The recent diplomatic crisis between Turkey and Israel has raised questions about the future of relations between the two closest allies of the United States in the region and the direction of the markedly independent foreign policy agenda that Turkey has pursued in recent years.
The heightened tensions between the two nations are expected to complicate the regional atmosphere for U.S. foreign policy in the region, especially in dealing with the Middle East peace process and Iran.
The situation came to the brink of severing diplomatic relations this week when Israel’s deputy foreign minister, Danny Ayalon, arranged a humiliating meeting with the Turkish ambassador to Tel Aviv to object to Turkish television shows that depict Israel in a negative light.
Ayalon did not shake hands with Ambassador Oguz Celikkol, made him sit on a lower sofa and, against diplomatic protocol, did not put a Turkish flag on the table.
That provoked a swift reaction in Turkey, with President Abdullah Gul setting a Wednesday midnight ultimatum for the Israeli government to officially apologize for Ayalon’s behavior. Rescuing relations from the brink of an apparent collapse, Israel issued an apology by the end of the deadline in hopes of keeping what is widely considered its sole ally in the region.
The recent crisis came against a backdrop of simmering tensions in the two countries’ relations. All was well until the last days of 2008, when then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert ordered an invasion of Gaza shortly after Turkey took a bold step by mediating a peace agreement between Israel and one of its arch enemies in the region, Syria.
The Turks were furious that the operation came right in the middle of their mediatory efforts, sending the region back to square one.
In turn, Israel was enraged by Turkey’s refusal to allow it to take part in a joint NATO military exercise off Turkey’s shores or a joint military maneuver with Syria shortly afterwards, along with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s designation of Israel as a threat to "global peace" last week.
Turkey was the first Muslim nation to recognize the state of Israel and the two sides have enjoyed diplomatic ties for nearly 61 years despite occasional ups and downs. The relationship grew into a strong alliance in 1990s, the main pillars of which were military cooperation and tourism.
But in a break from the past two decades, the Palestinian issue has increasingly come to shape Turkey’s relations with Israel.
"With the Turkish public and increasingly with the Turkish government, there is a sense of resentment against Israel linked to its treatment of Palestinians. That is unusual not because it wasn’t there before but because of the extent to which it’s being made public and also the extent to which Israelis are reacting to it," Bulent Aliriza, director of the Turkey Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told IPS.
The first public signs of Turkish discontent with Israel emerged after the Gaza invasion, when Erdogan berated Israeli President Shimon Perez during a major economic summit in the Swiss town of Davos, telling him "You know well how to kill."
Many analysts say these incidents are not isolated but rather indicate a trend in Turkish foreign policy in recent years.
Due to the Arabs’ boycott, Israel has had no option but to remain isolated in the region. Until recently, Turkey had chosen to avoid deep engagements in the Middle East due to the fiercely secular outlook of its foreign policy, propelling it westward instead of east.
But since the coming to power of PM Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2002, as part of a new foreign policy vision, the country has become more involved in Middle East politics to the extent that it now attempts to play the role of a genuine and well-intentioned peace broker in the region’s multiple problems.
The AKP government has developed warm relations with Iran, much to the West’s dismay, and is strengthening ties with most of the Arab countries in the area. Turkish officials say these are all part of a "zero-problem" policy guided by the new vision.
However, some doubt if that zero-problem policy is applied to Turkey’s relations with Israel as well.
"Much of the problem has to do with the Turkish government trying to improve its relationship with Muslim nations and they are in effect using the Israeli relationship as a way of signaling that Turks would prefer better relations with Muslim nations and a downgrade of relations with Israel – and end[ing] it possibly," Frank Tachau, an expert on Turkey and Israel and a professor emeritus at the University of Illinois, told IPS.
In the broader context of events, tensions with Israel are seen by some in Washington as a sign of a much larger change in AKP’s overall foreign policy designs emanating from its roots in political Islam and economic imperatives.
Describing the new guiding vision of Turkish foreign policy as "econo-Islamism", Soner Cagaptay of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) predicts Turkey will "opt out of the NATO consensus on Iran" and will not follow the West’s line in dealing with the Palestinian group Hamas.
"Econo-Islamism is a far call from the traditional exclusively pro-Western orientation of Turkish foreign policy," wrote Cagaptay in an analysis for WINEP late last month. "Econo-Islamism conflicts with the Obama administration’s vision of a multi-confessional world. The AKP doctrine does not consider Turkey as being part of Obama’s world."
As part of the efforts to revive its regional influence, Turkey has placed a major emphasis on economic ties. The country’s investment and dealings with many of its surrounding countries has considerably increased.
The trade volume between Turkey and Syria reached nearly two billion dollars in 2008, up from 250 to 300 million dollars prior to 2000, according to the chairperson of the Turkish-Syrian business chamber. Bilateral trade between Turkey and Iran is expected to soar to 20 billion dollars by 2011, compared to only seven billion dollars in 2008, the two countries’ officials have said.
Turkey’s trade with Iraq also significantly increased to a new high of around five billion dollars last year. It has lifted visa requirements for Syria, Lebanon and Jordan in order to strengthen economic and cultural ties.
Despite speculation about whether the AKP’s alleged roots in political Islam are motivating its recent attitude toward Israel, Gonul Tol, head of the Center for Turkish Studies at the Washington-based Middle East Institute, disagrees with that notion.
"If you look at Turkey and its foreign policy, it is intensifying its ties with the neighbors in the region and the relations with Israel have been fine until 2009 and even after. But Israel has not been behaving as an actor that promotes peace and so this has created tension," Gonul said in an interview with IPS.
As Turkey tries to assert itself in the regional arena mostly through soft power, deteriorating relations between Israel and Turkey would be another headache in an already challenging region for U.S. foreign policy decision-makers as they attempt to move the Middle East peace process forward.
"If the U.S. wants to re-launch the peace initiative, they want the Israelis but also want Turkey since they have some leverage within the Arab world as well as with Palestinian factions like Hamas and also the PLO (of President Mahmoud Abbas)," said Aliriza of CSIS.
"Obama wants some movement on this front so the U.S. can focus on the increasingly growing confrontation with Tehran," he said.
With tensions high in Turkey’s relations with Israel, many are waiting to see if a visit by Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak to Turkey on Sunday will cool down the heat. The Turkish prime minister has already said he will not be meeting with Barak.
(Inter Press Service)