Sunday 13 June 2010

With Friends Like These ..........

The recent Gaza flotilla raid, which saw Israeli security forces killing 9 Turkish activists aboard the Marvi Marmara, has put Israel's relationship with Turkey under the spotlight. The anti-Israeli rhetoric by Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the waves of anti-Israel protests that followed the incident aboard the Turkish ship all seem to ignore the relationship that Turkey and Israel have enjoyed until now. But what is the nature of this relationship that it can collapse at the slightest sign of disagreement?

The Turks have a long-standing relationship with the land of Israel, and with the Jews who have lived here over the years. The Ottomans, the predecessors of the modern-day Turks, ruled over Jerusalem for a period of approximately 400 years stretching from 1517 until Palestine was handed over to the British Mandate in 1917. The period of their rule over Jerusalem was characterised by religious peace and tolerance, and included the reconstruction of much of the wall which surrounds the old city. Turkey was the first Muslim country to recognise the newly-declared State of Israel when it formally entered into diplomatic relations with Israel in March 1949.

Although Turkey is a Muslim country, it has long held a position as a bridge between east and west, and between Muslim and western cultures. Physically, Turkey's position at the intersection between Europe and Asia established Constantinople (now Istanbul) as an important trading city, and a location with a rich mix and diversity of cultures. This, together with the Balkan, Slavic and Greek influence from around its borders means that Turkey is not a "classic" Muslim country like those of the Arabian peninsula and the Arabian Gulf. The rise of Ataturk to the presidency of the first Turkish Republic further diluted the Muslim influence when Ataturk changed the alphabet from Arabic characters to a new Turkish alphabet based on Latin characters, and implemented further changes to reduce the influence of Arabic culture on Turkey. Despite significant success in creating a secular Turkish culture separate from Islamic culture, the Islamic influence on Turkey was never far away. With a population of nearly 70 million, and more than 90% of them Muslims, Turkey represents a significant Islamic centre of gravity outside the Arab world.

Turkey's somewhat schizophrenic personality seems to be strongly influenced by its position as the crossing point in the world. This has created a mentality of traders, of people who know how to look for the next good deal and to take maximum advantage of market conditions. Turkey tried for many years to be accepted for candidacy to the European Union. It was rebuffed on a number of occasions largely, I believe, because of the fear by the Europeans of admitting a country whose population will dwarf many of the existing members, and create a huge economic burden on the EU. The recent Greek experience has proved that this concern was justified. The result of its repeated failed attempts at joining the western alliance has been for the Turks to look east, and towards its Muslim brothers.

Israel's relations with Turkey over the years have had an opportunistic feel about them for both countries. Israel has had the opportunity to supply Turkey with arms, and Israeli tourists have had the opportunity to enjoy inexpensive value-for-money holidays in the south of Turkey. Exports by Israel to Turkey have been in the region of $1.5 billion per annum with approximately $1 billion per annum in the opposite direction. A free trade agreement was signed in 2000 between the two countries, and there was talk of the construction of pipelines for the supply of oil, gas, electricity and water. The economic relations were never underpinned by a real base of friendship and mutual respect. Rather, they were good while the opportunity presented itself. Turkey also attempted to use its bridgehead position between the west and the Muslim world to become involved in peace-making between Israel and its Arab enemies. Turkey's efforts never bore any fruits, and often seemed to be interrupted by Turkey's close links with its Muslim brethren. It seemed inevitable that the conflict of interests between Turkey's Islamic links, and its attempts to exploit the trading opportunities with Israel would eventually raise its head.

The first sign of a real crack came during the Gaza War of 2008. Turkish prime minister Erdogan was one of the most vocal critics of Israel's war with Hamas in Gaza. He warned that Israel's actions would bring it to self-destruction, and invoked Islamic sympathies by declaring that Allah would punish those who transgress the rights of the innocent. At around the same time, the ties between Turkey and Iran were gradually improved. For Turkey, Iran's more than 70 million people represent a significant economic opportunity. For Iran's Ahmadinejad, Turkey's relations with western countries could be exploited to promote his nuclear interests and his hatred of Israel. The moment for Turkey to decide between furthering its Iranian links or continuing ties with Israel was drawing nearer.

The Gaza flotilla incident a couple of weeks ago represented a turning point in Turkey's Middle Eastern allegiance, and showed clearly in which direction Erdogan is taking his country. The largest of the Gaza flotilla vessels, the Marvi Marmara, was a Turkish vessel, was sponsored by Turkish organisations and carried Turkish nationals. These were not ordinary peace-loving Turkish nationals with human rights on their minds. These were Turks who were armed and trained to come and seek confrontation with the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF). If this is what they sought, they certainly fulfilled their wishes although it is not clear that they understood how far the IDF soldiers would go to protect themselves and their homeland. The more that is written about those on board the Marvi Marmara, the more it becomes clear that a bloodbath of some sort was almost unavoidable from the moment that this ship set sail from Turkey.

Erdogan has come out in criticism of Israel and its actions. He has ensured that the terrorists were afforded a hero's return to Turkey, and the deceased a hero's funeral. He has succeeded in whipping up anti-Israel fervour in Turkey in a way which is almost unprecedented. He has become the new saviour and hero revered by the Palestinian people and the broader Muslim world. Our new hero has even offered to escort a new flotilla to attempt to break the Gaza blockade with Turkish naval vessels, and with his personal attendance. Although I believe this is not seriously intended and is simply taking advantage of his press limelight, it would certainly be interesting to see where this would take him. Israel would almost certainly regard this as an act of war.

The friendly relations between Israel and Turkey are clearly something of the past. The closer Turkey draws to countries like Iran and Syria, the less economic benefit it is likely to enjoy from its now-shrinking relationship with Israel. This is also likely to harm its relationship with the USA, which has been strengthened in recent years by Turkey's membership of NATO. Turkey has represented an important foothold in the Middle East for the USA and NATO, but it seems unlikely that this relationship can continue in the same way as before in light of recent events. The USA and its allies would have taken careful note of Turkey's vote against sanctions on Iran in the recent UN Security Council vote. Turkey has shown its intentions in no uncertain terms.

The problem for Turkey in taking its current course, is that Iran has not necessarily proved itself to be the most loyal friend to its allies. Like Turkey, it is a master at exploiting relations for short-term opportunistic gain. So when Ahmadinejad (or his successor) decides Turkey's usefulness has run out, Turkey may find itself back in diplomatic no-man's land. For now, though, Turkey seems happy to take this route, and the associated risk. Perhaps Turkey and Iran are well-suited to each other. After all, birds of a feather do seem to flock together.

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