Analysis: Israel's main Muslim ally is switching sides

By Sami Kohen, October 15, 2009
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Turkey’s decision to bar Israel from a joint air force drill is part of the Turkish government’s new anti-Israel policy.

Turkey, which was the first Muslim country to recognise Israel as a state, has for many years been Israel’s closest Muslim ally. The countries do more than $3 billion in trade a year, co-operate on defence issues, and Turkey is a favoured destination for Israeli tourists.

However, the government has essentially launched an anti-Israel campaign since the Gaza offensive in January.

At the World Economic Forum in Davos in February, PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan made angry remarks over the Gaza issue during a panel discussion with Israeli President Shimon Peres, and then walked off stage. This was a turning point in Israeli-Turkish relations.

President Abdullah Gul, who was supposed to visit Israel in the summer, failed to do so. Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who was invited to Israel last month, insisted on visiting Gaza as well, an idea Israel strongly resisted. Eventually he cancelled the visit altogether.

Mr Erdogan continued blasting Israel internationally, most recently at the UN General Assembly, where he blamed Israel for the continuation of the human drama in Gaza and the international community for not intervening. At the same time, Mr Erdogan met a group of 50 US Jewish leaders, intending to mend fences with Israel and American Jews. But that meeting also turned sour after the PM’s harsh anti-Israeli remarks over Gaza.

In a recent statement Foreign Minister Davutoglu made it clear that relations with Israel could only get back on track when Israel changed its policy on Gaza.

The government’s decision to cancel the air exercise was motivated by the same policy of keeping the Jewish state at arm’s length. What surprised many here is the fact that the military, which has always been sympathetic to Israel, submitted to the government’s decision. In the past there have been instances when it continued to maintain its ties with its Israeli counterpart despite a more hostile attitude from the civilian power.

In this case, however, the government knew it had the public’s backing, as the media and political circles have expressed opposition to “opening Turkey’s skies to Israeli fighters, which bombed the innocent Palestinian people in Gaza”.

A Turkish official who spoke on condition of anonymity said that “our expectation is that Turkey’s moves will influence Israel to change its policy and set an example to other countries, particularly in the West, to show their interest in the Palestinians’ plight and their reaction against Israel’s behaviour with deeds rather than words”.

There are several reasons for the change in Turkish attitudes.

First, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has pro-Islamic tendencies. Although a pragmatist, Mr Erdogan takes pains to show his affinity with the Arab and Islamic world. He has taken the events in Gaza very seriously, thus satisfying the large number of Turks who sympathise with the Palestinians and are angry at Israel. This includes opposition parties and their supporters. No wonder that Mr Erdogan was received as a hero here when he returned home from Davos in February.

Second, the government’s international orientation has shifted from a close alignment with the West to a “multi-dimensional foreign policy”. Although Turkey is still an active member of Nato and aspires to join the EU, it has recently focused on developing ties with regional countries and particularly Arab and Islamic states.

In this case, Ankara was afraid of angering Syria and Iran with a NATO exercise which included Israel. Mr Davutoglu visited Syria this week and Mr Erdogan is due to visit Iran next week, and so the timing was particularly sensitive.

On Monday, the Syrian foreign minister disclosed that Syria and Turkey conducted a joint military exercise last week near Ankara.

In general, the Erdogan government has tried to assume a more active regional role. Encouraged by his new status as a regional player, Mr Erdogan looks at relations with Israel from a stronger position and feels he can afford to take a firm — or harsh — attitude towards Israel.According to the same official, “the feeling is that Israel now needs Turkey more than Turkey needs Israel”.

Sami Kohen is the JC’s Turkey correspondent

Last updated: 2:26pm, November 8 2010