Friday, June 4, 2010

Friends no more? The consequences of Israel’s disastrous act of high-seas piracy for Turkish-Israeli relations

Israel’s brazen and deadly assault onto the Gaza flotilla in international waters has created a crisis in Israeli-Turkish relations in comparison to which the accumulated history of recent bilateral tensions in the last 5 years completely pales. The current impasse is likely to result in a deep and long-lasting fissure, at least under an AKP-governed Turkey. 8 Turkish nationals as well as a US citizen of Turkish origin are known to have been killed by Israeli Special Forces during the raid on the Mavi Marmara, a converted cruise ship flying Turkish flags that had been chartered by a Turkish human rights organisation to deliver humanitarian aid to Gaza. Of the approximately 600 people it was carrying, there were 400 Turkish citizens. These activists are being swiftly transferred back to their countries without prosecution which reflects Israel’s frantic desire to dampen the fall-out of this episode as quickly as possible and attempt to defuse the crisis with its closest friend in the Muslim world.

However, as the vociferous outrage being voiced by the Turkish government in the domestic and international arena amply shows, this is unlikely to happen. Turkey’s foreign minister Ahmet Davutoğlu described the incident as ‘murder conducted by a state’ while Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan called it a ‘bloody massacre’. The country has been at the forefront of condemning the act in the United Nations and has recalled its ambassador to Israel. Joint military exercises have been scrapped and there is a possibility of Israeli diplomats being expelled from Turkey. Israeli tourism to Turkey, already in decline because of fractious bilateral relations in recent years, will drop considerably and economic trade between both countries will also suffer a dramatic knock-back. It is unlikely that contact between both countries will be completely severed and in time, depending to what extent Israel can show concrete progress in Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, they might recover to a degree that can be called amicable. However, the televised statements by Abdullah Gül, Turkey’s president, that Israeli-Turkish relations will ‘never be the same’ are a terse and fitting epitaph to the formerly strategic link between both countries which had been disappearing gradually in recent years and which was climactically torn apart last Monday by Israel’s disastrous act of high seas piracy.

The international and regional context amidst which this strategic relationship was formed in the mid-1990s no longer pertains. At that time, Turkey was eager to use Israel’s military might in a combined fashion to intimidate Syria, formerly a foe. It also wanted access to Israeli military technology as well as the considerable lobbying power that it possessed in American politics to counter the influence of Greek and Armenian Diasporas. The changes in Turkey’s domestic politics and external relations have neutralised many of these factors. The glacial re-orientation in Turkey’s foreign policy towards the Middle Eastern region under the rule of the Justice and Development party since 2002 has seen a dramatic normalisation of relations towards many neighbouring countries. This process has not just involved Middle Eastern states like Iran, Iraq and Syria but also Greece which Erdoğan recently visited suggesting substantial cuts in both countries military expenditure for the shared Aegean sea. This re-orientation became quite visible to Israel when Khaled Meshaal, the exiled leader of Hamas, travelled to Turkey on an official visit in 2006.

In the last decade, Turkey has become increasingly comfortable and confident with its evolving position as an upwardly mobile regional and international actor. Repeatedly frustrated by the floundering state of its EU accession prospects as well as the fading power of its erstwhile vital relations with the US, it has focused more energy, using its economic soft power and diplomatic assets, on expanding its relations with its Caucasian, Central Asian and Middle Eastern neighbourhood. In the last years, Erdoğan’s stature in the Middle Eastern context has mushroomed to that of a regional leader, although there is also plenty of quiet resentment and scepticism amongst the Arab governments at the intrusion of this outsider. The well-televised spat between Shimon Peres and Turkey’s temperamental Prime Minister at the 2009 Davos conference reinforced his allure amongst the Arab public as a statesman prepared to loudly and boldly voice his anger at the treatment of Palestinians in the international forum. This was undoubtedly a welcome change from the petty, behind-the-scenes squabbling which characterised the Arab League's belated reaction to Israel’s siege of Gaza. Turkey, with Erdoğan at its helm, is in the process of becoming the predominant regional spokesperson for the plight of the Palestinians in the Middle East which gives it considerable political capital. Egypt’s decision to briefly open its crossing to Gaza for humanitarian aid illustrates its discomfort at being steadily displaced by Turkey in the Arab world.

Naturally, there is also a strong domestic political dimension to the Turkish government’s prominent stance towards the Palestinians. In the face of high unemployment, the uncertainty of future economic growth and a rejuvenated political opposition ahead of next year’s national elections, highlighting Turkey’s active role in this issue is a sure vote-winner for the AKP. The plight of the Palestinians is one of the few international issues which has persistently concerned and animated Turkish public opinion. Certainly this concern is motivated by feelings of religious solidarity but it has little to do with the so-called conspiratorial Islamization theses which are so popular in American neo-conservative circles. Already, in 2002, under the preceding coalition government which was led by mainstream centre-left and centre-right parties, Prime Minister Bülent Eçevit, a staunchly secular social democrat, accused Israel of carrying out a ‘genocide’ against the Palestinian people after the start of the second intifada.

This is the domestic, regional and international background amidst which Israel chose to carry out its bloody raid in international waters to stop a convoy of humanitarian aid resulting in the deaths of 9 people, of which 8 are Turkish nationals. The immediate fury amongst Turkey’s political elites as well as its public, reinforced by almost unanimous international condemnation, is quiet understandable and will be extremely difficult to assuage in an age of 24-hour audio-visual news media where events outpace the public relations machinery of governments. However, even if this where to somehow miraculously occur, the long-term transformations at the domestic, regional and international level that have influenced Turkey’s foreign policy calculations in the last decade will act against a rejuvenation of a strong and strategic Turkish-Israeli relationship. Thus it seems that Israel has scuttled its chances of recuperating its sole ally in the Muslim world at high sea.

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