Erdogan's Israeli Dilemma

ANKARA - Turkey crafts its policies toward the Israel-Palestinian dispute through the prism of its own problematic relationship with the Kurds. Consider, for example, the way a senior figure from the Justice and Development Party, the pan-Islamic party that has a dominant stake in Turkey's political arena, describes the following dilemma:

"Turkey opposes the establishment of an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq. It will oppose any form of political autonomy for the Kurds. This was always Turkey's policy, and it did not change when our party came to power."

This being Turkey's official attitude, it comes as no surprise that the diplomatic effort made by one Kurdish leader, Jalal Talbani, who traveled last week to Ankara in an attempt to persuade Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan to change his country's policies, led nowhere.

Turkey's political establishment is beginning to wonder whether the Americans might lose control of events in Iraq. "If the U.S. starts to withdraw and become self-involved, and should its policies in Iraq lose consistency, how can we be sure that we won't face a situation in another week or two in which the Kurds declare that they have established an independent state?" asks a top ranking Justice and Development Party foreign policy adviser to Erdogan. To preempt such a scenario, Turkey needs to forge an alliance of supporters in Europe; also, Iran, Syria and other Arab states will be asked by Turkey to withhold support for an independent Kurdish state.

"Here we reach a dilemma that is almost philosophical," says the senior Justice and Development figure. "And this has a connection with the Israeli context. I am aware that it's possible to ask why we support an independent Palestinian state and oppose an independent Kurdish state, and why we oppose Israel's policies in the territories and yet act, at least in theory, according to the same policy guidelines?"

If truth be told, the issue is not purely theoretical: Turkey has razed hundreds of Kurdish villages, and cast hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of persons from their places of residence to other regions in the country. It imposed restrictions on Kurdish political activists, and conducted violent search operations within northern Iraq. As in Israel's case, all this was done in the name of the war on terror.

"Policy has changed now," says the same Justice and Development politician. "Kurds have more rights, and we are making an effort to promote development plans in Kurdish areas of the state. But none of this is the main point: we will not let an independent Kurdish state come into being. To reinforce this policy, we need to tighten relations with states that might help us maintain the policy" - this means Arab states and Iran. Winning such support means paying a price.

To prevent a Kurdish state from coming into being, Turkey believes it must support a Palestinian state - that is, to win Arab support for the policy opposing a Kurdish state, Turkey must articulate support for a Palestinian state. This means that denunciations of Israel's policies have become a staple of discourse in the Turkish government. Such censure of Israel goes beyond vehement statement made by Erdogan in his interview with Haaretz, and in Turkey's parliament. According to Israeli sources, "ill winds" are blowing in the corridors of power in Turkey. Many efforts involving Israel are delayed; it is hard for Israeli officials to get appointments with Turkish counterparts; and there are harsh, anti-Israel statements in Turkey's media.

"There's an understanding among us that anyone who wants to attain a policy goal in Iraq must win Arab support for this; and that means stepping on Israel's toes," says one Turkish government official.

Do these considerations and dynamics portend damage to the core of relations between the two countries? "It depends how you define `core'," says one well-placed Turkish source. "Economic and military relations won't be damaged, but the concept of strategic partnership, which includes a number of psychological elements, is likely to erode."

The source continues: "And this trend has some justification: given that you [Israel] refuse to relate to Turkey's offer to play the role of mediator; and when we hear that Israel ridicules Turkey's ability to influence the area; and when Israel's arrogant perception of Turkey relying on it, or the Jewish lobby in Washington, becomes part of the discussion, what do you expect? Sometimes it seems as though all the Arab states treat Turkey with more respect than does Israel."