Speaking in the aftermath of Israel’s botched raid on the Gaza flotilla, veteran American diplomat Aaron David Miller commented: “Overnight, the Israelis have boosted Hamas’s stock; accelerated the international community’s efforts to pressure and isolate Israel; undermined [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud] Abbas, prompted a crisis with the Turks.”
Miller may be right on the first three counts, but he has it backward when it comes to Turkey.
Turkey in 2010 is not the same Turkey as a decade ago. Gone is the pro-Western and diplomatically responsible foreign partner familiar to those engaged in the Arab-Israeli peace process. In its place is a regime whose public rhetoric increasingly resembles that of the most hardline Arab states.
The conventional wisdom in Washington and Jerusalem was wrong: Turkey’s Islamist prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is not interested in preserving his country’s relationship with Israel. Instead, he is determined to bolster Turkey’s standing in the Arab and Muslim worlds at Israel’s expense.
Erdogan at first maintained Turkey’s relationship with Israel, even as he reached out to Syria and Iran. Western diplomats accepted Turkey’s explanation that it simply wanted good relations with its neighbors. Many State Department officials hoped Turkey could be an intermediary in Israel-Syria peace talks. Western officials often saw in Turkey only what they wanted to see.
But in recent years Erdogan has shown his true colors, ratcheting up the hostility toward Israel and extending a friendly hand to Hamas. The Turkish government’s behavior during the recent flotilla affair is consistent with the path Erdogan has forged.
The Turkish government voiced its clear support for the Gaza flotilla’s effort to break Israel’s blockade of Hamas. In light of Turkey’s mounting hostility toward Israel, it is not surprising that Israeli commandos came under fierce assault on a ship owned by a Turkish Islamist charity allied with Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party.
Turkey may be an overwhelmingly Muslim country but, prior to Erdogan’s 2003 accession to the premiership, it cultivated close relations with Israel for reasons both historical and practical. Turks have traditionally trusted Jews over Arabs: While Arabs rebelled against the Ottoman sultan, Palestine’s Jews did not. Moreover, both Turkey and Israel are democracies, even if imperfect ones, surrounded by autocracies; both shared mutual enemies in Syria and Iran; and both faced terrorist threats, Israel from Palestinian groups and Turkey from the Kurdish PKK.
Erdogan, however, envisioned a foreign policy based less on shared interests or democratic values and more on religion. Not only has Erdogan embraced the Arab cause, but he has cast his lot with its most retrograde elements. After the 2005 Cedar Revolution in Lebanon, Erdogan backed Syria. When Hamas won the January 2006 Palestinian elections, the European Union and moderate Arab states pressured Hamas to accept the Palestinian Authority’s diplomatic commitments. Hamas refused, and found a friend in Turkey. A month after the elections, Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party welcomed Khaled Mashal, the Palestinian Islamist movement’s most militant leader, to Turkey. While there, Mashal met with Turkey’s foreign minister, Abdullah Gul.
Likewise, Erdogan has defended Sudan’s Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who had been indicted on charges of genocide by the International Criminal Court but was nevertheless welcomed as a guest in Turkey. “A Muslim can never commit genocide,” Erdogan said, adding that he preferred to meet with Bashir over Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
In January of last year, in the wake of Operation Cast Lead, Erdogan famously stormed off the stage during a panel discussion in Davos after effectively calling Israeli President Shimon Peres (a Nobel Peace laureate) a murderer. “You know how to kill well. I know well how you kill children on beaches, how you shoot them,” he told Peres before exiting.
If Erdogan’s opposition to Israel was limited to the diplomatic arena, the situation would be bad. But to make matters worse, as its relations with Syria and Iran have warmed, Turkey appears to have become a conduit for the smuggling of weapons to Israel’s enemies. In an incident reported by Turkish newspapers, a train traveling from Iran through Turkey to Syria was derailed, apparently by Kurdish rebels, in May of last year, exposing a cargo of rockets believed to be destined for Hezbollah. The Turkish government has never offered an adequate explanation for this shipment of weapons across its territory.
It is in this context that Turkey’s official support for the Gaza flotilla becomes so problematic: Not only were the ships financed by a Turkish charity that belongs to a Saudi umbrella organization linked by the U.S. Treasury Department to terrorism, but if the ships succeed in opening a trade route bypassing Israeli inspections, they could end up giving Hamas an unfettered supply of weaponry.
Without a doubt, the botched raid on the Mavi Marmara is a diplomatic catastrophe for Israel. But Israel’s relationship with Turkey is not one of its casualties. The relationship was already mortally wounded, and Erdogan is the culprit.
A decade ago, Turkey was Israel’s ally. To Turkey’s current leaders, Israel is a practitioner of “state terrorism,” as Erdogan put it in a recent speech. As Erdogan’s stance grows more extreme, Turkey becomes less a mediator for Middle East peace than an impediment to it.
Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and senior lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School.