There are three ways to view the deterioration in Israeli-Turkish relations. They are complementary and, taken together, should guide Israeli policy-makers in deciding how to proceed in dealing with Ankara.
The most prevalent view in Israel but possibly in some western and moderate Arab countries as well, is that PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling Islamist AKP are steadily leading Turkey on a path toward extremism. They are linking Ankara to the most radical countries and movements in the Middle East, from Iran and Syria to Hamas and Hizballah. Further, Erdogan seeks to usurp the role of more moderate countries and governments in dealing with Islamist extremists: to replace Egypt in mediating the needs of Hamas; and along with Brazil, to displace the United States in making deals with Iran.
Erdogan’s rhetoric against Israel, often in the name of Turkish honor, has become inflammatory and at times anti-Semitic. The hypocrisy informing his regional policies is particularly evident in the ongoing friction with Turkish Kurds and the refusal to come to terms with the Armenian genocide, even as Erdogan shrilly condemns Israel for its attitude toward the Palestinians.
Additional proof of Erdogan’s intentions can be found at the domestic level in Turkey, where his government is slowly introducing Islamist themes, neutralizing the constitutional leadership role assigned to the armed forces under Kemalism and stigmatizing and even allegedly incriminating traditional pro-western elements.
A second, more moderate take on Turkey, views with admiration and envy its recent foreign policy departures, led by Erdogan’s former adviser and now foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu. Turkey has the most dynamic and pro-active foreign policy in the Middle East and possibly the world. It seeks to solve each and every conflict situation among its many neighbors. Whether defined as neo-Ottomanism, a reaction to European rejection or simply smart diplomacy, Ankara’s approach has opened doors to commerce and prestige in Asia, the Mediterranean, Europe and the Middle East.
With few exceptions, this new diplomatic approach seems to have succeeded. But Israel is one of those exceptions. Here we encounter a third way of reacting to Turkey’s new dynamism. The attitude of many Israelis toward Ankara was molded by the security alliance that linked the two countries in the 1950s and 1960s and that reemerged in the 1990s and seemed to hold sway until just a few years ago. That alliance began as part of "Trident", a tripartite pact that involved Iran under the Shah as well.
Trident was perhaps the high point of Israel’s periphery doctrine, which sought to cultivate non-Arab or non-Muslim allies as a means of leapfrogging over the circle of Arab hostility that surrounded the Jewish state. As an alliance against the perceived shared threat of Arab nationalism it flourished until the 1970s, when Gamal Abdel Nasser passed from the scene, Iran became an Islamic republic under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and Israel made peace with Egypt. It seemingly resurfaced in the mid-1990s, when Turkish-Israeli military cooperation was instrumental in forcing Syria under President Hafez Assad to abandon support for the Turkish Kurdish terrorist movement PKK.
The perception of Turkey under Erdogan as somehow betraying an alliance with Israel that responds to Arab hostility constitutes a significant mental block among some Israeli leaders in their dealings with Ankara. Paradoxically, that block may receive reinforcement from moderate Arab leaders who resent Turkey’s bid for a leadership role with and encouragement for militant Islamist and radical actors. Nor does Israel understand how commercial, tourism and even military relations could have flourished until now unless Turkey were inherently more friendly with Israel.
Accordingly, Israel’s leaders have not adapted well to the more attractive aspects of Turkey’s new pro-active approach, such as the offer to mediate Israel’s problematic relations with Islamists and with Syria. In 2008, then-PM Ehud Olmert did take advantage of Ankara’s offer to hold proximity peace talks with Syria, at a time when the Bush administration in Washington was not interested in advancing such talks.
But tellingly, the talks ended in late December of that year when Olmert, just days after a very successful session in Ankara, launched Israel’s attack against Hamas in Gaza. Erdogan, who received no advance warning from Olmert (Egypt apparently did), has harbored a fiery grudge ever since. Israel has nurtured that grudge by rejecting renewed Turkish offers to intercede with Syria and, in a paroxysm of juvenile diplomacy, insulting the Turkish ambassador publicly in a meeting with Israel’s deputy foreign minister.
All of this seemingly culminated in the recent flotilla incident. A Turkish Islamist group with close ties to the government sought to spearhead contacts with Hamas and laid a violent propaganda ambush that Israel walked into with eyes wide open. Now Ankara demands apologies and reparations and threatens to seriously downgrade relations.
Relations between the Netanyahu and Erdogan governments may be beyond repair. Certainly, Erdogan is on a "trip" of regional diplomatic and propaganda successes that positions Turkey as an emerging power with links that must worry the West as well as Israel and that hardly encourages compromise. Israel, for its part, is run by a hawkish government that has become paranoid about much of the worlds’ intentions.
Unless and until there is radical change in Turkey, Israel would be well advised to abandon its fond memories of Ankara as an ally. Trident is dead and the tables are turned: most Arab states are now probably closer in orientation to Jerusalem than are Ankara and Tehran. But the latter are strong, while the Arab state system is in sad disarray.
Yossi Alpher is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University. This commentary is published by DAILY NEWS EGYPT in collaboration with bitterlemons-international.org.