Just days before the two countries were to participate in a NATO military exercise this week, Turkish officials informed Israel that it would not be allowed to participate. The U.S., the Netherlands and Italy then withdrew in protest and the exercise was canceled.
Turkey, one of the few Muslim nations to have diplomatic relations with Israel, has had a testy relationship with the Jewish state since January.
That was when Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, speaking at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland, publicly criticized Israeli President Shimon Peres over Israel’s military offensive in Gaza last winter and then stormed out of the meeting.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu implied last weekend that his country barred Israel from the NATO military exercise in Turkey this week because of the Gaza operation.
“We hope that the situation in Gaza will be improved, that the situation will be back to the diplomatic track,” he said. “And that will create a new atmosphere in Turkish-Israeli relations as well. But in the existing situation, of course, we are criticizing this approach, [the] Israeli approach.”
But Anat Lapidot-Firilla, a specialist in Turkish politics and society who teaches in the Department of International Affairs at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and runs a Turkish forum as a senior research fellow at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, said the Gaza offensive was only “used as an excuse” by Turkey.
“You can see a consistent trend in Turkish foreign policy that has to do with many issues but not with Gaza — Gaza is just an excuse,” she said. “If you have to pick one event from which problems started, it was November 2002” when Edrogan and his AK Party were elected.
Lapidot-Firilla pointed out that Erdogan quickly began using Davutoglu as a foreign policy adviser.
“He ran the show” even before being made foreign minister, she said, adding that the new foreign policy course he steered for Turkey collided with that of Israel.
“Israel did not want to allow Turkey to position itself as the regional broker — the mature parent in the neighborhood,” Lapidot-Firilla explained.
Nevertheless, she said, “Turkey has a very interesting, very aggressive foreign policy, a very active foreign policy that aims to regain some kind of strategic cards in a very problematic area that since 2003 has the United States as a regional player since the occupation of Iraq,” she said.
“It’s positioning itself as a state that is a moral leader of the Muslim world and the region,” Lapidot-Firilla added, pointing out that the current administration is “quite secure” after three elections and a majority of the parliament.
Internal politics has proven a lot more difficult than foreign affairs, however, and some reforms that were promised were never fulfilled because of a strong constitution and legal obstacles.
“The only place where they could play with free hands and voice an Islamic agenda was in foreign policy,” she said.
Israeli opposition leader Tzipi Livni appeared on Turkish television Monday to urge that there not be a crisis between the two countries over Israel’s actions in Gaza.
“I am saying to the people of Turkey and their leaders: Supporting the war on terror is not an anti-Palestinian act; it is an anti-terrorism act,” she said. “Hamas does not represent the national aspirations of the Palestinians. It is not acting on their behalf or promoting them.”
It is no coincidence that the row with Israel occurred just as Turkey and its longtime nemesis Armenia signed an agreement establishing diplomatic relations, Lapidot-Firilla observed.
“It was more important to sign the agreement with Armenia, but because of the reaction from inside the country — to block the opposition – it was easier to voice opposition to Israel and Israeli aircraft and thus regain the moral ground in internal politics,” she said. “This government wanted to come to an agreement with Armenia for financial reasons — because of oil and gas and a lot of money. … It is easier to appease the opposition [parties] by having aggressive rhetoric towards Israel.”
But the reaction of NATO in canceling the exercise took Turkey by surprise.
“I don’t think they realized what the reaction would be,” Lapidot-Firilla said.
Asher Susser, a senior fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle East Affairs at Tel Aviv University, said he believes Turkey’s action against Israel is emblematic of a “shift taking place in Turkey’s foreign policy that has far-reaching ramifications.”
“Turkey is undergoing an historic change since the 2002 election and is taking more of an Islamic identity and policy,” he said. “All of this has to do with the rise of an Islamic party [in Turkey], the fact that Turkey has not been admitted into the European Union and is going back to the Middle East because it has been pushed out of Europe.”
With the Europeans giving Turkey the “cold shoulder,” Susser said, “Turkey is becoming more Islamist in political identity. The Iraq problem next door and the relative weakness of Arab states gives Turkey a sense it must play a greater Middle Eastern role, and in so doing it is shifting its relationship with Israel. The secular country that had a common cause with Israel is not the Turkey we have today.”
He said Israel’s relationship with Turkey is “critically important for Israel — perhaps more than it is for Turkey — and Israel has every reason to not let this [tension] escalate. It doesn’t have many friends in the region and will try to keep things on an even keel.
“Turkey too is trying to calm things down because the U.S. is siding with Israel. It has no interest in taking this any further. It’s difficult to say how this will play out.”
The Turkish Foreign Ministry released a statement Monday that sought to play down the NATO exercise, saying it was cancelled in consultation with other participants and that nothing further should be read into it.
“Therefore, it is not correct to impose political meanings to Turkey’s decision to cancel the international part” of the exercise,” it said, adding that Israeli officials “should act with common sense in their statements and attitudes.”
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak issued a statement Monday in which he spoke of Turkey’s importance in the region and added that there is “no reason to be dragged into words of harsh criticism against it.”
And Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon made similar comments, saying: “Our interest is not to reach a point of friction or crisis with Turkey. We consider Turkey an important strategic partner of Israel’s and an anchor of stability.”
Susser noted that Turkey has “shown a measure of sympathy with Hamas, which has caused a crisis with Israel in the past. There is still a residue of that crisis in the relationship.”
He was referring to Turkey’s effort to serve as a mediator between Hamas and Israel, just as it had served as a mediator between Syria and Israel. But Israel refused this summer to allow Davutoglu to enter Gaza from Israel for talks with Hamas officials, and then return for talks in Jerusalem with Israeli officials.
Turkish officials were visibly steamed by Israel’s decision.
Asked if she believed the friction between Turkey and Israel would soon ease and if the NATO maneuvers might be rescheduled, Lapidot-Firilla said that had a lot to do with American pressure.
“I’m pretty sure that with a lot of pressure it will be only a postponement and nothing else,” she said. “It’s a political game and they’re checking the boundaries and once in a while they discover they have made the wrong move. So if Israel were to do something politically correct in their eyes, it would be a good excuse to restore the exercise.”