Challenge-mag.com, August 22, 2010
The crisis in the relationship between Israel and Turkey reached a head following the IDF raid on the flotilla to Gaza at the end of last May, during which nine IHH activists were killed. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan gave his full support to the flotilla, using anti-Israel rhetoric which boosted his popularity in the Arab world.
However, his anti-Israel stance got him into trouble with his NATO allies and deepened the rift between the pro-Islam Justice and Development Party (AKP), which he leads, and the army plus other nationalist groups. These latter are not happy with the direction Turkey under Erdogan is taking, towards Iran and Islamic movements in the region.
Under pressure from forces in Turkey and the US, Erdogan made an elegant policy U-turn, and went back to fighting the Kurds while taking steps towards reconciliation with Israel. This, he hopes, will reinstate him on the international stage and ensure his success in next year’s elections.
Turkey-Israel: the love behind the enmity
As noted, Turkey is under extensive international and local pressure which forces Erdogan to maneuver with caution. This explains why he was so keen on mending the rift with Israel. An important step towards this objective was the ostensibly secret meeting between Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and Israel’s Minister of Industry, Trade and Labor Benjamin Ben-Eliezer at the end of June. After the meeting, Israel withdrew its travel warning to Turkey which had emptied Antalya’s beaches this summer (to the benefit of Greece’s tavernas) – a step rightly seen as a gesture of goodwill towards Erdogan and Turkish businessmen who had not rushed to support their government’s backing of the flotilla.
Antalya Mayor Prof. Mustafa Akaydin, a member of the secular Republican People’s Party (CHP), expressed the business sector’s criticism during a press conference with Israeli reporters in his office. Behind him was a giant portrait of the legendary secular Turkish revolutionary, Kemal Ataturk.
"I oppose Erdogan’s policy," he said. "I believe that in Istanbul and Ankara you’ll feel the same goodwill towards Israeli tourists. Israeli money is not as important to us as the friendship between the nations. The [deterioration in the] relationship worries me. We have the strongest economies in the Middle East, and the relationship between us is crucial for the stability of the region" (Ynet, 2.8.10, brackets added by A.A.).
Davutoglu’s visit to Damascus on July 21 was also a significant step with far-reaching consequences. While the Turkish foreign minister met publicly with senior figures in the Syrian regime, and was even photographed with Hamas politburo chief Khaled Mashaal, his visit had a clandestine component too, which was linked to Turkey’s need to improve relations with Israel: during his visit to Beirut, Davutoglu made efforts to persuade the Lebanese authorities to prevent a planned flotilla to Gaza from setting sail (Yediot Aharonot, July 27, 2010). According to information received by the newspaper, all Turkish efforts today are aimed at improving relations with Israel and warding off the EU and US criticism which was leveled against Turkey after the flotilla fiasco.
Israel, for its part, is not indifferent to Turkey’s efforts. Following Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s meeting with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon at the end of July, the "forum of seven" (comprised of central Israeli government figures) decided that Israel would cooperate with the UN special commission investigating the fatal events on the decks of the Marmara. A Turkish representative was to participate as well.
The surprising decision of Binyamin Netanyahu to cooperate with the international commission reflects Israel’s deeper interests in maintaining good ties with Turkey. It should be borne in mind that Sharon’s government had refused to participate in the International Court’s deliberations on the separation wall, while Olmert’s government had refused to cooperate with the Goldstone investigation into Operation Cast Lead. Even the agreement between Israel and Turkey, according to which Israel would return the vessels used for the flotilla including the Marmara, is part of efforts to bridge the gulf between the two states and a symbolic step that signifies the end of the crisis.
A sign of the stability of ties between them is the fact that throughout the crisis, the business sectors maintained strong connections as if the crisis was merely a temporary political spat. The flotilla events did not lead to any reduction in Israeli exports to Turkey, which were assured by the Israel Export Insurance Corporation Ltd. Fears that Turkish companies would take advantage of the situation to avoid payments to Israeli companies were unfounded. According to data from the Export Insurance Corporation, Israeli exports in June and July continued at about $100 million per month, reaching some $1.2 billion per year – similar to export figures before the crisis. In addition, the flotilla did not hurt new export agreements, and there was no reduction in the demand for credit insurance for new export deals to Turkey (Ora Coren, TheMarker, July 28).
Pressures from Obama
Turkish pragmatism is a direct result of pressure from the US administration and from Europe. Turkey has been assured a special place in the strategic lineup of President Barack Obama’s "new Middle East" – not by chance did he choose Istanbul as the site for his first speech outside the US, in which he emphasized that he saw Turkey as an important ally.
Yet the American administration saw Erdogan's stance in the flotilla case as disturbing. The Financial Times reported on August 15 that in the June meeting between Obama and Erdogan at the G-20 Summit in Toronto, "Obama told Erdoğan that the Turks had failed to act as an ally in the UN vote on Iran and called on Ankara to cool its rhetoric about an Israeli raid that killed eight Turks and one Turkish-American on a flotilla bearing aid for Gaza. They need to show that they take seriously American national security interests," the daily quoted the administration official as saying.
