The end of the affair?

By Harry van Versendaal

After the “golden era” of the 1990s, a number of incidents in the past few years have left Turkish-Israeli ties seriously impaired, but these appear to be the symptoms of a deeper geopolitical trend rather than the cause.

Driven by a yen to consolidate its place in the Western camp in a cold war security environment and its poor relations with Arab states like Iran and Syria, Turkey became one of the first states to recognize the state of Israel in the late 1940s. Bilateral relations peaked in the 1990s with the signing of a number of business, intelligence and military agreements. Ankara gave Israeli fighter jets permission to use Turkish air space as training ground and, in turn, gained access to Israeli military technology – including unmanned drones that could be used in the fight against Kurdish militia in the southeast. Meanwhile, Turkish resorts were packed with Israeli tourists.

However, relations have deteriorated rapidly over the past decade. Israel’s 2008 raid on Gaza sparked a fuming reaction from the Islamic-rooted administration of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. After dressing down Israeli President Shimon Peres at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, the Turkish premier went as far as to brand the Jewish state as “the principal threat to peace” in the region.

Relations reached a new low in late May after Israeli commandos raided a Turkish ship leading a Gaza-bound aid flotilla, killing nine Turkish civilians. The two sides, both close American allies, have sought to repair at least some of the damage and Israel earlier this month agreed to cooperate with a UN investigation into the fatal operation. But, though Israel has taken most of the flack for the bloodshed, there are ample signs that the Turkish Justice and Development (AKP) government, which is reportedly close to the NGO that sponsored the flotilla, could have done more to prevent the disaster.

Both incidents however seem to fit into the pattern of Turkey’s “neo-Ottoman” foreign policy realignment. Propelled by growing self-confidence and frustration with EU stonewalling over Turkish membership in the 27-member club, Ankara is increasingly pulling its weight in the lands of the former Ottoman Empire, expanding trade and assuming mediator status in chronic regional disputes. It has impressively fixed most of the damage in its ties with Iraq and Syria, but this diplomatic turnaround has not always sat well with Ankara’s friends in the West. A report in the Financial Times this week said that Washington has warned Ankara that its veto of UN sanctions against Iran, a nuclear wannabe power but also a chief energy provider for Turkey, could cost it its chance to obtain US-made drone aircraft to quell Kurdish guerrillas after the US withdrawal from Iraq at the end of next year.

Erdogan’s Israel-bashing may find a sympathetic ear on the Arab street, but he should know that turning his back on Israel and the West is a non-starter. If Turkey is putting on a regional show to impress the US and the EU, it is certainly using the wrong tricks. Breaking ranks with the West over Iran and escalating tensions with Israel will not make Turkey more European.

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