A ‘Love Affair’ Gone Wrong: Turkish-Israeli Relations Stand on the Brink

Letter From Istanbul

By Yigal Schleifer

Published June 03, 2010, issue of June 11, 2010.
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A few weeks ago, I was reminiscing with a member of a Turkish nongovernmental organization, a person who works on improving business ties with Israel and the Palestinians, about the golden age of Turkey-Israel relations.

We weren’t talking about a decade ago, when military ties were solidified and the now shattered “love affair” between the two countries began. Rather, we were talking about a mere three years ago, when Israeli President Shimon Peres and his Palestinian counterpart, Mahmoud Abbas, came to Ankara, where both addressed the Turkish Parliament.

It was a dramatic event: the first time an Israeli head of state spoke at the legislature of a Muslim country. At the time, it also inspired hope that doubts about the viability of the Turkish-Israeli alliance — provoked by the 2002 election of the Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party, known by its Turkish acronym, AKP — would quickly disappear.

“There is a sense that both sides believe in the potential of these relations,” an Israeli diplomat based in Turkey optimistically told me at the time.

The relationship with Israel was certainly an ill-fitting suit for the AKP, and particularly for its leader, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who cut his political teeth in Turkey’s anti-Zionist (and frequently antisemitic) Islamist movement. Still, it was a suit that Erdogan and his party realized they needed to don in the interest of Turkey and the AKP. Maintaining strong ties with Israel would send out a powerful message that Turkey, a NATO member, was still a member in good standing of the Western alliance and that the AKP’s leadership didn’t carry any ideological baggage from its Islamist past.

In 2008, as part of an effort to establish itself as a regional soft-power broker and mediator, Turkey played host to a series of secret talks between Israel and Syria. As these talks progressed, it appeared that even Erdogan was starting to feel comfortable with the Israel relationship. When Israel’s then prime minister, Ehud Olmert, visited Turkey in December 2008, photos showed a relaxed and smiling Erdogan (words rarely used to describe the Turkish prime minister) greeting his Israeli counterpart. As described later by Erdogan at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, it was during this visit that Erdogan conducted an intensive and promising round of shuttle telephone diplomacy, moving between Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, on the line from Damascus, and Olmert, who was in another room. According to Turkish officials, Erdogan believed that a breakthrough in Israeli-Syria relations was imminent.

Instead, things went downhill quickly.

Only a few days later after Olmert left Turkey with plans to resume talks soon, Israel launched Operation Cast Lead, its military drive into Gaza in response to the rockets launched into Israel from there under the government of Hamas.

Turkish-Israeli relations took a dive that has yet to stop. Erdogan, a blunt politician who shoots from the hip, felt personally deceived by Olmert, who he believed should have informed him of the planned attack.

At the WEF in late January 2009, just weeks after the end of hostilities, Erdogan found himself sharing the stage with Peres. In what has by now become an infamous bit of political theater, Erdogan ended up storming off the stage, accusing Peres and Israel of “knowing very well how to kill.”

Erdogan returned home a hero, crowned the “Conqueror of Davos” by a crowd of cheering supporters who were waiting for him at the airport. The event also helped introduce Erdogan and the new Turkey to a Middle Eastern public that for decades knew little more about the country beyond its complicated legacy of Ottoman rule in the region.

Since then, Israel’s relations with Turkey have gone from bad to worse, hobbled by a series of Israeli missteps and by Ankara’s growing insistence of pegging its relationship with Israel to the Palestinian issue (or, to be more specific, the situation in Gaza).

“I think you can index how Turkey-Israel relations have gone with how Israel has treated the Palestinians,” said Hugh Pope, a former Wall Street Journal reporter and currently Turkey analyst for the International Crisis Group.

In that sense, the tensions between Israel and Turkey surrounding Israel’s May 31 raid on the aid flotilla heading to Gaza — a flotilla spearheaded by an Islamist Turkish NGO — were long coming. The flotilla may have been a private initiative, as Ankara claimed, but it was also serving as a kind of proxy for Turkish policy.

The flotilla fiasco — an event that saw the Israel Defense Forces spill Turkish blood — will likely serve as a historic turning point in the once close relations between Turkey and Israel, the moment that Israel’s most important Middle East ally decided to make very public its belief that the political cost of its engagement with Israel now outweighed its strategic advantages. More than that, this moment marks the first time that, as one veteran political analyst here put it, Turkey has decided to “take sides” in the Middle East conflict. “It is quite clearly opposed to Israel now,” says Sami Kohen, foreign affairs columnist for the Turkish daily Milliyet.

The event could also serve as a watershed moment for Turkey’s historic Jewish community, now numbering some 20,000, most of them in Istanbul. Many in the community initially supported the AKP, which came into office promising better government, a free-market approach, and a pro-West and pro-European Union membership agenda. It also, at least initially, said all the right things about relations with Israel.

The current environment is much different, and deeply troubling. Amid rising popular and official fury with Israel, Turkish officials have gone out of their way to warn those who might be thinking about harming the Turkish-Jewish community. The government has beefed up security at synagogues and at other Jewish institutions, as well. But since Operation Cast Lead, Erdogan’s rhetoric against Israel has become increasingly belligerent and inflammatory, and even more so after the events of May 31.

Turkey is a deeply nationalist country, with a public that is quick to take offense. Crowds can be whipped up into a frenzy with ease. Erdogan’s words could give life to something that will ultimately be hard to control. Despite the earlier close ties, the Turkish public never totally warmed to the idea of a close alliance with Israel. Now, after the death and injury of Turkish citizens at the hands of Israeli soldiers, the public perception is that Israel is not a friend, and maybe is even an enemy.

Yigal Schleifer has been reporting from Turkey for the last eight years. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, Haaretz and other publications. Contact Yigal Schleifer at feedback@forward.com

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