Turkey and Israel interpret the emerging order in the Middle East differently

September 26, 2011, Monday/ 10:45:00/ TARIK OĞUZLU

The recent crisis in Turkish-Israeli relations following the diametrically opposing reactions of the parties to the findings of the so-called Palmer Report of the united Nations cannot be understood in isolation from the way how each reads the embryonic regional order in the Middle East. In a nutshell, it appears that Turkey is acting as a ‘revisionist/aspirant’ power whereas Israel a staunch ‘supporter of the status quo’.

It seems that Turkey is far ahead of Israel in adapting herself to the new dynamics in the region, particularly as far as the regional implications of the so-called Arab Spring are concerned. Turkey is pioneering attempts at establishing a new order in the Middle East that would no longer recognize Israel as a ‘sui generis actor above international opprobrium and international law’; treat the United States as the ‘custodian’ of any order in the region as if regional actors are incapable of solving their problems on their own; and associate the region with oil, weapons of mass destruction and Arab-Israeli conflict .

While Turkey argues for a new regional order based on the active agency and responsibility of regional actors and thinks that Israel’s security could only achieved through the normalization of Israel’s relations with her ‘enemies’, Israel seems very much in favor of the idea that the United States continue to act as the guardian of Israel’s territorial security.

From turkey’s perspective, it seems that the lasting peace and stability to the region would only come if the region cased to be defined as an object of Western security interests. Neither Israel nor any external actor should continue to define the Middle East from an instrumental perspective in such a way to ‘contain’ and ‘eliminate’ threats emanating from this area. This way of thinking would not empower the actors in the region to engage each other through cooperative lenses. Regional actors should be the actors/subjects of their destiny rather than the objects of others.      

As the Arab Spring has unfolded, Turkey has adopted the view that a new order in the region can only be established by helping institutionalize ‘representative democracy’ across the area. This would not only bring into existence more peaceful and stable relations among regional actors but also put the relations between western powers and regional actors on healthier grounds. It is a great irony that Turkey, a country whose western credentials have come under strong challenges in recent years, appears to have taken the lead in the institutionalization of a western friendly regional order in the Middle East, whereas Israel, a country that owes its existence to western powers and has long been seen as the true defender of western security interest in this area, seems to tide against this stream. 

It is another irony that while the United States has had to ‘officially’ argue against the acceptance of Palestine as a sovereign member of the United Nations, there has been a growing degree of convergence between Ankara and Washington concerning many issues occupying the Middle Eastern agenda. The meeting between Erdogan and Obama on the sidelines of the UN summit bears this out. Left to himself, the President Obama would have probably sided with the pro-Palestinian cause in the United Nations.   

It is notable that while Turkey has dared to take the risk of damaging her relations with the incumbent regimes in Libya, Syria and Iran by clearly supporting people’ calls for more freedom, welfare and dignity, Israel has adopted a very cautious approach fearing that a new order in the region based on ‘people power’ might have dire consequences on the traditional pillars of regional security, Israel relations with neighbors and the legitimacy of Israel’s territorial existence.    

Whereas Turkish rulers on numerous occasions underline the growing salience and legitimacy of ‘people’ power’, their Israeli counterparts point out to the risks and dangers of regime changes across the region. In Turkey’s view, the new order should be ‘owned’ by people on streets and emerging leaders need to act accountable to their electorate. Relying on natural resources, repressive state institutions or outside support would no longer help ensure regime survival.

While Turkey appears to believe that the solution of the Arab-Israeli conflict is the sine quo non for the legitimacy and sustainability of any order that might emerge in the region, Israel appears to think that now is the worst time to engage in direct negotiations with Palestinians.  While Turkey sees the declaration of an independent/sovereign Palestinian state inside the United Nations as a way to escape the current deadlock/stalemate in the peace process, Israel tends to interpret Turkey’s active lobbing efforts on behalf of the Palestinians’ UN campaign as a particular Turkish move to punish Israel for her intransigence on the ‘apology’ issue. 

While Turkey sees the normalization of relations between Arab states and Israel as vital for the new order, Israel tends to interpret Turkey’s growing efforts to help ensure such a normalization as undermining Israel’s legitimacy and bargaining power vis-à-vis the Arabs .

From Turkey’s perspective there is nothing wrong for Turkey, a former imperial power in this region, to get actively involved in the solution of the Arab-Israeli dispute and voice her claims in international platforms accordingly.  However, this is not to suggest that Turkey has been after attempts at reconstructing the Ottoman Empire. On the contrary, that is to suggest that the more Turkey’s internal peace and stability hinge on developments in the region and the more powerful Turkey becomes in terms of hard and soft power capabilities, the more interested Turkey would become in the way how things run in her neighborhood. This is pure realpolitik and very much in conformity with the rules that shape American, European, Russian and Chinese foreign and security policy practices.

»» Assoc. Prof. Dr. Tarık Oğuzlu, Bilkent University Department of IR