Part Four of “The Isolation of Israel: Peril and Opportunity”
This is part four of Professor Paul Merkley’s series, “The Isolation of Israel: Peril and Opportunity.” Access to the previous installments can be found by clicking on the following links: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.
Recent History of Turkey
When the Arab Spring began, the Republic of Turkey was looked upon in our part of the world as the sole exception to the general picture of political instability plus authoritarian government plus anti-Zionist zeal that has kept the region on edge for over sixty years. President Obama led the consensus of the well-intentioned when he recommended to the Arab world “The Turkish “model.”
At its founding in 1923, the Republic had been governed by a charismatic hero of the Great War’s Dardanelles campaign, who styled himself Kemal “Ataturk” (1881–1938), the father of the Turks. Until recently, Kemal’s legacy seemed likely to last forever. His giant portrait still appears as the backdrop when a leader of government speaks in public.
Kemal’s worldview could not have been further from that of the Muslim world today. ”Countries may vary,” he said, “but civilization is one, and for a nation to progress, it must take part in this one civilization The decline of the Ottomans began when, proud of their triumphs over the West, they cut off their ties with Europeans. This was a mistake which we will not make.” Under Kemal’s dictatorial direction, national institutions and educational institutions were secularized and even the language was “reformed” by being given a brand new alphabet of European style. All the barriers preventing happy intercourse between Turks and Europeans came down. Or so it seemed.
After Kemal’s death, Turkey’s reputation for stability was perpetuated by successor governments dominated by the military whose leaders were an educated, privileged prosperous elite – a state of affairs essentially the same as that which existed in Egypt from the time of Nasser until 2011. From the beginning, however, Kemalism was under threat from a variety of hostile popular movements, the most strident of which were those demanding restoration of the Caliphate and reconstruction of life under Islam – as though Kemal had never lived.
The politics of the post-Kemal period (1948–1997) follows a dizzying pattern: elections are held, resulting in parliaments containing what the army regards as dangerously large Islamist components; election results are sooner or later nullified by military coup; the rules about elections are re-written; more elections are held, followed, in due course by another coup. In 1997, a page was turned when the military handed government back to civilian control, while issuing a solemn warning that if any government showed weakness in containing Islamist zeal, the army’s leaders would step out again to re-assert the legacy of Kemal.
At first it seemed that civilian governments (after 1997) would prove as realistic about foreign policy matters as Kemal and the military governments had been – willing to build a larger role for Turkey in world affairs upon the foundation of Turkey’s NATO connections. In this spirit, opportunities were quietly found for cooperation with Israel, the major military power in the region and the best local friend of the U.S.A.
Turkey under “Moderate Islam”
To the relief of both Israelis and Americans, the Israel-Turkey relation continued along that positive trajectory when, after the election of 2003, parliamentary control passed to the Justice and Development Party (AKP), an amalgamation of several Islamist parties just completed a few months earlier. But concern was raised when the election of 2007 gave a practical majority to AKP, whose elected leaders began to push through legislation which was seemed intended to accomplish by stages the AKP programme. Experts consulted by the media advised that we should not attach much significance to the Islamist noises made by the AK majority. Turkey, they reminded us, is not an Arab nation and Turks attach much significance to the fact that it was the Ottoman Turkish Empire that presided when the region was most stable (a relative matter!) and while the world was taking it most seriously. No doubt, they said, this determination of the self-assured Turks to stand apart from vulgar enthusiasms general to the region would make it possible for a Turkish government to exercise a more realistic foreign policy. Turkey, after all, had participated on our side in the Korean war, and for this had been rewarded by membership in NATO. In light of this, it should be our policy to encourage Europe to accept the Turks into membership into its several bodies. This moderate Islamist government surely recognized that it shared with Israel the importance of standing quietly aside from the noisy anathemas that make up the staple of political rhetoric in Muslim countries while quietly pursuing realistic, self-interested diplomacy in which there was a place for quiet cooperation with Israel in military planning and exchange of security assets. This was the message conveyed by the state visit in 2005 of Prime Minister Erdogan to Israel (accompanied by a delegation of businessmen) and of the visit of the President of Israel Shimon Peres to address the Turkish parliament in 2007 (said to be the first time an Israeli leader had addressed the legislature of a Muslim nation.)
