In the 1990s, with the end of the Cold War, Kemalist Turkey looked for partners in the Middle East that could help in meeting growing challenges from Iran, Iraq and Syria. Israel was the perfect choice. It shared Turkey’s threat assessment and it was a strong pro-western country with clout in the United States, the new hegemonic power in the world. Moreover, Jerusalem could provide military technology that the West was reluctant to sell to its NATO ally because of Ankara’s war against the Kurdish insurgency. Subsequently, relations with Israel bloomed economically, diplomatically and militarily. For Israel, the intimacy with Ankara was second only to its relationship with the United States.
Yet, as international circumstances change and national interests are redefined, relations cool and even international divorce happens. While Israel has been consistent in its desire to maintain strong relations with Turkey, an important regional player, Turkey’s international and domestic environment has changed, leading to the current tensions between the two countries.
Since a 1998 Turkish threat to use force against Syria, Damascus has complied with Turkish demands to stop support for the Kurdish insurgency and to cease demanding Alexandretta province. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was eliminated as a threat by the 2003 American conquest, further contributing to a less threatening environment. Moreover, since the advent of the proto-Islamic AKP to power in Turkey in October 2002, the new elite has a significantly different perspective on the region and different policy priorities.
The AKP desires to improve relations with its Muslim neighbors, which the Kemalists saw as a burden on Turkey’s drive to become culturally and politically part of the West. The distancing from the West by the AKP-ruled Turkey was reinforced by the procrastination of the European Union in advancing the Turkish accession process. Support for joining the EU has drastically declined among the proud Turks. The AKP also said "no" to the 2003 American request to use Turkish territory to open a northern front against Iraq, capitalizing on a public opinion that is increasingly anti-American and nationalistic.
Turkey regards itself as a great power and a vital energy bridge to the West that enjoys great international latitude. Its growing aspirations in foreign affairs have led Turkey to offer mediation in regional disputes–such as between the US and Iran, Iraq and Syria, and Israel and Syria–in the hope of enhancing its international stature.
Initially, the AKP continued its good relationship with Israel. The Turkish leadership, including Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, visited Israel. For the most part, business has been as usual even in the strategic field. The latest manifestation was the Israeli-Turkish naval exercise of August 2009.
Yet, the differences between Jerusalem and Ankara have gradually grown, dovetailing with Turkey’s growing divergence with the West. The Palestinian issue has gained greater resonance, particularly after the AKP decided to hold a dialogue with Hamas in the aftermath of its bloody takeover of Gaza in June 2007. This was a deviation from the western foreign policy pattern that shunned formal links with a terrorist organization that advocates the destruction of Israel. Turkey’s premier decided on a vulgar and vehement denunciation of Israel during Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in winter 2009. Even Arab pro-western states supported Israel’s struggle against radical Hamas.
Since winning a second successive national election, the AKP has gained greater confidence to pursue its foreign policy agenda. In August 2008, Turkey welcomed the despicable president of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad, for a formal visit. No western country has issued such an invitation to the Iranian leader. Moreover, in contrast to its western allies, Ankara announced recently that it would not participate in any sanctions aimed at preventing Iran from going nuclear. Similarly, Turkey deviated from the western consensus by hosting Sudan’s president, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, in August 2008, even though he had been indicted for war crimes and genocide in Darfur. Thus, does Turkish foreign policy acquire a greater Islamic coloration.
Israel seems to have disappointed the AKP government by not making enough concessions to Syria in the Turkish mediation effort. Moreover, in September Jerusalem turned down a request from new Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu to enter the Gaza Strip from Israel, where he would meet Hamas officials before coming back to the Jewish state. This decision reflected Israel’s policy of not meeting with international statesmen who, on the same trip, meet Hamas officials.
But Davutoglu wanted to create exactly the impression of "mediation" that seems to be so important to present-day Turkey. Israel’s refusal to allow this infuriated the Turks, who decided to show their displeasure by canceling participation of the Israel Air Force in the international "Anatolian Eagle" exercise this month. An inflammatory new anti-Israel drama series on Turkey’s state-controlled television station is only exacerbating tensions.
Finally, the current situation also reflects genuine dislike by the AKP leadership of Israel and Jews. Erdogan’s latest meeting in New York with the leaders of the American Jewish community ended in a fiasco. In a recent speech at Istanbul University he made unequivocal anti-Semitic remarks.
It would be difficult for Israel to swallow the AKP’s behavior. The most delicate issue is, of course, arms sales and strategic cooperation. Jerusalem wonders why Ankara prefers the dictators of Tehran, Damascus and Gaza over the democracy of the Jewish state. Unfortunately, Turkey is undergoing an identity crisis and the Islamic roots of the ruling party have become increasingly dominant in domestic politics and foreign affairs. Hopefully, Turkish democracy will be strong enough to choose the progress and prosperity that only a western anchor can grant. Turkey’s drift to Islamism would be a great strategic loss to Israel and the West. But first and foremost it would be a tragedy for the Turks.