Analysis |

What Young Turks Really Think About Israel

New study finds Turks' perception of Israel as a military ally is losing ground, and the ambition to become 'Western' has been replaced with the desire to form a bridge between two worlds.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Supporters listen to Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu during a rally of his Justice and Development Party, or AKP, in Ankara, Turkey, Saturday, Oct. 31, 2015.
Supporters listen to Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu during a rally of his Justice and Development Party, or AKP, in Ankara, Turkey, Saturday, Oct. 31, 2015.Credit: AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

“To be a Turk or a Muslim in Israel is easier than being a Jew in Turkey,” said a young Turkish member of the opposition party in answer to one of 10 questions in a survey of 26 young Turks aged 25 to 30.

It’s not the only surprising answer in the recently published Turkish study about changing perceptions of Israel among Turkey's younger generation. The unnamed interviewees come from both conservative and liberal circles and include both supporters and opponents of the current Turkish government. All respondents have a higher education.

Only one has ever been to Israel, and while many expressed a desire to visit Jerusalem because of its connection to Islam, few were interested in any other Israeli destinations. All of those surveyed recognize Israel’s right to exist but admit they have little knowledge of Israel or Judaism and cannot easily distinguish between Judaism and Zionism.

Despite the limited number of questions and interviewees, the very fact that such a study was done bolsters the sense that profound changes are occurring in Turks’ attitudes toward Israel. The findings also attest to a search for the definition of Turkish identity. Is Islam part of the national character? Does Turkey need cultural ties with Israel? Has Israel ceased to be the key to the Western world for Turkey, and should ties between the two countries be concerned solely with security and economic interests?

The researchers who carried out the study say the answers show that Israel is no longer perceived as Turkey’s gateway to the West, especially to the U.S., and that the time when Israel could tout its strategic importance this way is over, since Turkey now perceives itself as a regional power that can independently conduct its foreign policy. In addition, the survey shows that Israel is no longer perceived as a military ally, but that its primary importance to Turkey lies in economic cooperation.

The researchers give a lengthy description of Turkish-Israeli military cooperation during the 1990s, when military agreements laid the groundwork for economic relations as well. They attribute the close military ties of those days to the sense of isolation in the Middle East felt by both countries and the need of each to find a friendly country with which ties could be based on more than just narrow interests.

Just as Israel formulated a strategy of an alliance among peripheral states including Turkey, Iran and Ethiopia, Turkey saw Israel as a prospective partner that was free of hostility toward the descendants of the Ottoman Empire – unlike the Arabs, who viewed it as a colonialist entity that impeded their development and access to Western culture and innovation, as well as dampening Arab national aspirations.

Though not fully supported by the historical record and rejected in part by Arab historians, the anti-Ottoman (and later anti-Turkish) sentiment never disappeared. Turkish-Israeli relations went through many ups and downs, with Turkey being the first Muslim state to recognize Israel, but also giving it the cold shoulder in wake of Arab pressure – for instance, after the annexation of Jerusalem in 1980 – or for bilateral reasons like the Gaza flotilla affair in 2010.

Turkey ascribed the friendly relations not only to economic and military cost-benefit calculations, but also to shared values as the only two democracies in the Middle East, countries that share a Western cultural orientation. The shift introduced by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Turkey's first president, largely dictated a turn in the country's foreign policy, which came to see Israel as a role model. Now the tide has shifted once more: Turkey sees itself as a role model, with the aspiration to become “Westernized” replaced by the goal of serving as a bridge between East and West.

These changes in roles and identities, which have come to expression mostly over the past decade under the leadership of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, limit the role of Israel as a model to be copied.

Those interviewed propose to examine the relations with Israel through the narrow lens of cost-benefit analysis – and economic benefit in particular. If a cultural benefit exists from stronger ties with Israel, it may actually come in the internal political arena. One interviewee, identified with the conservative religious stream, said if the Turkish government renews the ties with Israel it will help reduce anti-Semitic rhetoric in Turkey and push the radical Islamists into a corner.

The feeling of partnership and cooperation based on the secular national identity is disappearing. Most of the interviewees' information on Israel is taken from Turkish media. While they do not know about the struggles between the secular and religious segments of Israeli society, they are aware of the religious direction taken by Erdogan. This week, the speaker of the Turkish parliament, Ismail Kahraman, proposed removing the references to secularism in the upcoming overhaul of the constitution. “The new constitution should not have secularism,” Kahraman said. “We are a Muslim country so we must adopt a religious constitution.”

Kahraman’s comments drew great amounts of criticism even from within his own Justice and Development Party, and even Erdogan made it clear Kahraman was expressing his own views and defended the secular order. “The reality is that the state should have an equal distance from all religious faiths,” said Erdogan.

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