The Turkey Conundrum

On July 23, a Turkish group called on social media for a boycott of the books of Turkish Jewish novelist Mario Levi. The famous novelist was born in Istanbul, and one of his best-known novels is “Istanbul Was a Fairy Tale.” However, being throughly Turkish did not shield him from the anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli wind that is blowing nowadays in Turkey.

The trigger for the new wave this time is the military conflict in Gaza, which started in early July with the launching of rockets by Hamas on Israeli towns and cities and continued with the Israeli Operation Protective Edge a week later. The call for the boycott of the Jewish writer epitomizes the deterioration in Turkish-Israeli relations, which has reached one of its lowest points ever with this operation, surpassing even the acrimony following the deadly 2010 raid on the Turkish-sponsered flotilla, the Mavi Marmara.

Though Turkish-Israeli relations have, in fact, witnessed a lot of ups and downs since their establishment in 1950, the downturn initiated by Turkey is more critical this time. It has encompassed the government, the opposition and the Turkish population at large; because of its strong anti-Jewish manifestations, and because the bilateral relations with Israel are being exploited for the purposes of Turkish domestic politics.

As was the case in the 2009 Cast Lead operation in Gaza, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has initiated the anti-Israeli pronouncements and set the tone for others to follow. On July 19 he stated that the Israeli operation in Gaza “surpassed Hitler in barbarism.” And he was not hesitant to call Israel a “terrorist state” and accuse it of committing “systematic genocide” against the Palestinians.

No wonder, then, that Erdogan’s negative stance on Israel and his total identification with Hamas had immediate effects on the Turkish public. Taking their cue from him, Turkish social media, newspapers, TV shows and other media outlets unleashed smear campaigns against Israel and the Jews. This was followed by violent demonstrations against Israel and the Israeli representatives in Ankara and Istanbul, as well as by calls to impose an economic boycott on Israel. At the same time, Turkey declared three days of national mourning for the dead in Gaza. The peak was when demonstrators called for the closure of the Israeli Embassy and for the total cutting of relations with Israel.

Erdogan’s vitriolic attacks illustrate the slow-motion strategic U-turn against Israel that his government had initiated already in February 2006, when it invited a Hamas delegation led by Khaled Mashal to Turkey. Although considered a terrorist organization in the West, the Turkish government continued to develop strong relations with Hamas while marginalizing the Palestinian Authority headed by Mahmoud Abbas. The Gaza conflict gave Erdogan further incentives to embrace Hamas.

Turkey’s motivations for aligning with Hamas and positioning itself as a champion of the Palestinian cause are ideological, political and strategic. The current government has strong Islamist tendencies with all the anti-Western and anti-Israeli baggage accompanying it. Turkey has opted to side with the Islamist forces in the region, as was illustrated by its support of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt before it was ousted from power.

The hostility between the present Turkish and Egyptian governments was amplified by their competition over the role of mediator in the Gaza conflict. Whereas Turkey regards itself as entitled to this role thanks to its close relations with Hamas and its leading role in NATO, Egypt sees itself as the more natural middle man because of its own territorial and political linkages with Gaza and because it sees eye to eye with Israel on the Gaza problem. Strategically speaking, Turkey sought to use this role to enforce its leadership aspirations in the region. However, while the United States gave its backing, Israel was adamantly opposed to regarding Turkey as mediator because it has lost its faith in Ankara as an honest broker. This Israeli position poured further fuel on Erdogan’s vocal vengeance campaign against Israel.

The concurrence of the Gaza conflict and the election to the presidency in Turkey, scheduled for August 10, has given even further impetus to Erdogan’s anti-Israeli attacks and his full throated support of the Palestinian cause. Erdogan has discovered a method that the Arab regimes had used long ago, namely that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is the best tool for mobilizing support at home and diverting attention from various domestic problems.

In spite of this calculated and real animosity, not all the bridges between Israel and Turkey have been burned. Pragmatism and economic interests have made even this Islamist government differentiate between politics and economics. Thus, despite the ongoing deterioration in the diplomatic and political relations, economic cooperation remains almost intact. Furthermore, Turkey seems to have granted the green light to the Kurds of Iraq to sell to Israel oil exported from Turkish territory. Hence, one cannot exclude the possibility that after the elections in Turkey and a cease-fire in Gaza, common economic and strategic interests will push the parties back together again.

Ofra Bengio is a senior research associate at Tel Aviv University’s Moshe Dayan Center. She is the author of “The Turkish-Israeli Relationship: Changing Ties of Middle Eastern Outsiders” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004).

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.


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The Turkey Conundrum

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