Turkish Reforms, A Wake-Up Call for Israel

Mehmet Celebi*

On September 12, 22 million Turks voted a resounding “Yes” and thus endorsed a constitutional amendment package that could open wider the door to democratization in the Middle East.

Turkey’s 26-point referendum which will enhance civil liberties and individual rights was watched closely by hundreds of millions of Muslims around the world and serves as yet another opportunity for the country to show leadership in the region. As a prominent Arab scholar told me recently “If Turkey fails, what alternative is there for the Muslim and Arab world?”

Of all the countries in Turkey’s immediate neighborhood, Israel should take the most heed. More than three months after Israel’s deadly attack on the Turkish flotilla, tension between the two countries is still unsettled. Yet one thing is clear: Turkey has the upper hand.

The nuclear deal that Turkey, much to the dismay of the West, recently signed with Iran, co-brokered by Brazil; its mediation between Russia and Georgia after the 2008 war; its ongoing role as broker for talks between Pakistan and Afghanistan; its intervention in convincing all sides to select a consensus President and subsequently Prime Minister of Lebanon; and its success in persuading Iraqi Sunnis to participate, rather than boycott, the elections­—are all clear indications of Turkey’s burgeoning role as a trusted diplomatic player on the world stage. In addition, it has lifted visa restrictions and signed “free-trade zone agreements” with several countries in the Middle East, and launched strategic dialogues with a number of Arab governments.

Even the EU, where Turkey’s 40 year membership bid has been vacillating, has recognized Turkey’s key global role recently. Recently, Finnish Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb underlined Turkey’s growing influence by calling its foreign policy reach “one of the top five countries in the world today”. “Arguably, today Turkey is more influential in the world than any of our member states together or separately,” Stubb said. “It has a great influence in the Middle East, in the African Horn in the Persian Gulf, in Iran. It’s a truly global player and we need to work together with Turkey right now on foreign and security policy.”

Nothing was clearer during my recent visit to Jordan and Israel with prominent Chicago-based Muslim, Christian, and Jewish leaders. I was especially struck by Jordan’s intense support of Turkey—from remarks by government officials of the highest level, including former Prime Minister and current Deputy President of the Jordanian Senate Fayez al-Tarawneh, to the general attitudes of the public. Their tone signals how far Turkey has come in its relations with its Arab neighbors and suggests the influence it can wield to help resolve regional conflicts.

Arab leaders and intellectuals I met unmistakably welcomed Turkey’s rise in the region as a counter-balance to more than 30 years of Iranian efforts at hegemony. In particular, these officials genuinely believe Turkey is not seeking to dominate the region, but rather bring peace that will help boost its rapidly growing and record-breaking economy.

In comparison, during our visit to Jerusalem, the negative feelings of the majority of Israelis we met (individuals and NGOs) couldn’t have been a bigger contrast to the positive feelings of the Arabs we met towards Turkey (private individuals, government officials and NGOs).

Consequently, Turkey’s annual trade with Arab countries has reached over $30 billion dollars, 12 times its trade with Israel. It also imports almost a fifth of its natural gas from Iran. In deepening ties to Middle Eastern governments other than Israel, Turkey is in part following where its economic interests lead. They have, as a 19th century U.K. Prime Minister once said of England, “no permanent friends and no permanent enemies, only permanent interests.”

Enjoying an 80% approval rating among Arabs, and Turkish PM Erdogan considered the “most trusted leader” by the overwhelming Arab majority, Turkey can now lay claim to being an honest broker in the Middle East.

Meanwhile, many in Israel and the west are sounding false alarms about the intentions and direction of Turkey’s current government, when they should be seizing this historic opportunity to work on a comprehensive and final resolution to the complex Middle East conflict.

Turkey’s rapidly soaring political and economic ties with the Arab world are inversely rapidly plummeting with Israel.

Three months after the deadly flotilla incident, and despite a high-level face to face meeting between Turkish and Israeli ministers and countless behind the scenes efforts by well-intentioned individuals, groups, and countries including the US, Turkish-Israeli relations don’t seem to fare any better than the post flotilla train-wreck.

Enjoying an 80% approval rating among Arabs, and Turkish PM Erdogan considered the “most trusted leader” by the overwhelming Arab majority, Turkey can now lay claim to being an honest broker in the Middle East.

For the most part, Israeli officials’ hard-line and impudent if not threatening remarks have been countered by Turkish officials’ steadfast, well-entrenched, and mostly diplomatic stance. What is remarkable is that despite numerous efforts to ease the tensions between the once-strategically close allies, Israel does not seem to recognize the severity of the situation and the seriousness of Turkish officials’ repeated warnings of further grave consequences between the two countries.

As for the flotilla incident, many have asked why Turks allowed the craft to threaten the Israeli blockade of Gaza, an ally; in the first place and where Turkish-Israeli relations are headed.

Notwithstanding the fact that Turkey, as a democracy, could not have legally stopped the ships carrying international volunteers from leaving Turkish ports, it is important to note that the country has a long-standing history as friend and ally to those who are being persecuted. For much of the Turkish people’s history, those they helped most were not oppressed Muslim Palestinians in Gaza they were Jews.

At the height of the Spanish Inquisition, both Muslims and Jews were persecuted. Most Muslims had plenty of places to run. However, the majority of Jews were unwelcome in Spain and the rest of Europe, except for the Ottomans.

