Can Israel's New Coalition Fix Relations with Turkey?

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Tensions between Jerusalem and Ankara run too deeply for a single election to make much difference.

RTXW1ZV-615.jpgNir Elias/Reuters

Since Yair Lapid and his Yesh Atid party's surprise showing last week in Israel's elections, there has been an outpouring of commentary about a new dawn in Israeli domestic and foreign policies. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose Likud, in conjunction with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beitenu party lost a combined eleven seats in the Knesset, will have to form a broader government that includes centrists like Lapid. As a result, a conventional wisdom has developed that this new coalition will lead Israel out of its international isolation. Typically, observers have been asking what the Lapid phenomenon means for the "peace process" -- as if that is something that exists. Yet a handful of commentators have also zeroed in on Turkey-Israel ties as ripe for rapprochement under a new, allegedly more conciliatory, Israeli government. It is a nice idea, but so are rainbows and unicorns. The reality is that, despite Lapid's rise, nothing has or will likely change to convince Israeli and Turkish leaders that mending ties is in their political interests.

To be fair, the Turks themselves have led foreign observers to believe that a change in Turkey-Israel relations was possible. For the better part of the last four years, Turkish officials have indicated that Israel itself was not the problem, but "this Israeli government," meaning, of course, Netanyahu's outgoing coalition of right-of-center parties. It is true that it is difficult to work with Prime Minister Netanyahu and that Foreign Minister Lieberman had, contrary to his job description, a knack for aggravating relations with other countries. Still, with the exception of the Mavi Marmara incident, the biggest problems in the Turkey-Israel relationship -- the blockade of the Gaza Strip and Operation Cast Lead -- predate Netanyahu's tenure. Indeed, the idea that a new broader and allegedly more moderate Israeli coalition will lead to reconciliation between Jerusalem and Ankara badly misreads the dynamics of Israel's left-right politics, the profound unpopularity of Israel in Turkey, and the centrality of the Middle East to the architects of Turkish foreign policy.

A handful of commentators have also zeroed in on Turkey-Israel ties as ripe for rapprochement under a new, allegedly more conciliatory, Israeli government. It is a nice idea, but so are rainbows and unicorns.

Turks have often pointed to Israeli policy in the Gaza Strip, especially the blockade of the area, as a prime example of its problems with Netanyahu's previous government and the primary obstacle to better relations. This is a principled position, but Ankara seems to have its chronology incorrect. Israel's land closure of Gaza dates to June 2007 and the naval blockade was implemented in January 2009 -- both under the premiership of Ehud Olmert, who after leaving Likud to join Ariel Sharon in his breakaway Kadima Party has developed a reputation as a centrist. There was no way that Netanyahu was going to reverse Olmert's policies and there is a slim chance that that he would do so now even with Yair Lapid -- who is not actually all that to the left on foreign policy -- in his government.

Even if Israelis had given a resurgent Labor Party the most Knesset seats and its leader, Shelly Yachimovich, was tapped to form a government, Israel's land and sea blockade of the Gaza Strip would remain firmly in place. A left-of-center government simply could not be perceived as being soft on security and Gaza. The cliché "only Labor can make war and only Likud can make peace" was coined a long time ago, but it still holds today. Over the last two decades, Israeli prime ministers have consistently been brought down from the right often over some issue related to the country's security. Politics aside, there really is not much disagreement among the country's major political parties that Gaza poses a threat to Israel's security. If the Turkish demand that Israel must lift its closure of Gaza is serious, and there is little reason to believe that it is not, ties between Ankara and Jerusalem are likely to remain strained.

It is not just the Israeli politics of the Gaza blockade or the actual threat from Gaza that is the problem in Turkey-Israel relations. Those who see an opportunity to restore good ties with the emergence of a new Israeli government or who become positively giddy at every leak of high-level contact between Turkish and Israeli officials -- which the Turks invariably deny -- are not paying close enough attention to Turkish politics. Israel is not popular in Turkey and never really was despite the blossoming of strategic relations between Jerusalem and Ankara in 1996. Those ties served the Turkish General Staff's specific national security and, importantly, domestic political interests at a time when the officers' power was at its height. That was during an era before the rise of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) when public opinion mattered very little in Turkish foreign policy.

