Israel-Turkey axis turned on its head
By Chris Zambelis
For many observers, the long-term implications of Israel's deadly May 31
assault against the MV Mavi Marmara, the Turkish flagship that was part
of the Gaza Freedom flotilla, on Israeli-Turkish relations are unclear.
The attack left eight Turks and one Turkish-American dead and scores more
wounded. The flotilla set off to break Israel's illegal blockade of Gaza and to
raise global awareness of the suffering endured by the 1.5 million Palestinians
living in what is widely described as the world's largest open-air prison.
While acknowledging the growing rift between Israel and Turkey that began amid
Israel's December 2008 invasion of Gaza, as
evidenced by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's clash with Israeli
President Shimon Peres during a dialogue about Gaza at the World Economic Forum
summit in Davos, Switzerland, in January 2009, many point to the tradition of
strong ties enjoyed by Israel and Turkey as proof that the current crisis in
Israeli-Turkish relations represents a temporary setback as opposed to a
permanent realignment of the regional order.
Business as usual?
Based on the track record of Israeli-Turkish relations, it would seem logical
to conclude that the confluence of mutual interests will transcend the
bilateral crisis. Israel and Turkey have cultivated a strategic partnership
over the years spanning the political, economic and military realms.
Although Turkey has announced that it will review its military relationship
with Israel, including current and future arms purchases of Israeli weapons
platforms and other forms of cooperation, the ongoing spat has not precluded
the scheduled delivery of Israeli-made Heron unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)
and supporting technology as part of a US$190 million deal.
A Turkish military delegation arrived in Israel in late June to test the UAVs
following Israel's decision to recall its military personnel from Turkey
following the diplomatic row. On the trade front, consumer boycotts by Israelis
targeting the Turkish economy and similar moves by Turks to single out the
Israeli economy have already contributed to a decline in the bilateral trade
volume that normally totals around $3 billion annually.
Thousands of Israeli tourists, for instance, heeded the advice of their
government and canceled planned vacations to Turkey in 2010. Many Israeli
stores have also emptied their shelves of Turkish products. Likewise, a number
of Turkish firms have dropped out of plans to enter into joint ventures with
Israeli companies. A host of construction and energy projects involving Turkish
firms dealing with Israelis, for instance, have been suspended until further
review or cancelled outright. Despite these actions, there are signs that
business dealings overall between Israel and Turkey will, for the most part,
remain largely unaffected.
Leaked reports of secret talks between Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu
and Israeli Industry, Trade, and Labor Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer in
Brussels in late June were also interpreted as a sign that national interests
and pragmatism would win out over a continued deterioration of relations.
Looks can be deceiving
Tangible signs of a looming reconciliation between Israel and Turkey aside,
there are also indications that tensions will continue to degenerate.
Turkey's recall of its ambassador to Israel and its threat to sever relations
over its refusal to apologize for the deadly raid against the flotilla and
accept an independent international inquiry into the incident, reflect the
extent to which relations have deteriorated, as do Israeli threats to recognize
the Armenian Genocide of 1915 perpetrated by the Ottoman Turks and ramped up
efforts among Israel's supporters in the US to do the same in Washington - a
red line that cannot be crossed as far as Turkey is concerned. Turkish military
and government officials have also accused Israel of providing support to
militants from Partiya Karkeren Kurdistan (the Kurdistan Workers' Party - PKK)
, including during a May 31 attack against a naval base in Iskandirun that left
seven servicemen dead and six more wounded.
The PKK attack occurred just hours before Israel's assault against the
flotilla. In this context, Israeli support for the PKK would appear to
represent a form of retaliation for Turkish support for the Palestinians. No
evidence has emerged to substantiate Turkish claims of an Israeli hand behind
the PKK attack at Iskandirun. Israel does maintain close contacts with various
factions in Iraqi Kurdistan - a launching pad for PKK operations against Turkey
- where it is known to have an intelligence presence. Israeli companies also
have extensive business interests in the Iraqi province.
There are also indications that future crises revolving around flotillas are in
the offing, and it is likely that Turks will once again figure prominently in
such efforts. Meanwhile, the Israelis have called for the formation of an
Israeli-led flotilla that would embark for Turkey to protest over the plight of
its ethnic Kurdish community as well as Ankara's positions on the Armenian
genocide and Northern Cyprus. The organizers of the Gaza Freedom flotilla are
also planning additional missions to break the siege and deliver humanitarian
aid in the coming months. A number of independent activist groups have also set
off on their own missions to Gaza.
Demise of Israel's 'periphery strategy'
Important shifts in the respective strategic outlooks and societies in Israel
and Turkey also suggest that hostilities in Israeli-Turkish relations will not
go away anytime soon.
A consideration of Israel's "periphery strategy" is critical to understanding
the current state of Israeli-Turkish ties. The strategy has served as a guiding
principle of Israeli foreign policy since the establishment of the state of
Israel in 1948.
