BESA Center Perspectives Papers No. 108, June 6, 2010, by Prof. Efraim Inbar, professor of political studies at Bar-Ilan University and director of the Begin-Sadat (BESA) Center for Strategic Studies (Prof Inbar will a guest of AIJAC in Australia this week):
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: By endorsing the “Gaza Flotilla” Turkey escalates tensions with Israel. This is just another reflection of the change in Turkish foreign policy, which acquires a greater Islamic coloration and is distancing itself from the West. Only a change of government in Ankara can bring Turkey back into the Western fold and restore the partnership between Ankara and Jerusalem. The next elections in July 2011 provide the Turkish citizens an opportunity to remain democratic and part of the West.
The Turkish Role
The “Gaza flotilla” incident has revealed once again the Turkish government’s ugly face and particularly the great hostility harbored by its prime minister, Tayyip Erdoנan, towards Israel. Many Israelis watched TV broadcasts of incited Turkish mobs chanting “Death to Israel.” Prime Minister Erdoנan, who occasionally makes anti-Semitic statements, takes every opportunity to slam the State of Israel. Moreover, it seems that the Turkish government was behind the organization of this provocation and it definitely endorses it. Even more troubling is the fact that the Turkish government has cooperated with IHH (Turkish Relief Organization), an outfit with links to Al-Qaeeda and other Islamist terrorists.
Turkey Slides Away
It is a shame to see Turkey, an important strategic partner of Israel in the 1990’s, turn into a bitter adversary. Turkey, an important regional state and an important Western ally, stayed away from the Middle East for almost a century, because the Turks perceived this region as backward, fanatical, corrupt and undemocratic. Yet, in the last few years, Turkey is returning to the Middle East and tries to carve a leadership role commensurate with its imperial past. Moreover, in the last few years, Turkey has been in the throes of an identity crisis, in which Muslim tradition, which is still entrenched within Turkish society, aspires to greater expression than was hitherto permitted by the secular regime in Ankara. Attitude toward Israel is part of that debate.
The ruling Islamist party (AKP) since November 2002 become emboldened only after its reelection in July 2007 to make significant changes to Turkish foreign policy. Ankara’s relations towards Israel cooled, especially in the wake of the Gaza war in the winter of 2008. Scathing criticism, cancellation of joint military maneuvers and warming up toward Hamas have characterized Turkish policy. As of late, the fact that Washington has a weak president who emphasizes improvement of relations with the Muslim world, even at the expense of Israel, only encourages Turkey to distance itself from the Jewish state.
The deterioration of relations between Ankara and Jerusalem is a Turkish initiative, over which Israel has no influence. The hostile stance taken by Turkey towards Israel is part of the major transformation of Turkey’s foreign policy. In fact, Turkey is turning away from the West. Its position diverges from that of the West on Hamas, but also on other important issues. Ankara hosted Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, accused of war crimes, despite the protest of the European states. Turkey is the only member of NATO to have hosted Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Turkey is also growing closer to Syria, which is anti-American and deep in the Iranian camp. Moreover, Turkey has stepped up its activity in the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC). Undoubtedly, Erdoנan feels more at home in Middle Eastern markets than in Western cities. Turkey has also tightened its relations with Russia, which aims to curb the role of the US in international affairs. Indeed, Turkey did not hesitate to deviate from American preferences. It announced that it will not join sanctions against Iran and in the past month has strived, together with Brazil, to extricate Iran from its uncomfortable diplomatic position due to its ongoing nuclear program. Backing the flotilla and Hamas, Turkey also affected negatively the dim prospects of the proximity talks between Israel and the Palestinians – a major American priority. Unfortunately, Turkey slides away from the West into an independent posture largely colored by the Islamist tendencies of the current government.
The Potential for Democratic Change
Despite the above, it is not a foregone conclusion that Turkey will persist in this direction. The hope for change is not based on the expectation for a military coup. The army, which constitutionally enforced the secular-democratic nature of the regime, has become weaker in its position in the past few years. One should hope for change through democratic channels. Among Turkish society many still support the secular parties, which are far from pleased with the rush towards the Muslim world. Even among moderate Muslim quarters there is a sense of unease regarding the government’s policy pushing Turkey to join radical Islamic elements such as Hamas and Iran. One should also recall that Shiite Iran was an historic rival of the Sunni Turks.
Indeed, support in public opinion for the ruling Islamic party is in decline, despite Erdogan’s remarkable political skills. This is mostly due to corruption and abuse of civil rights. Were elections held last week, the Islamist party would lose many seats, and two secular parties would possibly have made up the coalition. If current public opinion is held till the next elections, scheduled for July 2011, it is likely that Turkey will emerge with a new prime minister. It is possible that precisely due to his domestic situation as reflected in the polls, Erdoנan has decided to exacerbate his relations with Israel in order to gain public support.
In its relations with Turkey, Israel should stand its ground on Israeli vital interests. Moreover, Israel should not tolerate insults. This will only be perceived as a weakness. Israel should distinguish between the Turkish state and society, and the current government that deserves a strong riposte. Firm, level-headed responses will be of assistance to pro-Western Turks in their domestic debate.
A major political drama is unfolding before our eyes in this important country. Only the Turks can determine their future, but the opposition to the Islamist regime deserves Western assistance. The strategic consequences of Turkey becoming a part of an anti-American axis are far reaching. For the sake of the free world, but mostly for their own sake, let us hope that the Turks will choose democracy and progress and not the poverty, ignorance and authoritarianism offered by Islamist regimes.