Turkish-Israeli relations: last kiss goodbye

September 09, 2011, Friday/ 14:23:00

Over the past few days, the common theme among editorials has been that Turkey's decision to expel the Israeli ambassador and withhold all new military agreements was not entirely surprising.

In fact, diplomatic tension between Israel and Turkey had been brewing well before Israel's attack on an aid flotilla bound for Gaza last year. It was the Gaza massacre in 2008-2009 when Ankara expressed its frustration and rage at Israeli policy.

Furthermore, Israel's refusal to apologize over its attack on the aid flotilla to Gaza seems to be the perfect opportunity to leverage support and justification, and to lobby the international community to downgrade its diplomatic ties with the Israeli government. It is worth noting that this is not the first time Israel is facing a diplomatic crisis. A few years ago, Australia and the UK were two Western countries that at one point or another thought of downgrading diplomatic ties with Israel over its officials' violations of their host countries' laws.

The significance of the decision

Aside from interpreting the decision as a retaliatory response to Israel's refusal to apologize, there is more beyond this diplomatic antagonism. Historically, diplomatic ties between Turkey and Israel were represented at a relatively junior level. As Turkey was further isolated under martial law in the 1980s, it was strategically calculated to cultivate approval in the Arab world. In recent years, particularly under Turkey's more democratic regime, a more confident Ankara has been directing its political weight into becoming a regional force.

Moving away from its traditional approach to foreign policy, Turkey is now becoming an important player in the Middle East. Combining a robust economy and a functioning democracy, Ankara has been at the forefront of the peacemaking process in the Middle East. Much of Ankara's frustration comes from the sense that the hard-line right-wing government of Israel is trying to stop it from performing its role as a regional force.

The language of the Turkish foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, has made it clear that relations with Israel are not going to be as they used to be in the past, which could in fact complicate relations with Washington -- a powerful pro-Israel ally -- at a time when it should be helping to coordinate a response to the events of the Arab Spring.

Given the fundamental role Turkey is playing in NATO's forces in Libya and the harsh criticism of the Syrian regime over its reckless use of power against civilian protesters, the decision to downgrade diplomatic ties with Israel shows that Turkey is not dismissive of strategic relationships. This is clear particularly since the stated policy and goals of Turkey are directed more at being responsive to the demands of the Turkish public and throughout the Arab world. Such demands have been displayed by calls for Turkey to engage more actively in the Middle East. Within this context, policy-making in Turkey does not seem to be dependent on political interest and strategic relations alone, but also on a broader worldview and ideology in which political morality plays an important role.

Such political morality has been demonstrated by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's view that a relationship with the Turkish public is far more important than a relationship with Israel. Interestingly, the commitment to receiving an Israeli apology over the killing of nine Turkish citizens during the lethal Israeli raid in international waters has become an integral part of his political credibility, which consolidates his public power. More interestingly, in a democratic sphere, foreign policy is married with domestic politics. This has clearly been apparent in Turkey's foreign policy when it did not hesitate to be harsh on Syrian President Basher al-Assad, despite Syria's importance as an ally in the region, just as Erdoğan made it clear to the Iranian regime that he does not accept the way it dictates Syria in the midst of the Syrian regime's crackdown on protesters, he has not hesitated to sever ties with Israel after it did not accept his terms.

Reattaching with the Middle East

Over the past few years, Ankara under the rule of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) has been at odds with the military stronghold, which has resulted in serious tension. While the recent tension between the military and the government has drawn attention to Turkey's domestic policies, interesting changes in the country's foreign policy have gone largely unnoticed. After years of passivity, Turkey is currently emerging as an important diplomatic player in the Middle East. Examples of this shift can be seen in Ankara's success in establishing ties with Syria and Iran, with which it had serious tension during the 1980s and 1990s. Ankara has also adopted a more active approach towards the question of Palestine and the Palestinians' plight. Additionally, it has established strong ties with the Arab world.

What is interesting about this diplomatic shift is that it represents a fundamental departure from the old model of Turkish foreign policy. In fact, this is exactly the opposite of what the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, said were the principles of the modern republic: that it should limit its involvement in Middle Eastern affairs.

However, it is important to realize that Ankara also enjoys good relations with the West; therefore, its involvement with the Middle East or the recent diplomatic crisis with Israel do not mean Turkey is turning its back to the West. This is not even what Ankara's critics have been suggesting over the past years, that Islamists are the key players in Turkey's foreign policy.

It would be more rational to consider the changes in Ankara's foreign policy as a strategic response to the significant changes in the geopolitics of the region and globally. Moreover, it is also important to realize that the changes in Ankara's security environment since the end of the Cold War have also been a decisive factor. With its powerful involvement in the Middle East and its strong ties with the West, Turkey can in effect act as a bridge to the Middle East and serve as a troubleshooter for its problems.

*Hani Abueshiba is a policy and media analyst.

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