Turkish anger may backfire

When Prime Minister Erdogan speaks out against Israel he risks his own strategic interests

By Daniella Peled, January 22, 2009

Israel seems to have made it through Operation Cast Lead without suffering too much diplomatic damage. Despite all the global outrage and condemnation, only a handful of countries severed ties with Jerusalem — and Israel can probably live without its friendships with Venezuela, Bolivia, Mauritania and Qatar.

However, policy makers in Jerusalem are worrying over one damaged strategic interest — Turkey. It is Israel’s closest Muslim partner, enjoying a far warmer relationship with the Jewish state than the cold peaces extant with Egypt and Jordan. And yet Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan spent much of the three weeks of the Gaza operation making speeches which appeared nearer the rhetoric of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad than the words of an old — though not uncritical — ally.

Israel, he said, was “perpetrating inhuman actions which would bring it to self-destruction. Allah will sooner or later punish those who transgress the rights of innocents.”

As if this was not enough, Erdogan called for Israel to be expelled from the UN and, just to drive home the point, a one-minute silence was observed in schools to mark the killing of Gazan children.

Israel was shocked and displeased. The Turkish ambassador was called in for some stern words last month and Ha’aretz reported further deterioration last week when security envoy Amos Gilad refused to meet Ahmet Davutoglu, Erdogan’s senior foreign policy adviser, during ceasefire talks in Gaza.

But Jerusalem has steered clear of any drama, acutely aware of the delicacy of its ties with Turkey. As the cliché goes, Turkey straddles the axis of both East and West. Perennially cold-shouldered by the EU, it has in the last few years drifted closer to its Islamic allies. This also makes it a potential interlocutor for Israel — witness the recently stalled talks it brokered with Syria.

And despite concerns over its Islamist roots, Erdogan’s AKP party has, since its 2003 election win, continued a policy of secular moderation, even as Ankara deepened its ties with more radical forces, notably Iran. Erdogan was quick to host Hamas after their 2006 election victory but subsequently called on them to recognise Israel.

He was said to be insulted that Ehud Olmert failed to warn him of an imminent operation in a visit to Ankara shortly before Operation Cast Lead, and there has been a note of personal hysteria in some of his outbursts. But it seems clear that he has a more pragmatic incentive for such public condemnation, which has more to do with domestic consumption than foreign affairs. Popular feeling was overwhelmingly against the IDF operation in Gaza; the country is to hold municipal elections in March. This kind of rhetoric speaks well to the AKP’s conservative support base.

But short term internal political gains may threaten Turkey’s own wider interests. Its ties to Israel are important both economicaly and militarily. These warm relations also boost its standing internationally, especially in the US. Right now, Ankara faces a number of troubling issues with the new administration in Washington, not least the highly sensitive topic of the deaths of 1.5 million Armenians in 1915.

President Obama has previously stated that, if elected, he will recognise the Armenian tragedy as a genocide, a move which his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has also repeatedly supported.

Needless to say, this is anathema to the Turks. They are also concerned over the imminent withdrawal from Iraq which might leave Turkey vulnerable to Kurdish separatists, and want support over their own “war of terror”.

Not a good time to annoy Washington by moving further from its axis towards more extreme elements in the Middle East. Turkey’s interests lie in exploiting its unique geographical, religious and cultural position as a key arbitrator in regional affairs.

But this requires a delicacy which the highly-strung Erdogan seems to have found difficult of late. Blustering into Israel’s ceasefire negotiations only served to annoy Egypt, the natural mediator between Israel and the Palestinians, as even Erdogan’s own Foreign Ministry had to make clear.

And standing with Hamas, as columnist Yusuf Kanli noted in the Turkish Hurriyet newspaper, “is upsetting the Abbas administration and eroding Turkey’s capabilities as a mediator or facilitator... someone must convince the Prime Minister that Turkey should learn to stay at equidistance to the parties of the dispute, be it the antagonism of the Palestinian factions or the Israeli-Palestinian problem.”

So it is not in Turkey’s interests to let its relations with Israel deteriorate too much, since to build a key role as a mediator Turkey must maintain good relations with the different parties.

And to maintain a credible role it has to keep those good ties strong, even when stressed by the dramas of foreign conflicts — or the more humdrum strains of municipal elections.

Last updated: 11:03am, January 22 2009