Prime Minister Erdogan, who is an astonishingly talented politician and has a keen sense of what makes average Turks tick, understands the political benefits that are derived from strained relations with Israel. To be sure, it took Erdogan some time before putting the bilateral relationship on ice. He visited Jerusalem in May of 2005 and invited his then counterpart, Ariel Sharon, to visit Ankara; but as he and the AKP grew more confident at home, relations with the United States improved, and Turkey became a player in the Middle East and wider Islamic world, it became easy to jettison ties with Israel with the approval of many Turks. Israel's only constituency in Turkey includes parts of the business community, but even as Turkish-Israeli trade has continued and even increased, there are few voices who want a resumption of the alignment of the 1990s. Turkey's opposition rebukes Erdogan and the AKP mercilessly on a wide-range of issues, but not on the quality of Ankara's relations with Jerusalem.

The fact that the prime minister has been able to leverage the Palestine issue to great political effect without penalty suggests that the Turkish public's now manifest solidarity with Palestinians was not just manufactured in 2002 when the AKP came to power. Still, outright enmity toward Israel was generally confined to Turkey's hard core Islamists even if the broader public remained wary of Ankara's relations with Jerusalem and critical of the Israel Defense Force's policies in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

This changed during the early days of Operation Iraqi Freedom when unsubstantiated stories of Israeli support for Kurdish independence in northern Iraq surfaced in The New Yorker and Turkey's less well-regarded dailies. Then the way in which Erdogan exploited Israel's Operation Cast Lead in late 2008 and early 2009 and, of course, the Mavi Marmara incident in May 2010, transformed solidarity with Palestinians into hostility toward Israel, which has become political gold for Erdogan. The U.S. government believes that in Turkey's last elections (June 2011), which Erdogan won with almost 50 percent of the vote, Turks voted on two "p's" -- their pocketbooks and Palestine. Under these circumstances, Erdogan, who plans to be Turkey's president one day and who believes that the AKP will be dominant for at least another decade, is unlikely to be receptive to a substantial improvement in Ankara's ties with Jerusalem.

Even as Erdogan plans his path to the Cankaya Palace, he is currently content to be "King of the Arab Street." The Turkish prime minister is consistently ranked the most popular world leader in polls of the Arab world. Erdogan's standing is primarily a function of his position on Gaza, but also his early call for Hosni Mubarak to leave office during the Egyptian uprising, and Turkey's harboring of tens of thousands of Syrian refugees fleeing Bashar al Assad's brutality. These policies are emblematic of a broader Turkish engagement and activism in the Middle East that distinguishes Erdogan and the AKP from previous Turkish governments. The architects of Turkish foreign policy -- Erdogan, President Abdullah Gul, who served as prime minister and foreign minister, and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu -- believe that Turkey is the natural leader of a region that the Ottomans once dominated as imperial overlords.

The combination of Turkey's economic might, diplomatic clout, and cultural affinity to Arabs and Muslims is central to the prosperity and political development of the region. Some have called this "neo-Ottomanism" to a fair amount of controversy, but whatever it is called, Ankara could not truly be a regional leader, trouble shooter, "inspiration," and economic engine, as well as the many other designations and appellations Turkey has picked up over the last decade, while simultaneously nurturing close ties with Israel.

The Turks were already suspect in the Arab world given the legacies of Ottoman colonialism, the Jacobin secularism of Mustafa Kemal, and Ankara's institutional ties to the West through NATO and its efforts to join the European Union. These deficits ultimately proved to be surmountable, but at the cost of Turkey's ties with Israel. Nothing about the way Turkey's leaders view the world, the Middle East, and the Turkish role in it has changed now that Benjamin Netanyahu is poised to make Yair Lapid his junior coalition partner.

It has been 16 years since General Cevik Bir, then Turkey's deputy chief-of-staff, revealed to an audience in Washington, DC that Ankara and Jerusalem had upgraded their ties to a strategic relationship that included a robust security component. For some it was a golden age -- and even if that level of cooperation and coordination is an artifact of the past, it is worth salvaging Turkey-Israel relations. There has been every effort to do just this over the course of the last four years to no avail. This is unfortunate, but the disincentives for both Turkish and Israeli politicians to improve relations are great.

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Steven A. Cook is Hasib J. Sabbagh senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square. He blogs at From the Potomac to the Euphrates.

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