Israel sought to cultivate formal as well as covert alliances with non-Arab
countries and ethnic and sectarian minorities around its periphery to outflank
the surrounding Arab states hostile to it - in particular Egypt, Syria,
Lebanon, Iraq, Sudan and the Palestinian national movement - and to counter the
influence of pan-Arab nationalism.
As the first Muslim nation to recognize Israel in 1949, Turkey was an essential
part of the periphery strategy, along with Iran under Reza Shah Pahlavi,
Ethiopia under Haile Selassie, Kurdish nationalists in Iraq, Maronite
Christians and Druze in Lebanon, Christians in southern Sudan, and Jewish
communities across the region.
Given its traditionally pro-Western and staunchly secular orientation, its
status as a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and
aspirations of gaining entry into the European Union (EU), Israel's ties with
Turkey developed into one of the region's most dynamic relationships.
The significance of Israeli-Turkish relations increased dramatically after the
Iranian revolution of 1979 toppled the shah. Therein lies the significance of
the rift in Israeli-Turkish relations; Israel's attack against the flotilla
signaled its abandonment of its strategic alliance with Turkey. Israel also
seemingly went to great lengths to humiliate Turkey in the process, a reality
that will surely not be forgotten in Ankara anytime soon.
Turkey's star is rising
Much has been said of Turkey's rise as a regional power and its improved
standing in the greater Islamic world. Turkey is indeed relishing its position
as a symbol resistance and advocate for the Palestinians in the eyes of Arabs
and Muslims across the Middle East.
Long excluded from the EU and having felt betrayed by its ally the United
States for its backing of Kurdish political aspirations in Iraqi Kurdistan - a
development it saw as setting a dangerous precedent to be emulated by Kurdish
nationalists on its own soil - an increasingly confident and assertive Turkey
has set off on a new foreign policy course that departs from its prior role as
a reliable and predictable friend of Washington and Brussels.
Elements of political theater are certainly at play in Turkey's attempt to
fashion itself as a regional leader and champion of the Palestinian cause.
Moreover, despite the noticeable shift in Ankara's rhetoric and actions, Turkey
remains a valuable and close ally of the United States and NATO, as well as a
committed EU aspirant.
At the same time, buoyed by an increasingly stable domestic political scene and
an expanding economy that continues to trend upward even amid the global
economic downturn, the transformation of Turkish foreign policy under the
leadership of Erdogan's moderate Islamist-oriented Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi
(Justice and Development Party - AKP) in recent years reflects a fundamental
shift in Turkey's outlook.
Turkey is also asserting itself amid a decline of American power in the Middle
East and beyond and the appearance of a new multi-polarity characterized by the
ascent of regional powers capable of projecting their influence on the global
stage. While it preserves its Western orientation, Turkey today also openly
embraces its Islamic heritage and Muslim neighbors, including former enemies
such as Syria that it now counts as a strategic partner.
Driven by its philosophy of "zero problems with neighbors", Turkey, in essence,
sees no contradiction with maintaining a firm foothold in the West while
re-establishing close economic, diplomatic, cultural and increasingly, military
ties, with the countries situated in its former sphere of imperial influence
around its southern and eastern frontiers.
Changes in Turkish society characterized by the growing sense of collective
Muslim identity have also impacted the recalibration of Turkish foreign policy.
The rise of the AKP is a key aspect of this trend. Popular opinion among Turks
tends to reflect a deep-seated sensitivity to the suffering of the Palestinians
living under Israeli military occupation. As a result, Ankara's stance on the
flotilla attack and evolving approach to its dealings with Israel and the
Palestinians must also be considered as a product of public opinion; an
important point that should not be discarded considering Turkey's democratic
In contrast to the sclerotic authoritarian regimes such as those in Egypt and
Jordan that meet popular expressions of support for the Palestinians and other
forms of activism with oppression, Turkish democracy, for all of its flaws,
must cater to public opinion. Israel - increasingly isolated in the Middle East
and in the international arena - may come to rue the day it dumped Turkey. In
the strategic realm, Israel today (and down the line) needs Turkey far more
than the other way around.
The crisis in Israeli-Turkish relations is not over. In fact, it may have just
begun. Bilateral ties will continue on multiple levels, especially in the
economic sphere. The United States will also devote a great deal of effort to
help both countries reconcile.
At the same time, the strategic military aspect of the Israeli-Turkish axis -
the most crucial facet of the relationship - has suffered irreparable damage.
As the relationship between the US and China demonstrates, strong trade ties
and other critical links can coexist alongside serious rifts and disagreements
over a host of strategic military issues.
A regional force in its own right that enjoys seemingly unconditional support
from Washington, Israel has grown accustomed to dealing with weak and generally
compliant neighbors that have allowed it to shape events in its environment to
its advantage. Turkey now appears capable and intent to steadily challenge this
Chris Zambelis is an author and researcher with
Helios Global, Inc, a risk management group based in the Washington, DC
area. He specializes in Middle East politics. The views expressed here are the
author's alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of Helios Global, Inc.