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February 18, 2009
Summary: Turkey’s pro-Hamas position following the Israeli assault on Gaza has strained its relations with Israel. The most dramatic instance of this was the confrontation of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s prime minister, with Shimon Peres, Israel’s president, at the World Economic Forum in Davos. Despite the theatrics and the surge of anti-Israeli and antiSemitic sentiment in Turkey, the government’s positions suggest that Turkey still sees a role for itself in Middle East peacemaking, wants Israel to be more concerned about regional instability, and wishes to work with the United States if and when the new administration reengages with the region.
by Soli Ozel*
ISTANBUL — The foreign policy agenda of the U.S. administration under President Barack Obama is daunting. The expectations from the new administration are exceptionally high. A cursory look at the priorities of that agenda would suggest that Turkey could have an important, constructive, and at times decisive role assisting Washington. Following the debacle of the Bush years, areas of convergence in the interests of the two allies are expanding. The need for cooperation is obvious and both sides stand to benefit from it. There is yet work to do in defining with more precision what the shared interests, common values, and sought after objectives and goals are. From the Turkish side there is also a demand that Washington pay more attention to the perspective and the concerns of Ankara on matters and problems related to Turkey’s neighborhoods, all of which are troubled. Moreover, Turkey also sees itself as an important and constructive participant in the developments that take place in these regions. Over the past three years in particular, partially taking advantage of the void left by a disengaged United States, Ankara took upon itself the role of a facilitator between Israel and Syria. Dissenting from the Western consensus, it recognized Hamas as a legitimate actor in Palestinian politics and argued that no solution would be possible if
the organization was isolated. Recently, the former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair, Quartet’s representative, made a statement to that effect. The increasing interest in and engagement with the Middle East are a function of structural forces that imposed themselves on Turkey, and emerged gradually in the wake of the Cold War. Many of the rationalizations of the current government for engaging with the Middle East were already expressed, albeit with a different conceptual language, by the late Ismail Cem, former minister of foreign affairs. In the wake of the Iraq war, the main parameters of the region’s strategic equilibrium were altered. As a culmination of decades of old developments, new non-state actors have made their entry into the politics of the region. Turkey’s interest went beyond the strictly strategic and political though. Gradually Turkish foreign policy became less belligerent and more trade oriented. As a consequence, regional stability became a primary objective of Turkish foreign policy—as a precondition for economic development and trade-induced economic integration. The ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) proclivity to have close relations with the Middle East may have intensified this engagement and led to
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Soli Ozel teaches at Istanbul Bilgi University’s Department of International Relations and Political Science and is a columnist for the Turkish daily Sabah. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF).
closer Middle East institutional ties than would have been the case otherwise. It is also true that the new elites who govern Turkey have more affinity, and more social and cultural ties with Middle Eastern societies. They feel more comfortable in that setting partially because of shared religion that softens the impact of confrontational nationalisms. Be that as it may, Turkey’s involvement in the Middle East cannot be explained by such subjective factors alone. Turkey, no matter who was in power, could not be aloof to developments in the Middle East when the region was being strategically reshaped. With the formulation of the Advisor to the Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, Turkey’s goal is to assure security and freedom for all and rely on political dialogue and inclusiveness as well as economic interdependence. The government favors ethnic and cultural coexistence everywhere, so as to avoid ethnic- or sectarian-based conflict and violence. The instruments of choice to pursue these goals are: a) highest level bilateral relations; b) reaching out to all communities in the region; c) regional level initiatives; d) proactive policy for conflict resolution; and e) strengthening relations with regional and international organizations. The shift in Turkey’s age-old policy toward the Kurds of Iraq, recognizing them as a legitimate political interlocutor, is a function of this approach. If Turkey can resolve its own domestic ethnic problems, this formulation will remain the mantra of Turkish foreign policy. The Turkish reaction to Israel’s assault on Gaza and the subsequent outburst by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s prime minister, in Davos as described by Amberin Zaman in her On Turkey piece, “Turkey after Davos: Risks, Opportunities, and an Unpredictable Prime Minister,” took place in this context. All the elements Zaman notes in Erdoğan’s reactions, from his emotional and ideological predispositions to the obvious political investment in Turkey’s municipal elections, played a part. This also included his feeling of betrayal by Ehud Olmert, Israel’s prime minister, who had a five and a half hour meeting with Erdoğan just five days before the country’s attack on Gaza. There is also no doubt that the sharp tone of Erdoğan and the popular mobilization in Turkey against Israel that too often crossed the line between being anti-Israel and anti-Semitic posed many question marks about Turkey’s genuine position. If one were to go beyond the theatrics of the Gaza reaction, the uncontrollable rhetoric of Erdoğan, and the extremely disturbing manifestations of anti-Semitism in Turkish society, a political analysis of the government’s position is possible, and the strategic logic behind it can be discerned:
The government sees Turkey as a pillar of stability in the
region. Because of historical and strategic reasons it believes that Ankara can and does play a constructive role, and by virtue of having good relations with all parties to all conflicts it can be a facilitator and better still a mediator. Relations with Israel are the stormiest of these, but one that Turkey still cherishes. It was, after all, Erdoğan who said that his words were not directed against the Israeli people, which prompted the phone call from Shimon Peres, Israel’s president, that underscored Israel’s desire to downplay the incident. A statement by the general staff after the Davos incident also highlighted the importance of bilateral relations. The handling of the row that was caused by Israeli Ground Forces Commander General Mizrahi, who recommended that Turkey look in the mirror and reassess its record with Armenians and Kurds, can also be seen in this light.
