Questions about AK Party’s Gaza policy by EMRE USLU & ÖNDER AYTAÇ

January 23, 2009, Friday/ 14:10:00
The following questions were raised by a Western journalist. It seems that people in Washington and Ankara are trying to find the answers to the following three questions.

1. Has the Gaza conflict damaged Israeli-Turkish relations and to what extent?

Anti-Israel sentiment has increased significantly. Since the late 1990s, Turkish policy toward Israel was to reduce the public outrage in Turkey toward Israeli policies, which allowed the governments to establish better relations; however, the current public outrage has significantly constrained the government's ability to establish unquestioned relations with Israel. On the other hand, Israel's reaction to Turkey can be defined as a deep disappointment. But both countries have their own limitations when it comes to cutting off relations completely. We believe that sooner or later realistic approaches will determine the future of the relations. Two key elements are also important. First, it is important to know how the Jewish lobby in Washington will react to the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government's intense criticism of Israel's Gaza operation. The second is how the upcoming local elections will shape domestic politics in Turkey. If the AK Party once again wins decisively and proves that it is the only political party that will run the government, then the Jewish lobby and Israel would want to continue working with the AK Party. If the AK Party loses some of its power, then the powerful Jewish lobby with its traditional allies in Turkey will turn the wheel to crush the AK Party government both in Washington and in Turkey.

2. What aspects were behind Turkey's reaction to the Israeli incursion?

Two important things played a role in Turkey's harsh reaction to the Israeli incursion. First, there has been growing criticism of Erdoğan that has been circulated by neo-nationalists, who say he is nothing but a puppet of the US and Israel. The clips of Erdoğan's infamous statement, "We are the co-chair of the Greater Middle East Initiative," were circulated on the Internet and played on neo-nationalist radio and TV channels over and over again. It created a vacuum in which many people kept Erdoğan responsible for being too close to the US, Israel and the EU. In fact, a week before the Gaza incident, Erdoğan for the first time came out and said the Greater Middle East Initiative was no longer an efficient policy. Perhaps with this statement Erdoğan was hoping for an opportunity to distance himself from the criticism of being a puppet of the US and Israel. In addition, Erdoğan is an emotional person who can easily show his emotion when he sees the suffering of the people of Gaza, especially the children.

Second, Erdoğan felt betrayed by the Israeli government; right before the Gaza incursion, the Israeli prime minister was in Ankara, spent five hours meeting with Erdoğan and did not say anything about the Gaza incursion. Erdoğan thought it was not only a betrayal of his trust in Israel in Turkish-Israeli relations but that it also damaged the ongoing peace process between Syria and Israel.

Erdoğan's criticism of Israel was well received by the public in Turkey and the Muslim world, convincing Erdoğan that he is on right track. It remains to be seen whether Erdoğan will want to continue his popular position; however, the Gaza incident made Erdoğan a hero of the Muslim world and he seems to be enjoying it.

3. Was Turkey's reaction to Israel indicative of any tension over AK Party policy in Turkey? In particular, has the government's reaction affected the relationship between the AK Party and the Turkish military?

We believe that most of the bureaucracy shares Erdoğan's concerns. Especially within the military institution, there is a segment that is not happy with Israel's policy toward Kurds in northern Iraq; however, if it were not the AK Party in power, no other government could come out and openly criticize Israeli policies in Gaza. The AK Party's policy toward Israel is developed based on a realistic paradigm that has two edges. On one side, the AK Party realizes that it, as the ruling party, still needs some level of international legitimacy and most of its legitimacy is earned by the Jewish lobby in Washington. Thus, the AK Party does not want to harm its legitimacy. However, by the same principle of this realistic paradigm, the AK Party does not want to lose its constituency based on the allegation that is too close to the Jewish lobby, the US and Israel. When it comes to the AK Party military balance, military leaders would prefer to see how things will develop in the coming months; they especially want to see how the AK Party will perform in the upcoming election and how the rest of the world will react to the election results. If the leaders see that the AK Party might lose its powerful position, then the military would prefer to join the Jewish lobby in Washington to punish the AK Party. Otherwise, we do not expect the military to act alone to stop the AK Party government from criticizing Israel's policies.

[*] Dr. Emre Uslu is an analyst working with Washington-based think tank the Jamestown Foundation. Önder Aytaç is an associate professor at Gazi University's department of communications and works with the Security Studies Institute in Ankara.

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