Understanding Turkey

With Ankara's approach to Damascus, we should reexamine the attitude toward Turkey that prevails in Israel.

Turkey is today the country taking the toughest line against Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime, calling for his ouster and granting asylum to the Syrian opposition and rebels. Its harsh response to having its reconnaissance plane shot down by Syria late last month underscores its resolve in taking a stand against a country that until recently, had been its ally.

The approach Ankara is taking on Damascus requires us to reexamine the attitude toward Turkey that prevails in this country.

What hasn't been said here about Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan after the violence that took place aboard the Gaza-bound Mavi Marmara in 2010? He was branded a radical Islamist; he was called pro-Palestinian, hostile to Israel, anti-Semitic. Erdogan was portrayed as Israel's worst enemy after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

After Israel's government failed to properly handle the flotilla - on the operative level as well as the political level - and embroiled the Israel Navy in the killing of nine Turkish nationals, it went on to take part in the demonization of Erdogan, both directly and indirectly, to divert censure from itself.

But an examination of Turkish foreign policy points the way toward a conclusion that differs from Israelis' heated condemnation of Erdogan. Just as it was not an anti-Israel stance that spurred Turkey's criticism of Israel, so too Turkey's much harsher criticism of Syria does not mean it is anti-Syria or anti-Arab. Both positions can be traced back to Turkey's perception of itself as a regional power.

This so-called neo-Ottoman approach was developed by Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. It reflects not an Islamist policy but an attempt to leverage Turkey's geopolitical status in the region. Until the fall of the Soviet Union, Turkey's foreign policy was primarily shaped around the fear of Soviet expansion; that's why Kemalist Turkey was a loyal NATO member. But by the Iraq war, Ankara was taking a more independent line that hindered the American invasion of Iraq.

Another aspect of this approach that was not as successful was its "zero problems with neighbors" policy. Over the past decade, that policy led to a reconciliation with Assad's Syria and to futile reconciliation attempts with Armenia. It also prompted Turkey to soften its position on Cyprus.

Once it appeared that Turkey, with its predominantly Muslim population, was not going to be admitted into the European Union, Ankara focused on consolidating its hegemony in the region. Hence the rigid response to Israel after the flotilla raid as well as the repudiation of Assad's regime, which took place only after the Syrian leader refused to listen to Turkey's advice to moderate his policy and stop oppressing the people.

The message is that Turkey's neighbors must get used to the fact that it sees itself as a regional power to be reckoned with. They must respect it as such and should refrain from provoking it. Israel, then, may be facing a knotty challenge in regard to Turkey, but that doesn't mean it is dealing with a country that is anti-Israel.

What it does mean is that there's a new strongman in town; Turkey is no longer a negligible fringe state. Its economy is thriving and its ruling Justice and Development Party, with its Islamist roots, has succeeded in ensuring its supremacy over the traditionally secular Kemalist army.

Perhaps it is not too late for Israel to end the painful Mavi Marmara affair and establish a certain normalization of diplomatic relations with Turkey. The present situation may even make it easier to close the gaps. This newly assertive Turkey is not going away, and Israel had better take this into consideration.