The Turkish 'golden age' is over

By Sami Kohen, January 21, 2010
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The recent crisis between Israel and Turkey over Israeli deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon’s public humiliation of the Turkish ambassador seems to have been resolved following Defence Minister Ehud Barak’s visit on Sunday to Ankara. But in the long-term, there seems little chance of an improvement in the strained relations between the two countries.

Mr Barak’s visit, which was scheduled long ago to discuss mainly military co-operation schemes, came at the wrong time. The Turks were outraged by last week’s “couch scandal”, in which Mr Ayalon called in the Turkish ambassador to reprimand him for a television show in which Israeli soldiers killed civilians, then deliberately seated him on a lower chair in front of the television cameras. Mr Ayalon eventually had to apologise following strong Turkish diplomatic pressure.

The one-day visit turned out to be a good opportunity for both sides to diffuse the tension.

The Turks gave the Israeli minister a warm welcome. He was given full military honours during his visit to the Ataturk Mausoleum. Mr Barak and the Turkish Defence Minister Vecdi Gonul hugged before the cameras. Mr Barak’s meeting with Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu exceeded three hours, double the time that was allocated, and was described as cordial and productive.

The Islamist Turkish government is pursuing a pro-Arab policy

Amidst these atmospherics, Mr Barak told newsmen he thought the crisis was left behind and a new phase was opened in the countries’ relations. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was in Istanbul preparing to leave for a visit to the Gulf (and could not meet Mr Barak) said he was satisfied with the statements made by Mr Barak on the diplomatic incident and declared, “we will not bring this issue further”.

The Turkish Defence Minister went further in a joint press conference with Mr Barak after their meeting and said the two countries had common interests and were “strategic partners”.

He stressed that co-operation between the two countries in defence and other fields will continue “as long as common interests exist”.

He announced that the delivery of 10 Heron UAVs — a $180 million project — which was considerably delayed for reported technical reasons will be completed by this June. He also spoke of other military co-operation projects, based on shared technology.

So in terms of normalising government-to-government relations, Mr Barak’s trip can be considered a success. But amongst the general public, the anti-Israeli feelings provoked by the recent crisis among many Turks do not seem to have receded.

The anti-Israeli drama series which provoked last week’s crisis, The Valley of the Wolves, is still shown on a private Turkish TV channel and its producer has announced that a new episode, called Valley of the Wolves — Palestine, is being prepared.

The fact is that the conditions which enabled the strategic co-operation of the 1990s and early 2000s have changed, in both countries and in the wider region.

The present Turkish government, run by Mr Erdogan’s AK Party, which has Islamic roots, is pursuing a pro-Arab policy and is getting actively involved in Middle East issues. As a result Ankara has distanced itself from Israel and Mr Erdogan has persistently criticised Israel’s policies, using particularly strong language regarding the Gaza situation.

Gaza has become a “determining factor” in the bilateral relations. During his meeting with Mr Barak, Mr Davutoglu said that future ties will depend largely on how Israel acts on Gaza and on the peace process with the Palestinians. He, like Mr Erdogan, insisted on the lifting of the blockade on Gaza and the end of settlement activity in east Jerusalem.

Israel, meanwhile, has shifted to the right, with hawkish elements such as Avigdor Lieberman included in Mr Netanyahu’s inner cabinet. They are obviously opposed to the Turkish line on Gaza.

Turkish officials who participated in the talks found Mr Barak reasonably flexible but they did wonder what influence he would have on the rest of the government. As long as Israeli-Turkish ties depend on Israel’s policy in Gaza, it seems there is little chance of a return to the “golden period” of past years.

Sami Kohen is the JC’s Istanbul correspondent

    Last updated: 4:35pm, June 3 2010

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