This article will argue that radical changes taking place in Turkish foreign policy, punctuated by its recent diplomatic confrontation with Israel and vocal support for the Palestinians, are safe moves that offer only potential gains to Turkey.
On arriving in Egypt at the start of his North African tour, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was greeted like a “Rock Star.” As Al Jazeera’s Sherine Tadros reported from Cairo: “We saw a huge reception for him when he arrived on Monday night at the airport. About a thousand people, some of them throwing flowers at Prime Minister Erdogan.” Canada’s Globe and Mail noted that he is “polling as the most popular politician, by far, in virtually every country of the Middle East, and for the revolutionary generation who turned to the Middle East’s only Muslim democracy for inspiration, he is a conquering hero.” This marks a once unthinkable shift in relations between Turkey and its Arab neighbours, which had been typified by decades of mutual suspicion, hostility and a strong Turkish-Israeli alliance.
Mr. Erdogan’s North African tour is meant to build upon his regional celebrity and Turkey’s popularity as a model Islamic democracy, while indicating support for the fledgling democracies emerging out of the toppled dictatorships in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. It follows a state trip in August to Somalia highlighting the need for greater assistance for the famine there, a popular move in Turkey where the public raised more than $100 million for famine relief during Ramadan. The Turkish Prime Minister began his trip in Egypt by promoting Turkish democracy on a popular talk show to:
“The Turkish state is in its core a state of freedoms and secularism. The world is changing to a system where the will of the people will rule. Why should the Europeans and Americans be the only ones that live with dignity? Aren’t Egyptians and Somalians also entitled to a life of dignity?”
Other than backing Arab democracy, Turkey and Mr. Erdogan have been winning over the proverbial “hearts and minds” of the Arab world through a very public diplomatic confrontation with regional bogeyman Israel. In many ways Erdogan’s status has been enhanced by challenging Israel on the world stage while Turkey asserts itself as a regional leader. Ankara’s new foreign policy and its near abandonment of the Israeli alliance has been no less dramatic than the “Arab Spring” itself.
Turkey’s dispute with Israel is based on the occupation and repression of the Palestinians. It is a fault line which regularly pushes the region towards the brink of war or war itself. Popular support for the Palestinian cause and concern for the humanitarian crisis in Gaza motivated a large group of Turkish humanitarian activists in May 2010 to join European, American and Canadian activists in attempting to peacefully break through the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip to deliver humanitarian supplies. Israel responded violently to the flotilla, boarding its ships in international waters and taking the lives of eight Turks and one Turkish-American on board the lead vessel Mavi Marmara.
Warning that the raid was cause for war, the Turkish government responded quickly to a United Nations Palmer Report into the incident by suspending military ties with Israel, expelling top Israeli diplomats, downgrading its diplomatic mission, pledging support for Palestinians’ statehood bid and vowing to send the Turkish navy to escort Gaza-bound aid ships in the future. Turkey signalled to Israel, the United States and the World that the lives of its citizens were not trivial and that Israel could not act with impunity, labelling it a “‘spoiled child’ that will only break away from its solitude when it acts as a reasonable, responsible, serious and normal state.”
In his opening address to a meeting of Arab League in Cairo, Prime Minister Erdogan condemned Israeli policies and stated that the recognition of a Palestinian state was “not an option but an obligation.” This stands in stark contrast to an increasingly isolated United States which plans to oppose any move for Palestinian statehood, but is an immensely popular move within the Arab World, where Israel is immensely unpopular even in the states it has normal relations with. On September 10th the Israeli ambassador was forced to evacuate Cairo in response to an attack by Egyptian protestors on the Israeli Embassy, where its flag was replaced with Egyptian and Palestinian flags. On September 15th Israel took precautionary measures by withdrawing its ambassador from Jordan in response to a million man march planned against its diplomatic mission in Amman. On September 15th in Istanbul thousands of people gathered outside a football stadium where Maccabee Tel Aviv was playing, waving the Hezbollah flag and chanting anti-Israel slogans. Popular indignation over the Gaza Flotilla raid is so strong in Turkey that it has spilled over into popular culture with the release of the action film “Valley of the Wolves Palestine,” where Turkish special forces units travel to Israel in order to avenge the Turkish aid workers by hunting down the responsible Israeli commander. At one point in the film its hero and leader of the mission is asked by an Israeli soldier “Why did you come to Israel?” and receives the ominous response: “I did not come to Israel, I came to Palestine.”
Turkey enjoys robust economic growth and is a regional military power. Not unlike Israel, it long suffered from poor relations with its neighbours and tended to look Westward ideologically, economically and diplomatically. By embracing the Palestinian cause, whose rights are important to Arabs, Turkey is able strengthen its ties to the Arab world. The Arab world represents a market of hundreds of millions, compared to Israel’s small domestic over several million economy, and its businesses almost certainly hope to reap the rewards of increased trade and new markets for their goods. Already Turkish goods and ratings for Turkish television soap operas have spiralled across the Middle East, while Arab tourists have flocked to Turkey in record numbers.
