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Turkey and Israel - Old Friends or New Enemies ?

The recent downturn in relations between Turkey and Israel is a dramatic change to the warm relations that the two countries enjoyed until recently.

Turkey joined NATO in 1951, at the same time as Greece. Turkey had supported the allies in the latter stages of World War 2, and the threat of an expanding Soviet Russia on its borders encouraged participation in the NATO alliance. Israel is not a member.

It is less well known that Turkey has been an associate member of the EU since 1963 and joined the Council of Europe in 1949. The most famous statutory body of this institution is the European Court of Human Rights. As Turkey is a member of the Council of Europe, then it accepts the authority of the European Court of Human Rights.

The Senator's Villa in North Cyprus

This has been a mixed blessing for Turkey as there are have been several adverse rulings against it in the European Court of Human Rights by dispossessed Greek Cypriots who lost land after the partition of Cyprus in 1974.

Turkey is currently ruled by the Justice and Development Party (AKP). The president is Abdullah Gul and the Prime Minister Recep Erdogan. There is ongoing tension between the government and the military concerning the perceived attack on the secular constitution by the AKP. In 2008, there was an attempt to close down the AKP, which was narrowly defeated in the Constitutional Court. One much publicised example of this dispute is the overturning of the headscarf ban, championed by President Gul, whose wife regularly appears in public wearing a headscarf.

Relations between Turkey and Israel were soured by the Israeli raid on Syria in 2007. Several Israeli jets used Turkish airspace en-route to a bomb attack on an alleged nuclear processing plant in Syria. It appears that the Israeli raid was approved by the Turkish military, but the matter was allegedly not brought to the attention of President Gul, who subsequently condemned the attack.

Who is the Senator living in North Cyprus ?

The severe downturn in relations between the two countries started during the 4 week Gaza War, during the winter of 2009/9. The avowed aim of the war was to remove Hamas from the Gaza strip and curtail the rocket fire into Israel. Unfortunately, there were many civilian deaths and injuries.

The Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Erdogan was a vocal critic of the war and used language reminiscent of Libya's Muammar Gaddafi and Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Several sporting events with Israel were cancelled, and Israeli flags were burnt.

The most damage to Turkish Israeli relations occurred in June 2010, in response to Israel boarding a Turkish ship, Mavi Marmara. The ship was owned by a Turkish charity and was apparently taking aid, including food and medical supplies to Gaza. The ship attempted to penetrate the Israeli blockade of Gaza, and was boarded by Israeli commandos. This resulted in the death of 9 passengers.

The importance of this downturn in relations has been clearly seen at the Lisbon summit of NATO in November 2010. Efforts to agree on a missile shield, which includes interceptors in Poland and Romania, together with radar in Turkey, were placed in jeopardy. This was due to the naming of Iran as a possible rogue state, and therefore a potential NATO enemy. The angry Turkish reaction focused on the fact that the NATO shield could be construed as providing protection for Israel from Iranian attack in any future middle east conflict. The removal of any reference to Iran eventually secured the agreement and participation of Turkey in the missile shield agreement.

It has been very clear for some 20 years that Turkey stands at the crossroads of the Christian West and the Islamic East. Although the population of Turkey is almost entirely Moslem, the constitution enshrines secular principles, based on the reforms of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in the aftermath of the first World War.

It is now generally portrayed in western media circles that Turkey is drifting towards a more radical Muslim state, in harmony with several notorious regimes in the middle east. However, any commentary on contemporary Turkish politics must bear in mind several considerations

1.   The long standing tension between successive governments and the military had been a source of instability and economic disruption. The current AKP government has been largely successful in making the government accountable to the electorate, and the military accountable to the government. It is now unlikely that there will be any further military coups. The military is avowedly secular and loyal to the legacy of Ataturk, and this highlights the divide between religion and secularism

Is the Senator indoors ?

2.   Turkey first made an application to join the EU in 1987. Since that date there have been several enlargements to the EU. Some of Turkey's neighbours are members, including Greece, and more recently, Bulgaria and Romania. It is clear that there is significant political opposition in other EU member states to Turkey's accession. Several existing member states have claimed that they would insist on a referendum prior to allowing Turkey to join the EU, while others ruminate over the impact of a Muslim population of some 72 million enjoying free movement throughout the EU. By any standards, Turkey has been treated badly and with scarcely concealed discrimination by other EU member states. Public opinion in Turkey has lost enthusiasm for EU membership and Turkey will naturally continue to look east as well as west from both a political and economic perspective.

3.   The accession of Cyprus in 2004 has created further problems for Turkey. The island has been effectively partitioned into a Turkish speaking north sector and a Greek speaking south sector since 1974. However, the EU ignored this important fact, and the island of Cyprus is now an EU member state. This is a most anomalous situation, as the recognised government of Cyprus is the Greek Cypriot administration of south Cyprus. The Turkish Cypriots, who live in the north, remain without representation. Negotiations aimed at resolving differences and unifying the island have been attempted on many occasions, and are currently ongoing. However, the problems appear intractable. In addition, as the Greek Cypriot administration has international recognition as the legitimate government of the island, they believe that they are in a strong position to demand concessions from Turkish Cypriot negotiators. Property developers from Israel have made sizeable investments in south Cyprus.

For these reasons, the politics of Turkey have taken an increased interest in middle east affairs, and its well publicised relations with Iran are an example of this. Turkey is of the view that it has been snubbed by several EU member states, and is therefore looking elsewhere for new friends.

The rift between Turkey and Israel is of especial concern. Turkey has traditionally played the role of mediator in disputes between Israel and several of its neighbours. In addition, there has been economic and military co-operation between the countries. This has all come to an end and an old friend has become a new enemy

There are many western commentators who think that these arguments between Israel and Turkey are superficial and that Turkey's membership of NATO means that it has a commitment to Israel. Recent events have disproved this cosy assumption.

Since the collapse of communism in Russia and the dismantling of the Soviet Union, it is generally agreed that the world has become a safer place. The ability and willingness of Turkey to intervene and mediate in disputes between Israel and its neighbours has played a major role in mitigating conflicts in the Middle East. Without this calming influence, an escalation in the scale and scope of Middle East conflagrations is inevitable.

Copyright - Leslie Hardy, 18 November 2010

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