“ Turkey was the first Muslim country to recognize Israel on March 28, 1949, the year after its establishment. ”

At midnight on August 2, 1492, for example, when Christopher Columbus set sail on what would become his legendary voyage to the New World, his fleet had to depart from the relatively obscure port of Palos because the shipping lanes of Cadiz and Seville were so congested with Ottoman “Freedom Flotillas” evacuating persecuted Jews from Spain.

More recently, when the whole world turned a blind eye to one of history’s worst atrocities—the Holocaust—Turks were among the very few who showed their humanity by rescuing more than 100,000 Jews and bringing them to Turkey. Behic Erkin, Turkey’s ambassador to France from 1939 to 1943, risked his life and the neutral standing of Turkey to help over 18,000 – and, today, I’m happy to call Emir Kivircik, his grandson, a good friend.

The good relations between Turkey and the Jews continued after the establishment of the State of Israel. Traditionally, Israel and Turkey have enjoyed a good, if not particularly warm, relationship. Turkey was the first Muslim country to recognize Israel on March 28, 1949, the year after its establishment. The two countries have enjoyed a formal military agreement since 1996, a formal free trade agreement since 2000, and a water-transfer agreement since 2002. They have conducted military training together, and in 2007, Turkey’s Parliament became the first Muslim Parliament to be addressed by an Israeli President.

Indeed, good relations with Turkey were an explicit objective for Israel from as far back as the time of Istanbul University Law School educated Israeli Prime Minister Ben Gurion, who set out the strategic doctrine that Israel should try to seek alliances with the non-Arab states of the Middle East to counteract the opposition to Israel of bordering Arab states. By early 2006, the Israeli Foreign Ministry was even characterising its relations with Turkey as ‘perfect’. But aside from the aforementioned historic ties, both countries never really developed the relationship deeper and beyond that of military and intelligence.

Undoubtedly, throughout their recent histories, both Turkey and Israel seemed to have a lot in common- from disputed borders with Arab neighbors and reliance on U.S. aid, to powerful generals pulling strings or setting agendas behind the scenes. Those commonalities ended for Turkey in the last few years due to unprecedented reforms undertaken by the current government.

The friendly relations between Israel and Turkey began to change after Israel’s war in Lebanon in 2006 and worsened after Israel’s war in Gaza in 2009 when Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan developed a personal mistrust of Israeli leaders. This stemmed from the infamous six-hour meeting he had with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert four days prior to the attack on Gaza, where they discussed extremely encouraging developments in the Syrian-Israeli peace talks mediated by Turkey and the rumors of an attack on Gaza, which Olmert vehemently denied.

By alienating Turkey, Israel is risking one of the few friends in the region that it has ever had. “Turkey’s enmity is as intense as its friendship is valuable,” Prime Minister Erdogan recently warned. “Even the loss of Turkey’s friendship is a cost.”

Olmert left all but promising to respond to Syria’s acceptance of direct talks with Israel. Instead, Israel’s response was its attack on Gaza that killed 1,400 Palestinian.

Israel’s overzealous reaction to the flotilla may have cemented this divide, overshadowing the work of more than a millennium of tolerance and harmonious co-existence between Turks and Jews.

Israel’s recent actions at home and abroad—largely boosted by increasingly aggressive and combative political leadership—are concerning many Israelis, friends of Israel, and surrounding nations. It is becoming paranoid, intolerant, and undemocratic, increasingly espousing a mindset of “us versus the whole world.”

The gratification certain Israeli officials received from the lowly act of the Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon’s denigration of Turkey’s then newly appointed Ambassador to Israel is but a lucid example of this mindset Israel finds itself in.

The antagonism between the two countries does not end there. While Israel recently accepted a variation of one of Turkey’s preconditions for improved relations with Israel by allowing an international panel to investigate the flotilla incident, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak recently expressed “deep concern” over the appointment of Dr. Hakan Fidan as Turkey’s intelligence chief for his supposed “support of Iran”.

What many in Israel and their friends elsewhere don’t seem to understand is that while Turkey shares the West’s concerns of the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the region- including by Iran, its approach to dealing with this problem is drastically different from that of the West. Accusing the chief of Turkey’s intelligence of being untrustworthy for his alleged “support for Iran” is as disrespectful and aloof for a “historically strategically” as Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s recent declaration that “Israel is ready for peace with Palestinians”.

Turkey, as it has in recent years; will seek policies that will help bring a peaceful solution to the region, while ensuring that Israel’s legitimate security concerns are taken into consideration. Turkey knows that it needs to protect the right of the Palestinians in Gaza as much as it protects the rights of Israelis to live in peace and security but not at the expense of one over the other as in the past, but rather in a balanced manner befitting a true regional superpower.

For Israel, this turn of events is a strategic loss since its relations with Turkey have historically boosted Israel’s claim that its fight is not with Islam but with the Arabs, as Turkey is a non-Arab Muslim country. By alienating Turkey, Israel is risking one of the few friends in the region that it has ever had. “Turkey’s enmity is as intense as its friendship is valuable,” Prime Minister Erdogan recently warned. “Even the loss of Turkey’s friendship is a cost.”

Right now, that’s a cost Israel can’t afford—and Turkey knows it. But, does Israel and its friends? PR


* Mehmet Celebi is a Member of the Dean’s International Council at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy Studies, and a Fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding.

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