The crisis between America’s two main allies in the region, Israel and Turkey, raised concerns in the US administration. Obama was quick to show Erdogan, in various ways, that the US had grave reservations about Turkey’s anti-Israel rhetoric. Former US Ambassador to Turkey Eric Edelman explained how the US could compel Turkey to toe the line: Obama clarified to Turkey, via private conversations with Turkish representatives, that everything has a price, and that Turkey needs US support on several issues: Cyprus, Turkey’s EU bid, the war against the Kurds, and ongoing intelligence. Obama made it clear that US support for Turkey would be in direct proportion to Ankara’s cooperation with Obama (Politico June 21).
So it’s not surprising that Turkey agreed to cooperate with Israel in the UN investigation. The less aggressive tone about Gaza and the improving relations with Israel were steps to appease the White House and to maintain Turkey’s status as an ally of the West and a central member of NATO. Erdogan well knows that radical rhetoric will earn him public support, but he also knows this cannot come instead of a strategic alliance with the US and EU.
Pressures at home
It seems that Erdogan’s policies are not only opposed by Antalya’s mayor. The upper echelons of the army and the political and economic elite are also critical of Erdogan’s involvement in the flotilla and his open support of the IHH. The Turkish prime minister is seen as being dragged unnecessarily into supporting the agenda of a radical Islamic group while endangering Turkey’s national interests.
Erdogan’s party, the AKP, took over in November 2002 after it split from the Islamic-oriented Welfare Party, which has since changed its name to the Felicity Party. The leaders of the new faction – Erdogan and current President Abdullah Gul – built up their support base among the new conservative and Islamic oriented middle class. Whereas the Felicity Party seeks to distance Turkey from Israel and the West and opposes the neo-liberal economic model, the AKP follows IMF dictates, wants Turkey in the EU and seeks to continue its relationship with Israel (Mustafa Akyol writing in Hurriyet, August 3).
Erdogan knows that his election victory in 2007 (45% of the votes, compared to 2.5% won by the Felicity Party) was due to economic growth and openness to the West. As a pragmatic leader, he does not want to be pushed into the same corner as the historic leader of the Felicity Party, Necmettin Erbakan, who lost support when his own party turned to a more liberal, reformist leader.
However, while AKP’s privatization policies and its support of capital increased the profits of Turkish companies and strengthened Erdogan’s standing in the business sector, they also brought lay-offs and embittered the general public. Workers of the tobacco and alcohol company Tekel, laid off in 2009 after steps toward privatization, were at the forefront of widespread public campaigns which included challenging eight-month sit-ins in Ankara and solidarity strikes throughout Turkey.
The government’s campaign against the Kurdish minority is also part of the issue. More than 15 million Kurds living within Turkey’s borders have suffered repression and the denial of basic national rights for decades. The Kurds, concentrated in the southeast regions of Turkey, bordering Iraq, Iran and Syria, are united around the underground Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) which has been waging a guerilla war against the Turkish government since 1984. In national and local elections, the Kurds demand cultural autonomy and civil equality via several political parties that the Turkish authorities view as political fronts of the outlawed PKK.
Previously, the government, led by Erdogan, took a number of steps that were seen as gestures towards the Kurds. The prime minister took advantage of the AKP’s popularity and the tension between the party and the army (which the Kurds identify with long years of repression) to portray his government as a force that promotes dialogue with the Kurdish minority. For example, in 2009 a national TV station in the Kurdish language was allowed to open after years in which the use of the language was forbidden. There were also signs that the government was willing to compromise with the PKK and the Kurdish national movement.
However, in practice, the exact opposite happened. In the local elections of April 29, 2009, the AKP was badly beaten by candidates associated with the Kurdish nationalists. Even though the PKK immediately declared a ceasefire and expressed its willingness to enter dialogue with the government, the security forces began a wave of arrests of Kurdish activists. Following the arrests, which were seen as a breach of Erdogan's promises of peace, the PKK broke the ceasefire. In June serious fighting broke out between Kurdish militants and the Turkish army. All this happened just when Erdogan was busy handling the fallout from the Gaza flotilla. In July, Erdogan made a well-publicized tour of the Kurdish front and declared that Kurdish rebels would meet their death.
The Kurdish issue exposes Erdogan’s hypocrisy. On the one hand, he presents himself as the spokesman of the downtrodden, standing by Gaza and the Palestinians who fight the Israeli occupation. On the other hand, on the Kurdish question he continues the policies of his predecessors, who defined Kurdish demands for autonomy as terrorism that must be fought with blood and fire.
The Palestinian issue: a useful pawn
The factors discussed here form the outline of Erdogan’s policies. Despite the Gaza adventure, it is clear that Erdogan has no intention of returning to the fanatic Islamic agenda of his predecessors, which would only isolate him and reduce his party’s popularity. However, he also doesn’t want to find himself where the Egyptian, Saudi and Jordanian regimes stand, because taking an unequivocal pro-US line is seen in the Arab street as submission.
Erdogan is trying to maneuver himself into an independent position and gain points from the US failure in Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan. As one enjoying good relations with the West and Israel as well as with the radical states Iran and Syria, Erdogan is trying to make Turkey into an important regional power which will mediate between the warring blocs.
The improving relations between Israel and Turkey reflect the fact that the two sides understand that the flotilla harmed their interests. Israel, under Netanyahu, was unnecessarily isolated, and is now trying to rehabilitate its international standing by being open to direct negotiations with the Palestinians. Erdogan attracted grave criticism from home and abroad because of his support for an extreme Muslim agenda, which could harm his standing within Turkey and undermine his chances of winning the 2011 elections. For both sides, the Palestinian issue serves as a pawn for achieving opportunistic political objectives and nothing more.