For many observers, the long-term implications of Israel’s deadly May 31 assault against the MV Mavi Marmara, the Turkish flagship that was part of the Gaza Freedom flotilla, on Israeli-Turkish relations are unclear.
The attack left eight Turks and one Turkish-American dead and scores more wounded. The flotilla set off to break Israel’s illegal blockade of Gaza and to raise global awareness of the suffering endured by the 1.5 million Palestinians living in what is widely described as the world’s largest open-air prison.
While acknowledging the growing rift between Israel and Turkey that began amid Israel’s December 2008 invasion of Gaza, as evidenced by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s clash with Israeli President Shimon Peres during a dialogue about Gaza at the World Economic Forum summit in Davos, Switzerland, in January 2009, many point to the tradition of strong ties enjoyed by Israel and Turkey as proof that the current crisis in Israeli-Turkish relations represents a temporary setback as opposed to a permanent realignment of the regional order.
Business as usual?
Based on the track record of Israeli-Turkish relations, it would seem logical to conclude that the confluence of mutual interests will transcend the bilateral crisis. Israel and Turkey have cultivated a strategic partnership over the years spanning the political, economic and military realms.
Although Turkey has announced that it will review its military relationship with Israel, including current and future arms purchases of Israeli weapons platforms and other forms of cooperation, the ongoing spat has not precluded the scheduled delivery of Israeli-made Heron unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and supporting technology as part of a US$190 million deal.
A Turkish military delegation arrived in Israel in late June to test the UAVs following Israel’s decision to recall its military personnel from Turkey following the diplomatic row. On the trade front, consumer boycotts by Israelis targeting the Turkish economy and similar moves by Turks to single out the Israeli economy have already contributed to a decline in the bilateral trade volume that normally totals around $3 billion annually.
Thousands of Israeli tourists, for instance, heeded the advice of their government and canceled planned vacations to Turkey in 2010. Many Israeli stores have also emptied their shelves of Turkish products. Likewise, a number of Turkish firms have dropped out of plans to enter into joint ventures with Israeli companies. A host of construction and energy projects involving Turkish firms dealing with Israelis, for instance, have been suspended until further review or cancelled outright. Despite these actions, there are signs that business dealings overall between Israel and Turkey will, for the most part, remain largely unaffected.
Leaked reports of secret talks between Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and Israeli Industry, Trade, and Labor Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer in Brussels in late June were also interpreted as a sign that national interests and pragmatism would win out over a continued deterioration of relations.
Looks can be deceiving
Tangible signs of a looming reconciliation between Israel and Turkey aside, there are also indications that tensions will continue to degenerate.
Turkey’s recall of its ambassador to Israel and its threat to sever relations over its refusal to apologize for the deadly raid against the flotilla and accept an independent international inquiry into the incident, reflect the extent to which relations have deteriorated, as do Israeli threats to recognize the Armenian Genocide of 1915 perpetrated by the Ottoman Turks and ramped up efforts among Israel’s supporters in the US to do the same in Washington – a red line that cannot be crossed as far as Turkey is concerned. Turkish military and government officials have also accused Israel of providing support to militants from Partiya Karkeren Kurdistan (the Kurdistan Workers’ Party – PKK) , including during a May 31 attack against a naval base in Iskandirun that left seven servicemen dead and six more wounded.
The PKK attack occurred just hours before Israel’s assault against the flotilla. In this context, Israeli support for the PKK would appear to represent a form of retaliation for Turkish support for the Palestinians. No evidence has emerged to substantiate Turkish claims of an Israeli hand behind the PKK attack at Iskandirun. Israel does maintain close contacts with various factions in Iraqi Kurdistan – a launching pad for PKK operations against Turkey – where it is known to have an intelligence presence. Israeli companies also have extensive business interests in the Iraqi province.
There are also indications that future crises revolving around flotillas are in the offing, and it is likely that Turks will once again figure prominently in such efforts. Meanwhile, the Israelis have called for the formation of an Israeli-led flotilla that would embark for Turkey to protest over the plight of its ethnic Kurdish community as well as Ankara’s positions on the Armenian genocide and Northern Cyprus. The organizers of the Gaza Freedom flotilla are also planning additional missions to break the siege and deliver humanitarian aid in the coming months. A number of independent activist groups have also set off on their own missions to Gaza.
Demise of Israel’s ‘periphery strategy’
Important shifts in the respective strategic outlooks and societies in Israel and Turkey also suggest that hostilities in Israeli-Turkish relations will not go away anytime soon.
A consideration of Israel’s “periphery strategy” is critical to understanding the current state of Israeli-Turkish ties. The strategy has served as a guiding principle of Israeli foreign policy since the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948.
