Turkish Troubles

Turkish Troubles
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Yehonathan Tommer

Cabinet divisions over a US-brokered reconciliation deal to resolve the Mavi Marmara crisis, and, it was hoped, allow Turkey and Israel to renew a normal strategic dialogue, have exposed a deep suspicion and distrust in Israeli political circles of Ankara’s ruling Islamist government. Prospects for emerging regional realignments once the wider revolutionary turmoil in the region subsides have not dispelled these concerns.

The two countries appear headed down a path of increasing confrontation, following Israel’s definitive “No” last month to Turkey’s demand for an apology over the May 2010 Israeli raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla, where violent resistance from mainly Turkish activists led to a clash in which nine activists died aboard the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara.

Talks to resolve the crisis began in Switzerland towards the end of 2010. Three months later an agreement was reached, brokered by the Americans, between an Israeli delegation led by Deputy Defence Minister Matan Vilnai and former Foreign Ministry Director General Josef Ciechanover and their Turkish counterparts.

According to the draft agreement, Israel would express its “profound regret” over what took place on the vessel and agree to compensate the families of the nine dead Turkish citizens.

In exchange the Turks would agree to normalise relations, return their ambassador to Tel Aviv and renew the strategic dialogue with Israel.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman opposed the terms, publicly demanding that Turkey should apologise to Israel. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu then backed out of the deal and negotiations collapsed.

Pressured by Washington, a second round started in late June. This time the Israeli team was led by Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya’alon, but the results were basically the same.

Reportedly, the inner Cabinet was deadlocked. In its last debate on August 7, four ministers including Netanyahu and Defence Minister Ehud Barak approved the agreement. Four rejected it: Lieberman, Ya’alon, Interior Minister Eli Yishai and Science Minister Benny Begin.

Ten days later, Netanyahu announced Israel would not apologise, opening the door to what a Turkish columnist predicted would be a major Turkish diplomatic assault on Israel in international institutions.

The reconciliation agreement had been due to be published on August 20, along with the report of UN’s Palmer Commission (led by former New Zealand Prime Minister Geoffrey Palmer) into the Mavi Marmara clash. According to media leaks the report criticises Israel’s “excessive use of force.” But to Turkey’s displeasure, it also holds that Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip is legal and takes Ankara to task for its intimate cooperation with the Islamist group IHH, which orchestrated the flotilla clash, and Hamas.

“If a last minute agreement is reached, it can neutralise the report’s sting for both Israel and Turkey and bury any irrelevant revival of the international debate,” said Alon Liel, a former senior official in the Israeli Foreign Ministry. “Both sides, because of mutual emotions and national pride may have missed a classic opportunity to put the past behind them and normalise relations.”

By contrast, Yaalon argued in radio interviews that Israel got nothing in return for its “apology,” apart from Ankara’s promise to reinstate its ambassador to Tel Aviv. Ankara refused to restrain its Islamist orientation or withdraw its support from Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, Hezbollah and Iran, or abandon its anti-Israel voting record in the United Nations, he said.

The American Interest

The “Arab Spring” has brought chronic instability to Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen, civil war to Libya and violent suppression of protests in Syria. Confronted with such turmoil, the Americans naturally wanted their two stable partners, Israel and Turkey, to reconcile their differences and help Washington stabilise the volatile region.

With thousands of Syrian refugees pouring into Turkey and dissident leaders planning their next moves against the Syrian Government, Ankara has moved quickly to “recalibrate its zero problems with neighbours” policy and redraw its alignments, noted Soner Cagaptay, the Washington Institute’s Turkish specialist, in the Turkish daily Hurriyet in late July.

Building bridges with Muslim countries had lead to good ties with dictators like Gaddafi and Assad. These ties were now damaging Turkish interests and fueling domestic demands for Kurdish separatism, “Regional unrest has elevated Turkey’s threat perception from its Muslim neighbours, aligning Ankara and Washington more so than since the two spat over the Iraq War in 2003… Accordingly the Arab Spring is remaking the Middle East by re-aligning US-Turkish policies,” wrote Cagaptay.

