[Originally published in Irish Times]
A decade ago, Israel and Turkey seemed to be “the” best friends in the Middle East. Today they are not only engaged in an unending war of words, but there is even blood between them.
How did we get here?
Turks have a pretty cordial history with the Jewish people. When the latter were expelled from Catholic Spain in 1492, the Ottoman Empire offered them a safe haven. The immigrant Sephardic communities flourished in Ottoman lands, becoming the most loyal non-Muslim people to the Sultanate until the latter’s demise in the first World War.
When Israel was founded in 1948, Turkey was among the first countries to recognise it. The two states soon became allies within the Cold War context: they were both US allies threatened by the Soviet Union and its proxies. Some strategists even spoke of a pro-American “trident” in the region: Turkey, Israel and the Shah’s Iran.
The Cold War context influenced not just Turkish policy-makers but also society, including the devoutly Islamic camp. For the latter, the main concern was “godless communism”, and their natural sympathies for the Muslim Palestinians were restrained by the fact that the Palestinian resistance was then mainly a secular left-wing movement. In the 1970s, only the Turkish communists would go to PLO bases to fight against Israel, “the vanguard of American imperialism”.
Things began to change in the 1990s, when Turkey started to approach the region with a new vision. The war in the former Yugoslavia, and particularly the ethnic cleansing of the Bosnian Muslims by the Serbs, had a deep impact on Turkish society. The Serbs were calling Bosnians “Turks”, and this reminded the real Turks that they have “Muslim brothers” in the surrounding region, whom they once protected in the great Ottoman Empire, but who were now in harm’s way.
The Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief (IHH) – the Turkish aid body that spearheaded last week’s Gaza flotilla – was born out of this spirit. It was founded in 1992 to support Bosnian Muslims. The 1990s also saw the rise of political Islam in Turkey. The Welfare Party led by Necmeddin Erbakan came to power in 1996 as the head of a coalition government, which soon was forced out by the ultra-secularist generals through a process called “the post-modern coup”. Erbakan was clearly pro-Palestinian and anti-Zionist, and at times even anti-Semitic, and the generals who ousted him from power saw the Jewish state as their natural ally. Hence the “post-modern coup years”, 1997 to 1999, were also a climax in Turkish-Israeli alliance, with new deals on military and intelligence co-operation and a similarly tough stance against Iran and Syria.
But the night of the generals did not last long. In 2002, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), formed by the more liberal wing in Erbakan’s party with a moderate and pro-European message, came to power. Under popular leader Tayyip Erdogan, the AKP truly transformed Turkey, introducing many liberal reforms and initiating accession negotiations with the EU. It also made Turkey more at peace with its Muslim identity.
The AKP’s regional foreign policy has been revolutionary. Under foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu, the AKP initiated a “zero problem with neighbours” policy, leading to rapprochements with Greece, Cyprus, Russia, Armenia, Iraq, Iraqi Kurdistan, Syria and Iran. Turkey became a prestigious negotiator in the region, cutting deals between Bosnians and Serbs, Afghans and Pakistanis, and even the various factions in Iraq and Lebanon.
The AKP wished to become a negotiator between Israel and her enemies also. When Hamas came to power in 2006, its Syria-based leader, Khalid Mishal, was welcomed in Ankara. This made the Israelis furious, but Ankara advised Hamas to tone down its radical rhetoric and encouraged it to join the peace process. A year later, Turkey announced that it was brokering negotiations between the Israeli and Syrian governments.
But then came a deadly blow in December 2008: Israel’s sudden war on Gaza, which ended with nearly 1,400 dead Gazans. This had the same effect on Turkish society as the Serbian onslaught on the Bosnians in the 1990s. Politicians, opinion formers and media from across the board denounced Israel’s “state terrorism” and expressed solidarity with their oppressed “brothers” in Palestine.
When Erdogan, the prime minister, famously stormed the stage at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January 2009, accusing the Israelis of being “the killers of children”, he was expressing the predominant mood in Turkish society. His outbursts against Israel after the killing by Israeli commandos of nine Turkish activists on the Gaza flotilla also reflect the furious reaction in his country.
One should note that Erdogan is neither an anti-Semite – he has denounced anti-Semitism many times – nor is he anti-Israeli. He accepts Israel’s right to exist in its pre-1967 borders. Yet he genuinely cares about the suffering of the Palestinians, and sees Hamas not as a terrorist body but a resistance movement and a political party with popular support.
But even for purely politically purposes, he has to stay strong vis-a-vis Israel. The old Islamist school he broke from – the one which still clings to Erbakan’s radical rhetoric – accuses him of not being tough enough, and even of succumbing to “global Zionism”. The Saadet Party which represents this Islamist position, in opposition to the AKP’s post-Islamism, increased its votes from 2.5 to 5 per cent in the past three years. This is one of the factors which Erdogan, who will face elections in a year, must reckon with.
The main reason Turkey is more defiant against Israel than ever is that it is a transformed country. It is much more proud of its Muslim Ottoman identity than before. It is not ruled by ultra-secular generals any more, so that identity, via democratic channels, influences its foreign policy. Turkey is also a surging economic power, making it an influential power broker in the whole region.
There was no way that such a New Turkey – democratic and peace-making, yet proud and ambitious – would turn a blind eye to Israel’s decades-long oppression of the Palestinians.
The only thing that can mend relations will be the rise of a New Israel as well, which will free Gaza, free all occupied territories, and stop killing innocent civilians.