Turkey and Israel: How should a balance be established? by GÖKHAN BACIK*

Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan with Israeli President Shimon Peres.

January 15, 2010, Friday/ 16:02:00
The tension in Turkish-Israeli relations that started with the Israeli attacks against Gaza and reached its peak with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Davos walkout has entered its most strained phase in the recent past with the developments of the last three days. The two countries have dispensed with the conventions of diplomacy that are normally carried out at a calmer and more symbolic level and accused each other harshly in the eyes of the international community, thereby adding new dimensions to already strained relations. The current situation can be described as the threshold of a phase that might create much bigger problems irrespective of the influences of the interested parties. If the two sides choose to increase the tension further, irrevocable consequences may arise due to the nature of the international political process.

No doubt Turkey has a justifiable position in the criticism it voiced against what Israel did in Gaza. On the other hand, Israel has, from time to time,  treated Turkey with behavior beyond diplomatic courtesy. However, all these justifications are not sufficient to produce useful results in the process. Israel is not Turkey’s only parameter in international policy and in the Middle East. For this reason, for the sake of the fate of what it intends to do in other areas, Turkey should not let its problems with Israel create issues in the areas outside its bilateral relations. Naturally, Turkey should criticize Israel’s errors and react to its reactions that go beyond diplomatic limits, but never allow the process to grow irrevocably into a structure that will continually give birth to new crises.

There is an underlying point beneath the visible problems in Turkish-Israeli relations: Turkey is developing a new regional vision. In this context, it is establishing close relations with Lebanon, Syria and other countries in the region. Naturally, Turkey’s regional vision is not against any country. However, Israel tends to perceive Syria, Lebanon and some other countries in the region as its deadly enemies. Therefore, while this is not essentially the case, Israel is inclined to perceive Turkey’s regional vision as a threat against itself. In a sense, Israel believes that Turkey is building a new Middle East at its expense. The status quo in the Middle East is being changed by Turkey, which creates first-hand concerns for Israel.

Another point is about the radical political life in Israel where frequent elections are held and unstable governments are established one after another. Successive elections have radicalized Israeli politics, making it anomalous. This structural problem prevents Israel from making sense of the new developments in the world. The fragmented and unstable political life has dealt a serious blow to Israel’s state reflexes. Israel is having difficulties in making sense of recent developments, particularly Turkey’s emergence as a new regional power.

However, despite their rightfulness, Turkish political elites must diligently take into consideration some aspects of the processes concerning Israel. First of all, Turkey’s power in the Middle East relies on its strong legitimacy in the Middle East. However, legitimacy in international relations stems not from oneself or a single party, but from all sides. Turkey entertains a strong legitimacy since it is honored both by the West and the East, or both by Syria and Israel. Turkey should not let any issue do harm to its multilateral legitimacy.

Second, both in Turkish domestic politics and in Middle East policy, Turkish decision makers should not act as “the spokespeople of those who cannot do anything on their own.” Rather, Turkey should continue to make its progress steadily based on the tangible and intangible means available to it. Today, major regional governments -- which we do not wish to name here -- show apparent indifference to basic issues, particularly the Palestine issue. The positive attitude shown by some regional governments which are quite ineffective in terms of democratic legitimacy, effective foreign policy, etc. toward the tension between Turkey and Israel should be viewed with skepticism. In short, Turkey should not be part of typical Arab politics. Turkey should not lose its capability to pursue exceptional policies with respect to Israel.

Likewise, a skeptical stance should also be directed inside Turkey. The reactions by rightist, leftist, conservative or religious entities who have nothing to lose from the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AK Party) emerging as a hardcore anti-Israeli government in the international arena should be analyzed with skepticism as well. These marginal groups may be excused for the happy lives they lead in their small worlds far from the realities of real politics with their pragmatic and easy recipes. But their reactions to the incidents that concern the masses should be filtered with certain critical assessments. Likewise, it should be noted that the nationalists and neonationalists, who tend to portray diplomatic issues as “national issues” in order to push the AK Party toward a more hawkish position, do not seek the AK Party’s happiness. In this context, the past performance of these groups which had encouraged the AK Party to fight against the US as seen in the hood incident should be remembered. The AK Party should ask itself the following question: What is the tactical target of those who push us against Israel: us or Israel?

Third, the right to life of the groups which live in Turkey and which advocate good relations with Turkey should not be ruined. Israeli policy accommodates some groups which attach importance to close relations with Turkey for historical, cultural and other reasons. Any tension with Turkey will inevitably destroy the political legitimacies of these groups. If Turkish-Israel relations are maintained in a strained manner for an extended period, this will naturally purge these groups and the issue will spread to longer stretches of time without resolution. Likewise, an extremely harsh policy will paradoxically lend a greater lifespan to the hawks of Israel. Turkey should realize that every tension adds energy to the Israeli politicians who do not seek peace. The AK Party’s elites should remember how certain issues, such as the Armenian issue, have been abused by Turkish security elites for many years. The tension between Turkey and Israel may give rise to the consequences to be benefited by the people who live in Israel and whose raison d’être is aggression. Strengthening the radicals in this country will not be useful for the entire region, particularly for the Palestinians, in the long run.


* Gökhan Bacık is an associate professor at Zirve University.
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