Strain on a Fragile Alliance

Relations between Turkey and Israel used to be close; now they are in a state of flux. This has only partly to do with the current conflict surrounding the Gaza aid convoy. The spectre of this discord has been waiting in the wings for quite some time, as Thomas Fuster explains in his analysis

Montage of the Israeli and Turkish flags (source: DW)
Difficult partnership: "Bilateral relations between the two countries have reached an all-time low," writes Thomas Fuster

​​ "Nothing will be as it once was." Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was not one to mince his words this week: his rhetoric when addressing the state of relations between his country and Israel was threatening. The attack on the aid flotilla, which Erdogan described as a "bloody massacre", was presented as the end of an era. Words like "banditry", "piracy", and "state terrorism" are being used to describe the incident and there is talk of criminal prosecution for those responsible. Erdogan has warned Israel that Turkey's antagonism is as strong as its friendship is valuable.

These days, there would appear to be little left of the once close relationship between Israel and its only remaining ally in the Muslim world. Bilateral relations between the two countries have reached an all-time low. Turkey, which in 1949 was the first predominantly Islamic country to recognise the state of Israel and establish diplomatic relations between the two countries, this week withdrew its ambassador from Israel and cancelled joint military manoeuvres. Moreover, Foreign Minister Davutoglu told the UN Security Council that Israel had lost all legitimacy as a respectable member of the international community.

Well, to be honest, it was never really a love match in the first place. What's more, the majority of the Turkish population never really supported the strategic alliance. It was much more a Kemalist elite, namely the military, that fostered the close ties and frequently built bridges with Israel against the will of the Turkish government.

Joint security interests

This became evident in 1996 at the signing of a co-operation agreement that gave each country access to the military facilities of the other. Turkey's strictly secular generals always saw the close relationship with the Jewish state as a means of counteracting the growing strength of political Islam at home.

Turkish guard of honour in Ankara on the occasion of a meeting between the Israeli defence minister, Ehud Barak, and his Turkish counterpart, Vecdi Gönül (photo: AP)
In the past, Turkish-Israeli co-operation was based primarily on security issues. Despite the harsh rhetoric of the past week, pragmatism has thus far dominated relations between the two countries, writes Thomas Fuster

​​ Until now, joint interests have made sure that the difficult alliance was able to outlast even ideological differences and opposing views on global political issues such as the Iraq War in 2003. The joint interests are mainly to be found at security policy level: the two military heavyweights exchange secret service information, conduct joint training measures, and make infrastructure available to each other at key geostrategic centres. Moreover, Turkey spends a lot of money buying arms from Israel. And all of this was done with the blessing of the countries' common ally, the United States.

It is unlikely that this military co-operation will now come to an abrupt end. Regardless of the harsh words – for which, it must be said, Erdogan in particular is well known – pragmatism has thus far dominated relations between the two countries. The Defence Ministry issued a statement saying that the recent crisis would have no effect on the procurement of Israeli drones, which are used above all in the fight against the rebels of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). Turkey, a NATO member, is also likely to continue having its military aircraft and tanks refitted by Israel, a deal that is worth billions.

No more common enemies

Nevertheless, the change in the bilateral relationship between Turkey and Israel is obvious. What's more, it was already obvious before Israel's most recent military intervention. One reason for this is that they no longer have common enemies – namely Syria and Iran.

The Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan (right), and the Syrian president, Bashar Assad (photo: dpa)
The Turkish-Israeli alliance is losing its common foes; following a period of hostility, Turkey and Syria are now enjoying a period of détente

​​ For years, much to the irritation of the West, Turkey has been pursuing a policy of rapprochement with both these states. Ankara has been adhering to a concept of strategic depth drawn up by Foreign Minister Davutoglu, which gives top priority to the elimination of problems with neighbouring states and the fullest possible integration of these neighbours (e.g. through interdependence and co-operation).

The perceived joint threat from Syria was a key reason for the particularly close co-operation between Israel and Turkey in the 1990s. Because Syria provided shelter for Abdullah Öcalan, head of the PKK, who was on the run from the Turkish authorities, it seemed possible for a time that war could break out between Turkey and Syria. Israel supported Turkey's fight against the Kurdish rebel organisation by providing military equipment and intelligence information.

For its part, Turkey gave Israel – which is in a permanent state of conflict with Syria because of the Golan Heights – access to its airspace. Following the arrest of Öcalan in 1999, Ankara adopted a more conciliatory approach to Damascus; and so, the ties created by a common foe began to weaken.

A divided AKP

When Erdogan's conservative Islamic Party for Justice and Development (AKP) came to power in 2002, the constellation of interests became even more complex. The AKP's policy towards Israel is very ambivalent: on the one hand, it cannot and will not hide its aversion to the way Israel is treating its Palestinian brothers. In this regard, it is important to note that some of the more radical elements of the AKP have in the past indulged in anti-Semitic reflexes.

On the other hand, the government in Ankara sees itself as a regional power in the Middle East and likes to present itself as a mediator, a role that requires it to remain equally independent of the opposing parties.

Supporters of Turkey's ruling party, the AKP, waving flags in Istanbul (photo: dpa)
Thomas Fuster describes the AKP's policy towards Israel as "very ambivalent"; on the one hand, Turkey's ruling party would like to support Palestine, and on the other, it would like to play the role of mediator in the Middle East

​​ Turkey does not always master this balancing act successfully. Nevertheless, it succeeded in mediating in indirect peace talks between Israel and Syria in 2008. The talks seemed to be moving along the right track when Israel launched air attacks on the Gaza Strip, thereby bringing the peace process to an abrupt end. Turkey felt betrayed. A short time later, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, all of Erdogan's diplomatic dams broke and he attacked the Israeli president, Shimon Peres. The Arab population, disappointed by the inactivity of its own leaders, saw Erdogan as its new hero and as a result, the verbal political exchanges and media jibes between Israel and Turkey became more frequent.

With one eye on the electorate

Erdogan, who hopes to be elected for a third term in next year's parliamentary elections, will undoubtedly win points on the domestic political scene as a result of his tough stance. Public opinion is increasingly being shaped by a new Turkish middle class that is no longer willing to deny its Islamic identity, regardless of whether the Turkish constitution is secular or not.

These citizens, the backbone of the AKP, no longer accept the argument that Israel's repression of Palestinians must be tolerated in the name of higher Turkish security interests, not least because Israel's advocates in Turkey – i.e. the military – have lost both political influence and moral authority as a result of countless scandals regarding attempted coups.

Thomas Fuster

© Neue Zürcher Zeitung/ 2010

Thomas Fuster is Middle East correspondent for the Swiss daily Neue Zürcher Zeitung.

Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan

Editor: Lewis Gropp/

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