360° Analysis

Turkey and Israel: Plotting New Relationships


March 22, 2011 22:47 EDT

At the end of January 2011 a Turkish action film “Valley of the Wolves: Palestine” (Kurtlar Vadisi: Filistin) started running nationwide across Turkey. The film tells the story of a Turkish commando team which goes to Israel to track down the Israeli military commander responsible for the Gaza flotilla raid,which took place on 31 May 2010. According to the plot, after the flotilla fails to force its way to Gaza and refuses to turn back, it is attacked by the Israeli military. In a dramatic battle scene, activists resist and are mowed down by the Israeli commandos. A Turkish commando team travels to Israel, where they launch a murderous campaign against Israeli forces in an attempt to track down and eliminate the Israeli commander responsible for the flotilla raid. In this drama, Palestine is depicted as the ultimate victim, Israel as an enemy, and Turkey as the savior. There is nothing better than this film to illustrate the mood and quality of Turkish-Israeli relations at the turn of 2010. This is indeed a far cry from the relations that existed between the Jewish people and the Ottomans for hundreds of years, and later between the Jewish state and Turkey. This essay will seek to analyze the causes for the transformation against the backdrop of the sea changes that have occurred in Turkey's worldview and policies under the AKP.

 The relationship between Turkey and Israel, which was quite exceptional for the last sixty years, is facing a crisis. In the 1990s, Turkey and Israel had forged unique relations that were termed by some as a strategic alliance. However by the end of 2010 very little had remained of this special relationship. Furthermore, relations have deteriorated to an unprecedented level in the two countries’ histories. Ostensibly, the two events which set in motion this deterioration were Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in Gaza at the end of 2008 and the Mavi Marmara affair at the end of May 2010 in which 8 Turks and one Turkish-American citizens were killed by Israeli soldiers. In fact, the change was due to a strategic U-Turn on the part of Ankara, which has been in the making since the turn of the 20th century, and for which the two events were mere catalysts. More specifically, the change, which had far reaching implications on relations with Israel, transpired against the backdrop of the quiet revolution that Turkey has been undergoing in both its domestic and foreign relations since the advent of the AKP's power in 2002. The polarization of the Turkish society and the friction between the AKP and the military in Turkey did not enhance relations with Israel. On another level, taking its cue from Arab countries, the Turkish government began to use Israel as a negative rallying cry for domestic consumption. Israel was used as a diversion for problems at home, such as that of the PKK, or as a demon for mobilizing support for the AKP in the elections. The inflammatory speeches, which sent hundreds of thousands of Turks to demonstrate against Israel, were a case in point. 

 Turkey’s change of heart towards Israel found its expression also in Ankara’s alliance with Israel's sworn enemies: Iran and Hamas. While Iran and Hamas vow to delegitimize Israel and bring about its final annihilation, Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan himself has called for the expulsion of Israel from the UN, thus adding his voice to the de-legitimization of Israel. In fact, the change on the Turkish side started slowly with the invitation to the Hamas leader, Mash`al, in February 2006 to visit Turkey and reached a peak in both the Gaza war and the Mavi Marmara incident. Israel committed a few tactical mistakes, which played into the hands of Turkish government who wished to exploit them for mobilizing support on the grounds of patriotism and Islam. One such mistake was hurting Turkish honor by seating the Turkish ambassador on a low chair in the incident which took place in the Israeli foreign ministry.  The last one was the Killing of Turks on the flotilla, which caused severe damage to people-to-people relations. However, it must be stressed that contrary to common belief among Turks, the killing was not a premeditated act but a reaction to a provocation that got out of hand. Second, none of the Israeli leaders delivered inflammatory speeches against Turkey or called it a terrorist state by comparing Israel’s behavior toward Hamas with that of Turkey’s behavior toward the PKK.

 Although Israel did play its part by committing certain tactical mistakes, the deterioration in Israel-Turkey relations would not have taken place unless the AKP "discovered" Israel's importance as a diversion for problems at home and as a negative rallying force for mobilizing support for Prime Minister Erdoğan at home, the Arab world, and the Muslim world at large. As Turkey shifted its alliances by putting the emphasis on Muslim and Arab countries, Israel too began to shift its emphasis by forging new alliances with Greece, Bulgaria and other Balkan states.

 Regarding future prospects, not all is lost. . Even as of this writing there are attempts to normalize relations. To succeed in this, the two parties should act on the premise and conviction that it is in the interest of both to have normal relations. Both countries are still capable of moving forward in that direction. However, it is doubtful that in the short term they will return to the intimacy and cordiality of the 1990s, at least most certainly not as long as they are led by ideological governments.


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