Better relations with the Arab world may also bolster Turkey’s diplomatic and defence ties, in the midst of a growing diplomatic crisis brewing between Turkey and Greece over Greek Cypriot exploration of offshore oil and gas reserves. Turkey has warned Cyprus against offshore drilling and despite it being a European Union member, Turkey “does not recognize Cyprus as a sovereign country and strongly objects to the Greek Cypriot search for mineral deposits inside the island’s exclusive economic zone.” Israel has meanwhile has been supporting Greece in this dispute, while the Israel firm Delek has an option to join American-based Noble Energy in exploring oil and gas reserves off Cyprus’ coast. In a visible sign of Israel’s involvement, on September 15th the Noble rig Homer Ferrington moved from Israel’s offshore field Noa to Cyprus’ Aphrodite field.
Turkey and Egypt may be aligning their aims to strengthen their ability to handle regional and international affairs, such as the Cyprus offshore drilling dispute. As such, Prime Minister Erdogan’s visit to Cairo might be interpreted not just as an indication of support for the emerging democratic processes in Egypt, but also to show solidarity with Egypt over Israel’s mid-August killing of five Egyptian police officers in the Sinai. In response to the visit and the mood of the Egyptian public, the Egyptian Prime Minister Essam Sharaf even told Turkish and Egyptian television on September 16th that the 1979 peace accord with Israel could be changed for the benefit of the region.
Mr. Erdogan’s government is also reacting to popular Turkish public opinion, arguably a sign of Turkey’s maturation into a full democracy that needs to take into account the wishes of the electorate. Turkey’s strong diplomatic stance is no different than that expected by the public in other democracies in similar circumstances. For example, a fishing dispute in international waters in 1995 saw Canada seize a Spanish fishing vessel and led to Spain imposing visa requirements on Canadian visitors.
There is also the “school yard bully” complex. If indeed Israel is acting like a spoiled child acting with impunity, as Mr. Erdogan has described, then the only way to enter into normal diplomatic relations may be to take a strong but measured stance that earns Turkey respect from Israel. As Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu indicated, an apology for the flotilla attack and compensation for the dead and wounded might lead to the restoration of normal diplomatic ties and that: “The time has come for Israel to pay a price for its illegal action. The price, first of all, is being deprived of Turkey’s friendship.”
Deprived of its regional allies, dealing with a wave of mass economic protests at home, and dependent on a financially imperilled and militarily overstretched United States, there are signs that an increasingly isolated Israel may be listening. Almost uncharacteristically for the Netanyahu government, an Israeli official responded to Turkey’s recent moves by stating: “We are deliberately adopting a policy of restraint. We want to contain the problem and solve the problem, and that won’t be done by exchanging harsh words.” This stands in stark contrast to earlier hubris displayed in January 2010 when Israel embarrassed Turkey’s ambassador, who had been summoned by Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon to receive an official reprimand over a controversial Turkish television show. Ayalon refused to shake hands and the Turkish Ambassador was forced to sit in a visibly lower seat below Ayalon, who remarked in Hebrew that “we just want it to be seen that he is seated below us and that there is only one flag here.”
Turkish popularity for championing the beleaguered Palestinians might even be able to divert attention away from its oppression of its Kurdish minority. Whether or not Turkey is able to resolve the issue peacefully, reports have indicated that Israel recently considered cooperating with and arming the Kurdish PKK, a registered terrorist organisation in the European Union and United States. However, in a sign of just how bad Israel’s diplomatic isolation has become, the PKK responded to the report by demanding an apology from Israel for its role in the capture of the PKK’s imprisoned leader Abdullah Öcalan in 1999.
Turkey’s stance towards Israel may force Washington and Brussels to find incentives placate Ankara and re-establish good relations with Israel. This could come in the form of a push to advance Turkey’s stalled entry into the European Union. Of course that depends on the Turkish government still pursuing ascension after decades of failed attempts and a perception that this exclusion may be based on Turkey being Muslim in Christian Europe. Europe may also be a less desirable partner for Turkey due to the EU’s serious financial problems that contrast starkly to the growing Asian economies to Turkey’s East.
In the end, it is unlikely that the Turkish-Israeli conflict will develop into anything more than a diplomatic row. Turkey and Israel are both integrated into the Western system. Unlike Israel, Turkey is a full NATO member. As its only Muslim member, it is a key link between the West and Muslim world. Turkey has Europe’s largest army and enjoys robust economic growth. The United States and Europe will likely not allow Turkey’s war-of-words to escalate into military action. Ultimately the United States would likely make use of its 6th fleet in the Mediterranean Sea to prevent war.
This means that for now Mr. Erdogan’s government can reap the rewards of its foreign policy while a baffled Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu grapples with an increasingly democratic Middle East. While Mr. Erdogan’s support for Gaza and the Palestinians may be genuine, as shown by his public argument with Israeli President Shimon Peres at Davos in 2009, without the real threat of military confrontation this means that Turkey’s tough stance towards Israel and strong support for the Palestinians will further enhance its regional standing, present many potential diplomatic and trade gains, and bolster the popularity of the Erdogan government domestically. In the process, the moves may even help a Palestinian people who, as with Turkey’s attempts at entry into the European Union, have gotten nowhere after decades of peace talks brokered by Western powers.