What next for Turkish-Israeli relations?
A Turkish-Israeli rapprochement was also very desirable for Tel-Aviv for obvious strategic reasons. The sense of encirclement, from which Turkey was suffering in 1996, has been a permanent state of affairs for Israel since its inception as a Jewish state in 1947
Will Turkish-Israeli relations be negatively affected by the arrival to power of a pro-Islamic government in Turkey? The answer largely depends on whether the AKP (Justice and Development Party) can muster the political courage to challenge the Turkish military on what has evolved in the past seven years into a strong partnership between Israel and Turkey.
Turkey and Israel signed a military co-operation treaty in 1996. The logic for Turkey was simple: Ankara was feeling increasingly encircled in its war against the Kurdish separatists in Southeast Anatolia. There was ample evidence that Syria, Turkey’s southern neighbour, was harbouring the Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan and his guerrilla organisation the PKK (Kurdish Workers Party). Things did not look any better in northern Iraq where the PKK and two Iraqi Kurdish groups found a haven in the aftermath of Saddam Hussain’s defeat in the first Gulf War of 1991. Finally, there were also strong signs that Iran was turning a blind eye to PKK activities within its borders.
This sense of Iranian, Iraqi and Syrian encirclement in the mid-1990s was compounded by the fact that Turkey’s relations with the West had also reached an impasse. The Kurdish problem had hijacked Turkey’s democratisation agenda, and both the United States and the European Union were critical of the role of the Turkish military in domestic politics. A free debate on the human rights dimension of the Kurdish problem was almost impossible due to the security-first approach of the military. In reaction to Ankara’s authoritarianism, many European countries, including Germany, the number-one trade partner of Turkey, imposed a strict embargo on sales of military equipment to Turkey.
When the United States Senate also signalled that the delivery of certain military equipment to Turkey would become conditional on improvements in its human rights record, Ankara realised it needed a backup plan for its urgent military needs. Tel-Aviv emerged as a natural candidate. Interestingly, it did not take very long for Turkish policymakers to realise that a military co-operation with Tel-Aviv would also be the key to a very valuable asset in Washington DC: the powerful pro-Israel lobby. Considering the need to counter-balance the influential Greek and Armenian lobbies known for their anti-Turkish activities in the United States, for Ankara the Israeli card amounted to killing two birds with one stone.
Of course, a Turkish-Israeli rapprochement was also very desirable for Tel-Aviv for obvious strategic reasons. The sense of encirclement, from which Turkey was suffering in 1996, has been a permanent state of affairs for Israel since its inception as a Jewish state in 1947. History was also on the side of Israeli-Turkish co-operation. Since their expulsion from Christian Spain in 1492, the tolerant Ottoman lands provided one of the few havens to the Jews. Among all the Muslim countries in the world, Turkey was the first to have officially recognised Israel in 1948. Moreover, Israel saw Turkey as the only other democracy in the Middle East and the two countries saw growing tourism and trade relations.
As far as Turkey was concerned, the psychological underpinnings of a good relationship with Israel were already in place. In the collective memory of Turks, the Jews enjoyed a special place as loyal members of the Ottoman world. Unlike the Arabs, they did not betray the collapsing Ottoman Empire. Beyond sympathy for the Jews, cultural distance to the Arab world was an additional factor for Turkey. With the advent of Kemal Ataturk’s secularist reforms in the 1930s, the chasm between Turkey and the Arab-Muslim world had significantly deepened. Modern Turkey had turned its back on its Islamic heritage and pursued a radical westernisation process. Both Israel and Turkey had a western perception of their societies; more importantly, both wanted to be part of the West.
In addition to the strategic concerns, the realpolitik, these historic and cultural factors strongly contributed to the Israeli-Turkish rapprochement. However, it is important to note that the 1996 military co-operation treaty between Israel and Turkey would still have been impossible without the Oslo peace process. Despite its distance to the Arab world, solidarity with the Palestinians was also an important dimension of Turkish foreign policy. In that sense after Oslo the Turkish logic was that “if the Arabs are signing peace treaties with Israel, why can’t we also upgrade our relationship?”
Given these factors behind the Israeli-Turkish rapprochement in the mid-1990s, what are the prospects for Israeli-Turkish relations as 2002 comes to an end? Today, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is all but dead. Turkey’s Kurdish problem is more or less solved, in great part thanks to the successful military pressure applied on Syria. Turkey also has better relations with the European Union and the West. Meanwhile, Ankara has a pro-Islamic government.
But while these are important changes, there also remains a constant: the Turkish military is still politically very powerful. The AK party government appears to have learned a good lesson from the misfortunes of its Islamist predecessor, the Welfare Party, which was able to remain in power for only one year in 1997. Remembered as a major mistake, Prime Minister Erbakan visited countries such as Iran and Libya in an attempt to balance the pro-Israel image of Turkish foreign policy. A series of other minor policy disputes with the military led to the demise of the Erbakan government in what is today dubbed the post-modern coup of 1997.
In summary, the AK party will most probably prefer not to challenge the special relationship with Israel. Rocking the boat with the military is the last thing they want. Ironically, the AKP may even excel at the game of using the powerful pro-Israel lobby in the United States.
Omer Taspinar is a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution and teaches at Johns Hopkins University. He wrote this piece exclusively for Daily Times