Relations between Turkey and the U.S. turned unexpectedly sour, however, when, as the latter was putting together its Alliance of the Willing for an invasion of Iraq in March 2003, Turkey’s parliament denied U.S. troops permission to use Turkish territory to open a northern front against Iraq. Since that moment, Turkey seems to have taken upon itself the right to define for herself the rules about its own participation in NATO and various agreements under NATO auspices . Efraim Inbar (who heads the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University) notes: “An incredible deviance from NATO practices was the September 2010 air exercise held together by the Chinese air force and its Turkish counterpart over Turkish (NATO) airspace. Moreover, in November 2010, Chinese and Turkish commando units trained together on Turkish soil.” Even more incredible is the willingness of the United States and other NATO powers to indulge such “deviations.” While Turkey evidently gets away with dragging her privileged knowledge of NATO’s assets and practice into war games with the military power that is even now issuing threats against the Philippines, Taiwan, and other small powers that stand in the way of her expansionist ambitions. Simultaneously, Turkey has been campaigning to put an end to several side-arrangements that Israel has with NATO. Just a few weeks ago, President Obama acquiesced in Turkey’s blackballing of Israeli’s participation in recent NATO- sponsored exercises.
Turkey Joins the Pile-up on Israel
Professor Inbar puts all this into historical context:
The Kemalist approach had been to keep away from the Middle East [while developing] good relations and integration with the West …. In contrast, the AKP adopted a regional foreign policy dubbed ‘‘zero problems with neighbors,’’ the brain child of its current foreign minister, Davutoglu, designed to minimize regional tensions and improve relations with the Islamic world, especially in the Middle East. As a result, Turkey improved relations with authoritarian Muslim states such as Syria, Iran, Libya, and Sudan, usually in flagrant deviation from the preferences of its Western NATO allies…. [In this spirit, for example] Turkey further deviated from the Western consensus in 2008 by hosting Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir … who was charged with war crimes and genocide in Darfur [and] presides over an Islamist regime. … [Likewise,] in June 2010, the AKP government formally invited Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah to Ankara ..[and has developed ongoing friendly relations with Hamas.]
An early token of the change of policy towards Israel came with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s calculated outburst at Israeli President Shimon Peres during a panel at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January 2009, the first item in a stream of vitriolic attacks on Israel, its leaders and their policies. Then came the ‘‘Gaza Flotilla’’ episode of June 2010.
While everyone’s attention has been focused on the more colorful aspects of the Arab Spring, Turkey’s government has turned inside-out the premises of its foreign policy. A note of braggadocio has come into government statements. Foreign Minister Davutoglu told parliament in April: “We will manage the wave of change in the Middle East. Just as the ideal we have in our minds about Turkey, we have an ideal of a new Middle East. We will be the leader and the spokesperson of a new peaceful order, no matter what they say.”
With these violent gestures, the rulers of Turkey have turned around on a dime and put themselves at the head of the anti-Zionist chorus, going so far as to tear up all the principal mutual cooperation agreements. Every week, it seems, responsible Turkish leaders send up yet another curse upon the heads of the leaders of Israel. To mention just the most recent and perhaps the most flagrant: The Turkish public prosecutor has just issued warrants for the arrest of four current Israeli military officers, whom Turkey wants handed over to Turkey’s courts so that they can be tried and begin serving “prison terms totaling 18,000 years.”
How did Turks ever get their reputation for being humorless?
Barry Rubin, “Turkey’s Middle East Policy of Seeking to Gobble, Gobble, up the Middle East Makes Enemies of Everyone,” PJ Media, May 16, 2012.
“Turkish ties” (Editorial), Jerusalem Post, May 29, 2012.
Sayyed Abdel-Meguid, “Could Cyprus Pull Turkey and Israel into War?” al-Ahram Weekly [Cairo], June 6, 2012.
Can Kasapoglu, “Is Turkey Getting Dragged into War with Syria?,” (link to PDF) BESA Center Perspectives paper, No. 170, April 18, 2012.
Efraim Inbar, “Israeli-Turkish Tensions and Beyond,” (link to PDF) BESA Center Perspectives, Orbis, vol. 55:no.1 (Winter 2011).