanbul, and around the time of World War II, republican Turkey gave shelter to many Jews, including hundreds of professors escaping Nazi Germany.

They provided financial acumen, as earlier Armenians and Christians had in trade and industry. It took Turks 60 years to take to trade and industry themselves. Before the 1980s, when former prime minister Turgut Ozal was elected, a Turk hoped to become a soldier, a policemen or a mudurbay (office boss) in some government ministry or department.

The Jews as a result have lived amicably and prospered, and even inter-married with Turks. Those who convert to Islam are called "Donme", one who turned - like in doner kebab. After the creation of the state of Israel, many Jews shifted to the new homeland. The Jewish population in Turkey now numbers more than 20,000. A Jew, Jefi Kamhi , was even elected a member of parliament in 1995.

Turkey-Israel 'alliance'
Turkey recognized Israel in 1948, the first Muslim country to do so. After the 1967 Middle East war and even after the 1973 one, when Arabs exploited the oil weapon, Turkey did not disrupt relations with Israel. While there was no de facto strategic alliance, there was close cooperation regarding rightist or leftist and revolutionary students movements, specially during the 1960s and 1970s. In 1971, Turkish students assassinated the Israeli consul-general in Istanbul, who was a former senior Mossad officer.

Israel has developed a top-rate defense industry based on support and cooperation with the United States. After the end of the Cold War, Turkey, specially its armed forces, felt a little left out.

So Turkey sold itself as a barrier between Europe and the Middle East and the Caucasus, cauldrons of fundamentalism and chaos. Its informal alliance with Israel was useful and the latter's influence with Washington could be exploited for US grants of sophisticated arms and equipment.

There may be some truth in the threat perceptions and that the arms would be used to counter external threats, but militarism has been used to impose a Jacobin version of secularism on Turkey to keep down leftists, Islamists and Kurds. And much of the Turkish population was not too happy. However, in the November 2002 elections, the people had their say and gave two thirds of the parliament's seats to the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has Islamist roots and less tolerance for the army's role in the state's affairs. Also, more than 90 percent of the population opposed the US-led invasion of Muslim Iraq, which the military was very keen to join.

In 1996, Turkey and Israel went public and signed an agreement for military cooperation. Much has been written about this evolving relationship, with some political analysts calling it an "axis" an "entente" even an "alliance". Naturally, the maximum criticism came from countries in the Middle East who began to criticize and even condemn Jerusalem and Ankara for forging an alliance against them.

The military cooperation agreement does not make explicit commitments for mutual assistance in the event of an armed conflict, but a careful interpretation of the provisions shows that it opened the door to much enhanced cooperation between the countries, which could reach levels usually reserved for serious allies. Of course, the Israelis would like to go much further. Israel buys water from Turkey, and Turkey is a popular destination for Israeli tourists, nearly 300,000 visited last year.

Inside Turkey
In the southeast of Turkey, a Kurdish insurgency rebellion raged from the mid-1980s to 1999, with over 35,000 lives lost. On the whole, western Turkey, as a result of high security measures, has remained more or less free from violence. But attacks on left-wing writers by rightists and on Israeli targets by leftists have taken place over the years.

When this writer was posted in Ankara in December 1992, after the demolition of the Babri mosque in India by Hindu extremists, an explosive device was attached to the car of the Indian second secretary in Ankara. It caused some damage, but no one was hurt. This writer felt that rightist religious groups, while upset with the demolition of the mosque, just wanted to warn India through this act. They could have easily killed someone. The authorities were unable to solve the crime. Attacks in western Turkey, especially like the November 15 ones, are difficult to organize and take a lot of planning and care.

The AKP government, taking advantage of European norms, which have to be fulfilled before Turkey can be considered as a candidate for the grouping, has succeeded in almost nullifying the military's clout, which it has always enjoyed through the top decision-making National Security Council. The council has now been reduced to an advisory body, making it virtually impotent.

Claiming a failure of intelligence, the military will most likely now try to get back some of the powers it has enjoyed since the inception of the republic as it considers itself the custodian of founding father Mustafa Kemal Ataturk's legacy of secularism.

Indeed, tensions between Turkey's secular elite, led by the armed forces, and the AKP have simmered ever since the latter's electoral triumph, and they are likely to come under further strain now.

Since 1923, Turkey has had a laic (secular) constitution. The country is a member of the Council of Europe, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and it has a customs agreement with the European Union.

Nearly 80 years after Ataturk's sweeping reforms, Turkey's experiment in democracy goes wobbly from time to time. But with its 67 million Muslims, Turkey is unlikely to be admitted into the EU any time soon, which is basically a Christian club. With violence now reaching Istanbul, the chances are even less. EU membership would allow freedom of movement to Turks everywhere in Europe.

Many Turkish experts suspect that the twin bombings were a warning to Turkey, one of the few Muslim countries to have ties with Israel. This secular country has seen a surge in support for Islamic sentiments and parties, as elsewhere. Public opposition to the US-led invasion of Iraq played a major role in Turkey's parliament refusing the US request in March to open a second front into Iraqi Kurdistan in the north by using Turkish soil.

The blasts could be an act of revenge for the daily killings of Palestinians and the Israelis building a much-opposed wall that encroaches on Palestinian land. Such attacks would please Muslims and earn the goodwill of angry and frustrated Muslim youth all over the world, and attract many of them to their cause. It also sends a very stern warning to Turks to keep out of Iraq. Turkey had pledged to send up to 100,000 troops to Iraq, but in the face of stiff opposition from within Iraq, including from the US-appointed Governing Council, the decision has been reversed.

And now, with the US suddenly intent on handing more political power to the Iraqis themselves, that country will have to work out its own problems, and what form the new government takes, although it is most likely to be a dictatorship if history is anything to go by.

In Turkey, Ataturk temporized with all his friends and enemies, but after obtaining full power he eliminated or removed them, even some of his closest comrades. This is the inexorable logic of naked power.

Recently, a senior Indian Congress party leader, Mani Shankar, revealed that he was with Indian leader Rajiv Gandhi on a peace-making mission to Tehran in 1991, and when the latter inquired from Iranian President Ali Rafsanjani who would succeed Saddam Hussein, the reply was, "Saddam Hussein".

And it appears that the United States will have to let this happen.

K Gajendra Singh, Indian ambassador (retired), served as ambassador to Turkey from August 1992 to April 1996. Prior to that, he served terms as ambassador to Jordan, Romania and Senegal. He is currently chairman of the Foundation for Indo-Turkic Studies. Email
Nov 18, 2003

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