There may be good reasons to condemn Israel for its incursion into Gaza last December: some 1,400 Palestinians were killed as Israel got tough on Hamas a month before parliamentary elections. But Turkey’s diplomatic response has snowballed to enormous proportions – leaving Turkey-watchers wondering whether Gaza wasn’t just a convenient excuse for the Islamist government in Ankara to shed a historical ally it really considered distasteful all along.
Despite their differences and squabbles over the years, Turkey and Israel have stuck together as reliable Middle East allies since 1949 when Turkey was the first Muslim country to recognise Israel’s statehood. But potentially fatal blows to Israeli-Turkish relations have landed in the past few weeks.
This week, the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was in Tehran visiting the radical Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whom Erdogan calls his “friend”. Erdogan also defends Iran’s right to a nuclear programme, panicking western diplomats who are trying to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran. Observers are trying to figure out what on earth Turkey is up to. The risks are high for the region and for the West – which depends on Turkey in a number of important military, energy and political alliances.
The Islamist AK Party, which came to power in Turkey in 2002, has carefully put together its so-called “zero problems with neighbours” foreign policy. With backing from Europe and the US, this policy has enabled Turkey to expand its traditional alliances with both the West and the Middle East while increasing its influence by becoming a neutral mediator in regional conflicts: Iran and the West, Armenia and Azerbaijan, Israel and Hamas and others. Now it seems that all of Turkey’s diplomatic hard work – and its perceived neutrality –has been suddenly and demonstrably tossed out.
Some are suggesting that Turkey may be doing no less than leaving the West. This would not surprise the AK Party’s critics at home, who have long accused the party of secretly plotting to transform secular Turkey into a theocracy like Iran. The evidence of such a change is thin. But Turkey has clearly chosen to increase its role as a regional power and have stronger relations with the Muslim world. It remains to be seen the cost it is willing to pay.
The conflict with Israel first erupted in January at the Davos Conference when Erdogan stormed off the stage in a debate with Israeli president Shimon Peres over Gaza. It was a finely calibrated political move – winning Turkey high-fives from Arabs and Muslims across the world. Political analysts understood it as positioning the AK Party ahead of the March local elections.
It was only recently that the Gaza spillover affected Turkey’s foreign policy. Two weeks ago, Turkey withdrew its invitation to Israel to participate in an annual air force exercise, citing Gaza. But Israeli public opinion really became enraged a week later when Turkish state television aired a programme showing Israeli soldiers brutalising Palestinians, including shooting a child. Israel protested. An Israeli café chain is now refusing to serve Turkish coffee and Israeli visitor numbers to Turkey are down 56 per cent. It’s hard to see how Turkish-Israeli relations will ever recover as long as the AK Party remains in power.
No one knows where Erdogan’s move will take Turkey politically or whether the enormous shift is part of a larger “plan” – as many secular Turks speculate. Israel, for its part, needs to get over its misguided belief that it can remain unaccountable to international public opinion. But Turkey is a country of 77 million people with the world’s 17th biggest economy in a crucial geopolitical position. Its hard-earned ties with both the East and West are too valuable to squander on short-sighted anti-western populism.