US Assistant Secretary of Defence for International Security Affairs Alexander Vershbow confirmed his country’s new relationship with Turkey. Speaking at the Second Annual Conference on Turkish Regional Policy at the Middle East Institute (MEI) in Washington, June 23, Vershbow praised Turkey’s contributions to NATO’s missions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya.

The relationship had “recovered and strengthened over the past year and entered into a new style of dialogue, publicly and privately, and we agreed to be more candid and consultative with one another,” Vershbow said.

“Washington recognises Turkey’s unique regional perspective and interests will sometimes lead it to make decisions that are not perfectly aligned to ours. This is reasonable and natural,” he said, “so long as we are not surprised and… disagreements revolve around tactics rather than outcomes.”

Turkey, prototype of “Muslim democracy”?

Turkey’s answer to its uncomfortable isolation from former Arab elites is to market its model of democracy as a prototype for Muslim societies. This means shifting its emphasis to “reintegrating” with the peoples of the region – from the Mediterranean through North Africa, the Balkans and the Black Sea to the Caucasus.

“This involves deepening the political dialogue between Turkey and its neighbours, increasing the volume of trade and encouraging people-to-people contacts in sports, cultural events and through the free movement of people, goods and ideas,” explained the ruling AKP’s (Justice and Development Party) Deputy Chairman of External Affairs Suat Kinikhoglu.

Speaking also at the MEI Conference, Kinikhoglu stressed that many Muslim countries feel they can learn from the AKP how religion and secularism can be managed. “Intellectually there is no difference for us between Georgia and Iraq, or Bulgaria and Iran when it comes to the neighbourhood perspectives.”

The Israeli Concern

Yet given Turkey’s decision to remain firmly in the Muslim fold and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s repeated displays of arrogant hostility toward Israel, Israeli leaders ask how can there be genuine reconciliation if Ankara turns every disagreement into a crisis of national prestige.

Analysts specialising in Turkey agree that the strategic partnership and convergence of interests that Israel enjoyed with Turkey’s secular, military and judicial elites from the 1960s through to the 1990s now belongs to the past. They also agree that Turkey’s increasingly authoritarian government, provocative anti-Israel posturing and pro-Islamic bias disqualifies it from any future peacemaking role with the Palestinians.

“Erodgan and his ruling AKP faithfully represents Turkey’s new dominant civilian elites. They are more religious, more orthodox, and more conservative and prefer to deepen their ties with the Arab and Muslim world,” says Bar-Ilan University Turkish specialist Amikam Nahmani.

“These masses can no longer be ignored. They don’t particularly love Israel. They are pro-Palestinian, pro-Hamas and pro-Iran, and they don’t understand why Turkey has to be pro-American. We can apologise, pay compensations to the families of the dead and jump through hoops, it won’t help.”

Israel and Turkey ostensibly share common strategic interests in their concern that the chaos from Egypt and Syria does not spill over, and that Iran’s nuclear threat does not lead to nuclear proliferation, says Efraim Inbar, Director of the Begin-Sadat Centre for Strategic Studies. However, he notes, “Good relations with Turkey are quite valuable, but unlikely in the near future.”

“An unjustified Israeli apology will not repair… relations, as Turkey is no longer interested in a strategic partnership with Israel. It would use such an apology to humiliate the Jewish State and to strengthen the position of the Turkish Premier as a champion against Israel.”
It’s time to get tough, argues Inbar. “Israel’s reluctance to enter in a duel of words with Erdogan is construed as weakness and only invites additional diatribes.”

On the other hand, Israel should not turn its back on “the large reservoirs of Turkish good will and sympathy,” he adds, as reflected in the debate between senior columnists in Hurriyet.

“Relations in the future are likely to remain tense and confrontational. But efforts should be made to present Israel’s case to educated Turks, the business elites and the military, which dislike the ruling AKP’s Islamic tendencies,” he said.