Turkey’s Problem With Israel Is Bigger Than the Mavi Marmara

Despite the wishful thinking of Israeli and Turkish pundits and politicians that a settlement of the Mavi Marmara affair would enable a renewed alliance between the two countries, this has little chance when anti-Israeli rhetoric serves to keep the current Turkish government in power and Turkish regional influence on the rise.

Ely Karmon
Ely Karmon
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Ely Karmon
Ely Karmon

Turkey's government this week issued a sharp riposte to those Israeli politicians and pundits, and some Turkish ones, who believe it is possible to rehabilitate the battered relations between Israel and Turkey by ending the ongoing antagonism resulting from the Mavi Marmara flotilla events of May 2010. If it was thought that an official Israeli apology to Turkey, accompanied by the payment of damages to the victims, would end the hostilities, then we now have clear proof that this is simply impossible under the current Turkish administration of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Following the aerial bombing of a convoy of advanced ground-to-air missiles from Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon, an attack that Defense Minister Ehud Barak has hinted was conducted by Israel, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu declared that “if Israel were to attack any Muslim country, Turkey would respond.” He further claimed that the Syrian president has made a secret deal with Israel and suggested that Syria should have retaliated against the Israeli attack.

PM Erdogan for his part declared that the air raid by Israel was completely unacceptable, and described it as “another reflection of Israeli ‘state terror.’” He also said that those “who have nourished and raised Israel like a spoiled child should always expect such things from Israel.”

The cynical remarks of the Turkish leaders are in stark contrast to the massive support given by Turkey to the Syrian opposition: The use of its territory for weapons smuggling, training and financing, as well as coordinating support for the Syrian Islamist fighting groups with the Saudis and Qataris.

Turkey prefers to strengthen the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, the long-standing enemies of the Assad regime, in the hope of having a firm foothold in the future Syria.

There seems to be hypocrisy in the Turkish leaders’ accusations. On the one hand, they criticize Syria for not defending its sovereignty through its lack of retaliation for Israel’s convoy attack, but at the same time Turkey demands that NATO deploy Patriot missiles on its territory - to defend Turkey against Syrian retaliatory strikes - and accepts the deployment of NATO missile defense radar on its territory. Turkey knows full well that this radar system is designed not only to protect it and Europe against Iranian ballistic missiles, but also to defend Israel against this same threat. Turkey’s so-called “defense” of Syrian interests and its belligerent rhetoric towards Israel is clearly not supported by its own foreign policy actions, whether behind the scenes in Syria, or in regard to Israel and Turkey’s de facto common interests in NATO.

The Turkish regional strategy is based on two foundations: The bid to become the leader of the Sunni Muslim bloc and its victory over the Shia bloc led by Iran. Since its violent uprising, Syria has been at the center of this strategy; as Iran tries to ensure the survival of the Alawite regime, its critical asset in the Arab world, Turkey has tried to undermine the Assad regime and thus achieve a significant regional strategic advantage.

Erdogan sees himself as having a leadership role for the Muslim world, a kind of neo-Ottoman sultan. That’s how he was presented during a huge pro-Turkish demonstration organized in Gaza by Hamas and the Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH) in February 2010, three months before the same IHH organized the Mavi Marmara flotilla.

That is why he embraced the Hamas Islamist movement since the contentious visit of its leader Khaled Meshal to Turkey in February 2006, in defiance of the interests of the Palestinian Authority (PA) leadership, long before the Israeli Cast Lead operation in Gaza or the “Marmara” incident. Only when the PA decided to bid for recognition by the United Nations did Turkey remember to sponsor Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas as well, so as not to not to miss out on such a high-profile event, while continuing to actively support Hamas in the international arena.

Turkey’s problem in the Muslim/Arab arena is in its competition with Egypt and its Muslim Brotherhood government, which wants to restore its former glory as leader of the Arab world.

Notwithstanding any official pretext about security concerns, the Egyptian government did not allow Erdogan to visit Gaza during his well-publicized and wildly popular visit to Egypt in September 2011, due to a desire to avoid scenes of a triumphal reception there as well. His call to Egyptians to adopt a secular constitution drew an immediate rebuke from the Muslim Brotherhood leader Essam al-Arian: “We welcome ... Erdogan as a prominent leader, but we do not think he or his country alone should be leading the region or drawing up its future.”

FM Davutoglu in December 2012 “categorically dismissed claims that Turkey's withdrawal of its veto of Israeli participation in NATO activities is linked to the alliance's decision to deploy Patriot missiles on the Turkish-Syrian border” and Turkish sources hinted that Turkey has convinced NATO members “to put Egypt into the NATO picture more than before, as a counterbalance to Israel.”

However, Egyptian journalist Galal Nassar has warned in the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram that Turkey’s decision to lift its veto against Israeli participation in non-military NATO activities signals that Turkey is likely to extend its bilateral cooperation with Israel. Egypt, therefore, must consider this development as a “major risk [that] would naturally entail to Egyptian national security and its Arab dimension."

Erdogan’s support for Hamas and the Palestinian issue in general has also much to do with internal politics, by strengthening his position among Turkish Islamist and nationalist constituencies.

It is probable that the anti-Israeli rhetoric in the Syrian context has also an internal aspect: To appease the half a million Arab Alawites on Turkey’s southern Syrian border as well as Turkey’s mostly secular Alevi community, an important minority (10-15% of the population), who oppose Ankara’s policy of confronting the Assad regime.

Erdogan’s ultimate political ambition is to change Turkey's current constitution, to establish a presidential system and to be elected with extended powers in the August 2014 presidential election.

As these considerations will stay high on the internal and external Turkish political agenda for the foreseeable future, it is difficult to see any real trigger for a genuine improvement in Israeli-Turkey relations at this time.

Ely Karmon has been the Senior Research Scholar at the Institute for Counter-Terrorism at The Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya since 1997. He is also the Senior Research Fellow at The Institute for Policy and Strategy at IDC.



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