Israel sought to cultivate formal as well as covert alliances with non-Arab countries and ethnic and sectarian minorities around its periphery to outflank the surrounding Arab states hostile to it – in particular Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Sudan and the Palestinian national movement – and to counter the influence of pan-Arab nationalism.
As the first Muslim nation to recognize Israel in 1949, Turkey was an essential part of the periphery strategy, along with Iran under Reza Shah Pahlavi, Ethiopia under Haile Selassie, Kurdish nationalists in Iraq, Maronite Christians and Druze in Lebanon, Christians in southern Sudan, and Jewish communities across the region.
Given its traditionally pro-Western and staunchly secular orientation, its status as a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and aspirations of gaining entry into the European Union (EU), Israel’s ties with Turkey developed into one of the region’s most dynamic relationships.
The significance of Israeli-Turkish relations increased dramatically after the Iranian revolution of 1979 toppled the shah. Therein lies the significance of the rift in Israeli-Turkish relations; Israel’s attack against the flotilla signaled its abandonment of its strategic alliance with Turkey. Israel also seemingly went to great lengths to humiliate Turkey in the process, a reality that will surely not be forgotten in Ankara anytime soon.
Turkey’s star is rising
Much has been said of Turkey’s rise as a regional power and its improved standing in the greater Islamic world. Turkey is indeed relishing its position as a symbol resistance and advocate for the Palestinians in the eyes of Arabs and Muslims across the Middle East.
Long excluded from the EU and having felt betrayed by its ally the United States for its backing of Kurdish political aspirations in Iraqi Kurdistan – a development it saw as setting a dangerous precedent to be emulated by Kurdish nationalists on its own soil – an increasingly confident and assertive Turkey has set off on a new foreign policy course that departs from its prior role as a reliable and predictable friend of Washington and Brussels.
Elements of political theater are certainly at play in Turkey’s attempt to fashion itself as a regional leader and champion of the Palestinian cause. Moreover, despite the noticeable shift in Ankara’s rhetoric and actions, Turkey remains a valuable and close ally of the United States and NATO, as well as a committed EU aspirant.
At the same time, buoyed by an increasingly stable domestic political scene and an expanding economy that continues to trend upward even amid the global economic downturn, the transformation of Turkish foreign policy under the leadership of Erdogan’s moderate Islamist-oriented Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi (Justice and Development Party – AKP) in recent years reflects a fundamental shift in Turkey’s outlook.
Turkey is also asserting itself amid a decline of American power in the Middle East and beyond and the appearance of a new multi-polarity characterized by the ascent of regional powers capable of projecting their influence on the global stage. While it preserves its Western orientation, Turkey today also openly embraces its Islamic heritage and Muslim neighbors, including former enemies such as Syria that it now counts as a strategic partner.
Driven by its philosophy of “zero problems with neighbors”, Turkey, in essence, sees no contradiction with maintaining a firm foothold in the West while re-establishing close economic, diplomatic, cultural and increasingly, military ties, with the countries situated in its former sphere of imperial influence around its southern and eastern frontiers.
Changes in Turkish society characterized by the growing sense of collective Muslim identity have also impacted the recalibration of Turkish foreign policy. The rise of the AKP is a key aspect of this trend. Popular opinion among Turks tends to reflect a deep-seated sensitivity to the suffering of the Palestinians living under Israeli military occupation. As a result, Ankara’s stance on the flotilla attack and evolving approach to its dealings with Israel and the Palestinians must also be considered as a product of public opinion; an important point that should not be discarded considering Turkey’s democratic landscape.
In contrast to the sclerotic authoritarian regimes such as those in Egypt and Jordan that meet popular expressions of support for the Palestinians and other forms of activism with oppression, Turkish democracy, for all of its flaws, must cater to public opinion. Israel – increasingly isolated in the Middle East and in the international arena – may come to rue the day it dumped Turkey. In the strategic realm, Israel today (and down the line) needs Turkey far more than the other way around.
The crisis in Israeli-Turkish relations is not over. In fact, it may have just begun. Bilateral ties will continue on multiple levels, especially in the economic sphere. The United States will also devote a great deal of effort to help both countries reconcile.
At the same time, the strategic military aspect of the Israeli-Turkish axis – the most crucial facet of the relationship – has suffered irreparable damage. As the relationship between the US and China demonstrates, strong trade ties and other critical links can coexist alongside serious rifts and disagreements over a host of strategic military issues.
A regional force in its own right that enjoys seemingly unconditional support from Washington, Israel has grown accustomed to dealing with weak and generally compliant neighbors that have allowed it to shape events in its environment to its advantage. Turkey now appears capable and intent to steadily challenge this status quo.
Chris Zambelis is an author and researcher with Helios Global, Inc, a risk management group based in the Washington, DC area. He specializes in Middle East politics. The views expressed here are the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of Helios Global, Inc.