Middle East

Why has Turkey left Israel on the Stage?

The relations between the former allies Turkey and Israel have continually hit new “rock bottoms” since Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan stormed off the stage at Davos in 2009 in a blustery reaction to Israel’s Gaza offensive. 

The Mavi Marmara raid, the “low chair” incident and the recent UN Report have also seriously hurt relations. Few could have imagined how much lower they could go as Prime Minister Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu turn the heat up on Israel following every incident. The first week of September has proved even more damaging.

The week of September 5-12th started with the expulsion of Israeli diplomats from Turkey, the committal of Turkish naval escorts for future humanitarian deliveries to Gaza and ended with the visit of PM Erdoğan to Egypt to discuss an unprecedented security pact.  As Egypt takes on a less-friendly tone with Israel the meaning of this week may be truly momentous for the future direction of defense and security in the region. September 20 will also mark another important date for Turkish-Israeli relations when the UN votes on making Palestine the 194th member of the body.

This downward spiral of relations has left many commentators scrambling for answers.  Many have speculated that this is simply the result of internal Turkish politics: the AK Party playing to its “Islamist” base by decrying Israeli policy.  This simplistic explanation, however, does not delve deep enough in explaining Turkey’s new hard line on Israel.  The fullest explanation lies in the convergence of a number of factors combined with the disarray wreaked upon recent Turkish policy by recent developments in the Middle East.

The “Sick Man of Europe”

The tables have turned. Europe has become the “Sick Man of Europe.” As the European project falters under the burden of fiscal irresponsibility, Turkey’s trade and FDI levels are sitting at record levels.  The need for Turkish vigilance about how policy is perceived in Europe has not become as pressing as in the past.  Moreover, the situation in Cyprus, having showed promise after the Cypriot elections in 2008 remains as stagnant as ever.  And the passing of the rotational presidency to Cyprus in 2012 can only serve to frustrate Turkey’s accession aspirations.

Changing collective security and relative Turkish power

Along with an increase in economic clout Turkey has emerged as the dominant power in the eastern Mediterranean.  Turkey possesses NATO’s second largest land army and formidable sea and air forces.  The removal of Saddam Hussein in 2003 left a power vacuum in the region that has resulted in countries like Iran scrambling for greater influence.  As well, fiscal austerity in southern Europe has meant defense budgets slashed as Spain, Italy and Greece look inward to avoid a devastating economic collapse.

The old Cold-War era NATO alliance is taking on a fundamentally different shape.  Gone are the days when a strong pact was needed in the eastern Mediterranean to counter Soviet influence.

As well, Turkish politics have “de-militarized.” With the arrest of high ranking officers in a coup plot the ‘old guard’ of Turkey’s European focus has faded.  The threat of military takeovers in the name of secularism has subsided as civilian leaders exert ever more control in modern Turkey.  The generals who once presided over the old hope of European accession, secular anti-communism and stalwart resolve to Euro-Atlantic security have been brought to heel under civilian masters who share a different vision in a different world.

A clash with the region’s other major military power, Israel, is inevitable as both nations compete for power and influence.  Turkey’s place in nations hostile to Israel will not sit well with the Jewish State.  The former allies’ solidarity on policy has given way to explicit belligerence as neither Netanyahu nor Erdoğan are men who easily back down.

Room to maneuver

These factors have come together in loosening Turkish policy choices in a way that was not possible even a decade ago.  An increase in Turkey’s power, a failing Europe and the civilian control of Turkey’s military have served to greatly free up Ankara’s policy choices.

Foreign policy disorder  

The Arab Spring of 2011 caught the ‘Davutoğlu Doctrine’ by surprise. 

Already faced with ‘whether Europe’ question and a regional security situation in flux, the foundation of Turkish foreign policy was washed away with the human tide that toppled Ben Ali and Mubarak.  This decimation of years of Turkish policy by the Arab Spring is the main cause of Turkey’s recent hard line with Israel.

The last few years has seen Professor Davutoğlu take a pragmatic and independent approach in dealing with regimes in the region, seeking to court all governments to bolster stability, trade and diplomatic ties.  The AK Party government also sought to play to populism at home and on the “Arab Street” by taking a harder line on Israel and being seen as the champion of the Palestinian cause.  The approach worked well so long as the decrepit regimes remained in place; however, as they began to falter Turkish foreign policy was left in the lurch.  Suddenly, playing both to regimes and the “Arab Street” could not be done.

The confusion was most pronounced as the conflict in Libya took shape.  Initially, Turkey opposed any military action taking the line of the BRIC foreign ministers; however, as quickly as they denounced the robust response of Britain, France and America they changed their position and began to play a large supporting role in the mission.  Turkey was left in a very awkward place: a large foreign investor in Gaddafi’s Libya but did not want to be left on the wrong side of history in case the NTC won in the end.  Turkey eventually settled on the side of their NATO partners, however, not without seemingly great dissonance on the issue.  Davutoğlu has since twice visited Benghazi and handed over hundreds of millions of dollars to support the NTC.

Turkey was left in similar position with Assad’s Syria.  Turkey spent years forging ties with the Assad regime through trade, diplomacy and cooperation in suppressing separatism in the region.  They nearly brokered a peace deal between Israel and Syria in 2009 and acted as an intermediary between Syria and Lebanon.  However, with the late popular swell against Assad, Turkey has taken a much different tone with him.

Turkish foreign policy stands at multiple crossroads as Erdoğan arrives in Egypt on September 12 to discuss a security pact.  This new cooperation, along with the September 20 UN vote on Palestine could prove the final blow to the old order in the region as a new, democratic security alliance emerges.  A US veto, along with military exercises between Turkey and Egypt may well put great pressures on Jordan as Israel’s last friend in the area and further damage relations between the United States and Arab governments.  I personally believe that  the future of the region will take shape as Turkey takes a more prominent role and spreads her two wings of economic clout and military power?