No short-term fix to Israel-Turkey relations

Daily News Egypt
7 Min Read

Turkish-Israeli relations are in a state of coma. Will it be possible to resuscitate? The answer is, no, not any time soon, or maybe even later, unless extraordinary developments take place that reverse the current course of events.

Neither side seems to be willing to back down, even an inch, from their current positions. Moreover, these positions are getting ever more deeply entrenched due to the incessant crossfire of words from the highest posts in the administrations of both countries.

How far can this go? Hopefully, not to the point of no return toward a hot confrontation.

The root causes of the current situation lie far deeper than most people think. They can certainly not be traced to the famous "one-minute" crisis in Davos in January 2009 at a panel attended by Turkish Premier Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Israeli President Shimon Peres as well as UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon and the Arab League’s Secretary-General Amr Moussa. There is no doubt that the exchange of blunt words between Peres and Erdogan on that cold winter evening in Davos brought even colder air to relations between Turkey and Israel. But the incident only brought to the surface underlying tensions.

Turkey and Israel enjoyed an almost perfect relationship throughout the 1990s, one that amazed their friends and bothered their rivals. The US war in Iraq revealed, however, that the two allies did indeed have differing objectives and concerns with respect to the future restructuring of Iraq. While Turkey feared the emergence of an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq, the same possibility seemed favorable to Israel from its security standpoint vis-a-vis threats posed by countries like Iran, Pakistan and beyond.

Turks and Jews have a long and much cherished history of peaceful relations spanning over five centuries since the Ottoman Empire first embraced Jews who were persecuted in Spain in the 15th century. Against this background, what is being witnessed today could not even be imagined a decade ago when the two countries reached a climax in their relations, which was signed and sealed with the 1996 military cooperation agreement.

The September 11 attacks dramatically changed the threat perceptions of many countries, however, and have had no less an impact on the relations between Turkey and Israel. This time, however, divergences in threat perceptions were significant even if the parties did not want to admit it.

In the ensuing "clash of civilizations", Israel has started to see Turkey’s Muslim character now from an entirely different angle. This Israeli perception was further enhanced with the coming to power of the Justice and Development Party following the November 2002 elections.

Israel thus became seriously concerned whether Turkey, under a new administration that hails from a so-called "Islamist" background, would honor its commitments to Israel vis-a-vis the grave threats it perceives from its regional enemies and rivals. Hence, Israel wanted more options and thus invested in the future of northern Iraqi Kurds. That, at least, was the view of most Turks.

On the other hand, Turkey’s political environment and the threats perceived therein have become subject to rapid and radical change both due to conjunctural changes in the international system and also, and maybe more so, due to a new philosophy that has started to dominate the drafting and conduct of Turkish foreign policy. This new philosophy has become widely known as the "zero conflict with neighbors" school of thought, and was the brainchild of Dr. Ahmet Davutoglu, who later became Turkey’s foreign minister.

The disappearance of common ground between Turkey and Israel in terms of threat perceptions and the mounting concerns of the Turkish security elite about Israel’s alleged support to Iraqi Kurds have not left much reason or substance for the countries to shore up confidence.

Occasional visits and limited arms sales did not do much to save relations, which were quite visibly going downhill on the Davos mountains. And after a series of mutual recriminations, the current Netanyahu-Lieberman government’s attitude toward the Erdogan government and vice-versa should have struck an alarm that worse was yet to come. No doubt, the Israeli military operation against the Mavi Marmara, carrying more than six hundred aid activists from 33 different countries around the world, at least half of whom were Turkish citizens, has put an end to any relations worth speaking of.

The current position of Turkey vis-a-vis Israel should not be seen as stemming from the Erdogan government’s attitude alone. There are clear signs that an overwhelming majority of Turks support the government’s policies even if they may not have voted for them in the elections. Other institutions within the state apparatus, including the military, have concurred that the Israeli operation could by no means be justified. Moreover, President Abdullah Gul has clearly stated that Israel must feel the pain of the mistake it made and that Turkey will not let Israel escape its responsibilities by saying that "actions always speak louder than words" at the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building in Asia summit in Istanbul on June 8.

It appears then that the "amazing alliance" is heading toward a crossroads. This may change the nature of the relationship from a "win-win" to a "lose-lose" situation unless proper steps are rapidly taken with a view toward rebuilding confidence on both sides.

The worst thing that can happen between two countries is a state of war. The second worst would be non-recognition or cutting of diplomatic relations. Turkey and Israel, it could be said, are currently in the next category down. This means, in case wisdom doesn’t prevail, that further deterioration is not out of the question.

Dr. Mustafa Kibaroglu teaches courses on arms control and disarmament in the Department of International Relations at Bilkent University in Ankara. This commentary is published by DAILY NEWS EGYPT in collaboration with


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