Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Photo by AFP
Text size

A military and economic alliance with Egypt is set to be signed by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The deal should be clinched when Erdogan visits Cairo next Monday - the first such visit paid by a Turkish prime minister in 15 years.

The alliance is not intended as "revenge" against Israel; Erdogan's intention is to extend Turkey's influence to areas it has not reached in past decades.

Under former President Hosni Mubarak, Egypt rejected Turkish overtures; Mubarak viewed Erdogan as an interloper in regions that were under Egypt's, and Saudi Arabia's, influence. The new Egyptian government, however, seems eager to develop economic and strategic ties with Turkey.

After keeping mum on the subject of sanctions on Israel for three days, Erdogan has made his position clear: He believes that Israel-Turkey relations are not a personal matter between himself and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but rather a Turkish national interest.

Erdogan decided on Tuesday to reap the political profit from his stand against Israel, and announced to reporters that Turkey is suspending military and commercial relations with it. Additional sanctions, he suggested, could be implemented, and Turkish warships will be seen "more frequently" in Mediterranean waters.

"If steps taken up to now were part of plan B [designed to force Israel to apologize for its actions in last year's Gaza flotilla incident, and pay compensation], there will also be plan C," declared Erdogan. "Israel has always acted as a spoiled child in response to UN resolutions pertaining to it. Israel assumes that it can continue to act like a spoiled child, and evade punishment."

Subsequently Erdogan's office clarified that private trade relations are not subsumed by the sanctions; these commercial ties are valued at three billion dollars a year. Instead, military agreements are being suspended. This clarification was issued after Turkish businessmen demanded to know whether they are being required to cut off ties with Israel, lest they face legal punishment.

The alacrity with which Turkey reached its decision to impose sanctions derives partly from the fact that it believes Israel is responsible for leaking the UN's report on the flotilla to Gaza. Turkish sources insist that Israel made a U-turn regarding the UN investigation, since it originally demanded that the report's release be deferred.

"We agreed to defer release of the report for a few weeks, but not for six months, as Netanyahu wanted," one senior Turkish official explained. "We could have discussed issues regarding the text's formulation, and even forged an agreement, but Israel's leak of the document broke all the rules."

This demonstration of strength against Israel is backed by the senior leadership of Erdogan's Justice and Development Party. However, some members of the party have doubts about specific steps taken by Erdogan.

"Sometimes the prime minister acts on gut feelings, and then later tries to repair what he's done," explained one member of parliament who asked to remain anonymous. "But you have to distinguish between Turkey's widespread support for the demand that Israel apologize and pay compensations, and criticism about the country's diplomatic procedures. We were the ones who demanded that an international investigatory panel be formed; we send a delegate, and now we must come out and challenge the panel's conclusions. The report does not order Israel to apologize; instead it merely recommends that Israel express regret. In other words, there is a need to discuss the matter with Israel and work out acceptable language," the parliamentarian said.

Turkey's media is divided in its response to Erdogan's actions regarding Israel. "Was there really a war that we have to win?" asked Murat Yetkin, a prominent journalist for Hurriyet Daily News. "The answer to this question is simple. No, there is no such war."

Yusuf Kanli, former editor of the Turkish Daily News, wrote that, "were the Turkish government to respond to developments in the Middle East with a less emotional, non-religious attitude, relations between Israel and Turkey would not degenerate to their current state."

In contrast, Prof. Aysan Dey from Ankara suggested that Israel ought to get used to the fact that this is a "new Turkey," that Israel must realize this is not the 1990s when Israel maintained working relations with the Turkish government and the Turkish army, "and showed disdain for what the public really wanted."

Recently, the foreign policy of the "new" Turkey suffered a blow when Syria ignored Turkey's "advice," and when Iran decided to criticize the Turks for their policy toward Syria. Turkey is now trying to rebuild its foreign policy, founding it upon a new strategy of appealing to resurgent Arab states such as Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and the nascent state of Palestine.