Tel Aviv – A resounding victory at the polls Sunday for Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s referendum to remake the country’s constitution and weaken the secular forces in government has spurred Israeli uneasiness about deteriorating ties with an important regional ally.
Though the referendum was about advancing civil liberties in Turkey and weakening the influence of the secular army, the wider-than-expected margin of victory was also seen as a broad approval of Erdogan’s foreign policy shift toward Israel.
After years of cozy strategic ties, Erdogan upset Israelis with his criticism of the war against Hamas, and with his backing for a protest flotilla that hurt Israel’s international standing by challenging the blockade of the coastal strip in a deadly clash with soldiers. The two countries are still at odds over an international probe of the incident.
Sunday’s vote confirms the public largely supports the prime minister’s new aggressive stance against Israel, analysts said. It has also boosted expectations that the Erdogan’s Islamist party will win next year’s general election.
"He has a renewed mandate from the public to attack Israel, so bilaterally, it’s not good news," said Alon Liel, a former Israeli diplomat in Turkey.
The confrontational tack has boosted his standing in the Middle East and in the Muslim world, but frustrated Israelis, some of whom started to compare him to Iran President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad earlier this year.
"We are shifting between total panic and an attitude of, ‘let’s see what happens,’" said Anat Lapidot Firalla, a Turkey expert at the Van Leer Institute. "I don’t think a lot of people see [the election results] very favorably. They don’t see the democratic aspect of [the election]; they see it as a trick."
Israeli analysts noted that the referendum on the constitution confirms that Erdogan is one of Turkey’s most influential leaders since Kamal Attaturk, the founder of the secular state. That should be a wake-up call for Israelis who doubted his staying power
"[Israelis] are going to have to look at Erdogan differently – that he’s not a passing phenomenon. People in Israel thought he was a wild politician who was putting Turkey’s future in jeopardy by being too Islamic," said Meir Javedanfar, an Iran expert based in Tel Aviv.
"Since the secularists are weaker and it seems the military is going to have a weaker hand, it means that new times are upon us and Israel has to deal with a new reality of a genuinely popular democratic Islamic movement, which has relations with Israel.
This is something that the Israeli government is not used to."
Javedanfar said Israel should continue to patch up relations with Turkey. For all the disputes, maintaining diplomatic ties with a country of 75 million Muslims still has significant symbolic value for a country that is at odds with Iran and other militant Islamic groups.
"Letting go of Erdogan would be yet another gift for Iran and [a problem] for Israel," Javedanfar said. "You’re going to lose a Muslim country with which we’ve had relations for decades, and our relations with them are a thorn in the eyes of those who accuse Israel of having a problem with Islam and Islamic countries."
Liel takes a positive view on the regional implications of the changes, and says that Israelis shouldn’t be so quick to fear Erdogan. "All of this is creating a Muslim country that we didn’t know before," he said. "Instead blaming him because he’s getting closer to Iran, this referendum indicates that he is modernizing and democratizing the country in a way that is an alternative model to Iran."
Amikam Nachmani, a professor of political science at Bar Ilan University, said Israelis shouldn’t feel unease about the changes. He explained that the referendum was the latest battle in a decades-old struggle between the secular elite and religious conservatives.
"Whoever wants more democracy in Turkey, whoever wants Turkey to be in the European Union, shouldn’t be surprised when Turkey becomes more conservative and more religious as a result of democratic reform," he said.