Monday, October 25, 2010

Turkey: The View From Israel

Three leading Israeli commentators frankly criticized Turkey’s current foreign policy in Istanbul on Friday. The speakers said that Turkey is now like Iran, and seen in Israel as part of an axis hostile to Israel, the United States, and Europe. The Turkish hosts of the conference, Boğaziçi University’s TÜSİAD Foreign Policy Forum, debated some of the assertions made by their Israeli guests, leading to a lively discussion about which country’s government, people, or policy is to blame for the current malaise in Turkish-Israeli relations. However, as the hosts themselves said, the purpose of the debate was to have “frank words among ourselves,” and all participants agreed that they were “very interested in finding a solution.”

The Israeli participants at Friday’s events were Amikam Nachmani, professor of political studies at Bar-Ilan University, Shlomo Avineri, professor of political science and former Director-General of the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Aluf Benn, editor-at large a Haaretz Newspaper.

“This is the first time since the early 1990’s in the strategic Turkish-Israeli relations, that a clear non-threatening Turkish act is deliberately, openly launched against Israel with the Turkish intent of embarrassing Israel,” said Nachmani, speaking about the Gaza flotilla crisis that occurred on May 31 of this year when a Turkish ship, the Mavi Marmara, attempted to break the Israeli naval blockade of Gaza and distribute humanitarian aid. Eight Turks and one Turkish-American were killed by Israeli soldiers, who boarded the ship before it could reach Gaza.

“Ask Turks how they would feel if other countries arranged an aid convoy akin to the Gaza flotilla for their own Turkish minority. Or how about supporting the Armenian demand for genocide recognition, or inviting heads of the PKK for a visit, the same way that Prime Minister Erdoğan hosted Khaled Meshaal, the leader of Hamas. You will be met with silent stares” said Nachmani, quoting some of the hostile rhetoric coming from the Israeli media against Turkey.

“You wanted to know what is the public opinion in Israel, and I gave you the gist of it. And I’ll continue,” said Nachmani, categorically describing a narrative of Turkey’s foreign policy in stark contrast to what many of the Turkish intellectuals countered in their rebuttals.

Professor Avineri added another layer of criticism to Turkey’s foreign policy. In his presentation, Avineri said that Turkey’s recent foreign policy has been seen as hostile not only to Israel, but to America as well.

“No NATO country has ever voted against the United States in the Security Council. Turkey did it,” aid Avineri, referring to Turkey’s “no” vote at the United Nations’ Security Council in June to a draft resolution imposing more sanctions on Iran. “This was saying ‘no’ to Obama, not Bush, and Obama represents a different kind of foreign policy.”

Many Turkish officials have defended their vote at the Security Council, noting that the nuclear swap deal they had signed with Iran shortly before the vote was a more effective diplomatic step towards preventing a nuclear-weaponized Iran, a goal Turkey shares with the West.

However, Avineri believes that the vote also created a negative perception of Turkey in Europe, and not only in the United States and Israel.

“Turkey being friendly to Iran hurt it in the eyes of Europe,” said Avineri.

Aluf Benn spoke of the stereotypes that have developed within Israel of Turkey since the flotilla incident.

“The initial reaction of friends and family members when they heard that I was going to Istanbul was ‘Isn’t it dangerous? It’s a really dangerous time, are you sure about that?’” said Benn. “No Israeli had any trouble in Turkey, neither in Istanbul nor anywhere else, not before the flotilla not after the flotilla… there was no story about anyone who was even over-questioned at the airport. Nothing. But still, ‘Are you crazy? What are you going to do there?’ And this is by people who consider themselves in their own eyes to be the elites of Israel, people with degrees, people who believe that they are better informed about the world than just watching TV news or reading the press, but still that was the impression.”

Benn went on to speak of the historically close relationship between Turkey and Israel, describing Turkey as one of the first countries to have an open military relationship with Israel. He said that France had, in the 1950’s, helped Israel militarily to an extent that no other nation had or would, including helping with the development of Israel’s nuclear weapons program. While France has since become a critic of Israel, Benn noted that France would never be considered an enemy. Although saddened by the recent fallout between Israel and Turkey, Benn hopes that Turkey can at some point criticize Israel in a similar way while maintaining a working relationship. Part of the blame, he said, lies in the fact that Israelis have an image of Turkey as “exotic,” in times of both friendship and disagreement.

The panel chair at Friday’s event, Gün Kut, a professor of political science at Boğaziçi University, responded to his Israeli guest’s criticism of Turkey. He said that the recent tensions between the two countries occurred when “for the first time, Turkey and Israel, at the official level, stopped talking to one another as two European Western states and started to talk to one another as two Middle Eastern states.”

Kut described Turkey as the first country in the region to have pro-Palestinian sentiments without being anti-Israeli. He also refuted the assertion that Turkey was part of Iran’s “axis,” saying that it is in Turkey’s interest to have peace and stability in the region, while it is in Iran’s interest to maintain instability in the region. He was critical of the current foreign policy espoused by Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, of “zero problems with neighbors,” saying that this only works if you are the source of all problems in the region. Instead, countries have to manage and mitigate problems.

Kut criticized the current populist foreign policy trend of the current government, which some commentators explain as an attempt by the Turkish government to appeal to the “Arab street.”

“You conduct foreign policy from government to government, not from government to street,” said Kut, noting that praise for Turkey’s policy from the Arab media was flattering, but hardly the basis for shaping foreign policy.

One possible reason for the current drift in relations between Turkey and Israel is the proliferation of democracy in Turkey, according to some of the speakers at the conference.

“It is clear, at least to some Israelis, the more democratic Turkey becomes, the more you see the rise of Muslim forces, and the less the military can influence the country’s policies. Similarly, as the country became more and more democratic, hence more open about its cooperation with Israel, internal opposition to it has risen,” said Nachmani.

Public opinion’s effect on foreign policy can be seen to some extent in the flotilla crisis. According to a poll by Turkish polling group Metropoll after the crisis, over 60% of Turks felt that Turkey’s reaction to Israel after the crisis was not strong enough, as opposed to 33% who felt that Turkey’s response was strong enough.

“If you have Muslim solidarity between Turkey and Hamas, I’m not saying that’s good or bad, but there is more criticism of Israel,” as a result, Nachmani said.

As for solving the problem, Friday’s event was billed as an attempt by respected intellectuals of Turkey and Israel to discuss ways forward.

“What should be our role? First and foremost, at least to describe to our readers the other face of Turkey, not only the inflammatory speeches of the Prime Minister, or the demonstrations after the flotilla…or the exotic stereotypes of the past. But also, to expose them to another face of Turkey, that we know very little about. I was very excited by the invitation because I knew that this was a great opportunity to interact with that kind of Turkey,” said Benn. “Here I see the big way forward to develop the relationship, even at times of strong political differences and arguments,” he said in closing, which drew applause from those gathered.

(A portion of this piece appeared in the Hurriyet Daily News)

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