Beyond the moral arguments, Erdoğan faults Israel for
being insensitive to the regional destabilization its actions cause. The unacceptable high loss of life in Gaza following the assault by Israel pits the governments of conservative Arab regimes against their angry but helpless populations. Such a result is deemed inherently destabilizing. In a way, the Turkish government shares the view of President Obama, who said to Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic Monthly when he was still a presidential candidate, “what I think is that this constant wound, that this constant sore, does infect all our foreign policy. The lack of a resolution to this problem provides an excuse for anti-American militant Jihadists to engage in inexcusable actions, and so we have a national security interest in solving this, and I also believe that Israel has a security interest in solving this because I believe that the status quo is unsustainable.”
The Turkish government did not see its pro-Hamas position
as taking sides in the Palestinian civil war. In defending Hamas’ position that it won a parliamentary majority in free and fair elections, the Turkish government wished to break the resistance to recognizing the organization as a legitimate actor in Israeli-Palestinian politics. There was also a clear difference between the prime minister and both the president and the foreign minister. Abdullah Gül and Ali Babacan tried to clear the air after the prime minister, and demanded that Hamas decide once and for all whether it wanted to be a political party or continue to engage in terrorism. On that issue, Erdoğan’s ill-advised statement on the need to redefine what a terrorist organization in the
Middle East is undermined the conciliators. Yet, the visit by Mahmud Abbas, Palestine’s president in Ankara last week suggests that, despite the ill-feelings the prime minister’s pro-Hamas position must have caused, the Palestinian Authority sees Turkey as a relevant, if not consequential, party. Similarly, the visit by Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s president, suggests that Turkey will be a party to the efforts to sustain relative calm in Gaza.
Turkey’s intent in supporting Hamas was to give the
member of the Atlantic alliance with particular strengths in the region. Given the premium placed on Turkey’s Westernness, the answer to this question is indeed of utmost importance.
Soli Ozel, Lecturer, Bilgi University; Columnist, Sabah
Soli Ozel teaches at Istanbul Bilgi University’s Department of International Relations and Political Science. He is a columnist for the national daily Sabah and is senior advisor to the chairman of the Turkish Industrialists’ and Businessmen’s Association. Additionally, he is the editor of TUSIAD’s magazine Private View.
message that it could deliver the organization if and when the relevant parties would be ready to accept it as an interlocutor. Related to this, Turkey was also proposing that by championing Hamas, it could overshadow Iran and reduce Tehran’s influence on the organization. The fact that Hamas leader Khaled Meshal has not returned a single favor of Turkey’s to date, however, makes this calculation of dubious validity.
The government also believes that Israel’s security is
The German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) is a nonpartisan American public policy and grantmaking institution dedicated to promoting greater cooperation and understanding between North America and Europe. GMF does this by supporting individuals and institutions working on transatlantic issues, by convening leaders to discuss the most pressing transatlantic themes, and by examining ways in which transatlantic cooperation can address a variety of global policy challenges. In addition, GMF supports a number of initiatives to strengthen democracies. Founded in 1972 through a gift from Germany, on the 25th anniversary of the Marshall Plan, as a permanent memorial to Marshall Plan assistance, GMF maintains a strong presence on both sides of the Atlantic. In addition to its headquarters in Washington, DC, GMF has seven offices in Europe: Berlin, Bratislava, Paris, Brussels, Belgrade, Ankara, and Bucharest.
bolstered by its relations with Turkey. Therefore, the Israeli government should be more attentive to Turkey’s concerns. Similarly, the Turkish government’s position during the Gaza assault meant to convey a message to the United States as well. Ankara believes that Turkey is a significant actor in Middle East peacemaking and the diplomatic space it created for itself during American absence from the region should not be discarded when the administration reengages. Furthermore, the government believes that Erdoğan’s immense popularity among the region’s Muslim populations may help in the legitimation of any future peace deal. Erdoğan obviously did not articulate these goals in such ways. In fact, his style and verbosity created problems for Turkish diplomacy that, after all is said and done, will have to be busy “picking up the pieces and doing extra time in the months ahead,” as stated by former Turkish ambassador to the United States, Faruk Loğoğlu. Moreover, given the fact that all of Turkey’s allies are wondering where Turkey is going, the government needs to clearly communicate its messages and share the logic of its policies with close allies. Turkish engagement with the Middle East is dictated almost entirely by the country’s geography, the strategic realities of the region in the wake of the Iraq war, and the shifting balance of power. The important question here is whether Turkey will engage in the region as a member of the Middle East or as a
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