Analysis

September 15, 2011

Summary: Turkish-Israeli relations are deteriorating to a level from which it may be difficult to improve them in the foreseeable future. It is unclear that such a propaganda war will accrue significant advantages to either side, but it is clear that the two governments will find it increasingly difficult to patch their differences and restore their relations.

Adventures in Causal Analysis: The Whys of Turkey’s Deteriorating Relations with Israel
by İlter Turan

The Slippery Slope Downhill Turkish-Israeli relations are deteriorating to a level from which it may be difficult to improve them in the foreseeable future. Both Turkish and Israeli governments have mobilized their publics and those of other societies, to the extent they are able to do so, to show that they are right and the other side is wrong. It is unclear that such a propaganda war will accrue significant advantages to either side, but it is clear that the two governments will find it increasingly difficult to patch their differences and restore their relations to a state that would have been described as excellent only slightly more than two years ago. The string of events that led to a critical turnaround in Turkish-Israeli relations began with the Israeli attack on Gaza in December 2008, and climaxed when the Israeli naval commandoes attacked a humanitarian aid ship destined for Gaza, killing nine persons — eight Turks and a Turkish-American (see On Turkey, January 27, 2011). In the attack on Gaza, the Turkish government felt that it had been used by Israel, which Turkey now believes had no intention of negotiating the status of Golan Heights and making eventual peace with Syria, to gain

time. It felt embarrassed because the Syrians had trusted Turkey in dealing with Israel, a country with whom the Syrians otherwise would probably not have talked. The Turkish government also concluded that Israel was not interested in making peace with its Arab neighbors. In the attack on Mavi Marmara, on the other hand, Turkey asked for a full apology and restitution to the families of the deceased. Israel has so far refused to meet these conditions. It appears that while Prime Minister Netanyahu and many ministers in his coalition cabinet are ready to offer an apology, Foreign Minister Avigdor Liebermann has threatened to pull back his support if this happens and bring the government down, an outcome that the Israeli prime minister wants to avoid. Paved with Good Intentions A measure that was intended to direct the Turkish-Israeli conflict into a peaceful channel has in the end produced the opposite of what it was supposed to do. The two sides agreed that the UN Secretary General appoint an international commission to study the facts as presented by the two governments and produce a report. Geoffrey Palmer, former

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Analysis
prime minister of New Zealand, and Colombian President Alvaro Uribe were appointed members. Each government appointed a representative to the commission, which was established in August 2010. The commission prepared its draft report as early as February 2011, but with serious objections from country representatives. The Turkish representative, totally dissatisfied with the report, withdrew from the meetings at the end of April. On four occasions, the Israeli government asked for extensions before its release, indicating that it needed more time to build consensus on offering an apology. In August 2011, the Israeli government requested another six-month extension. Through U.S. encouragement, Turkey appeared ready to agree to a month’s extension when The New York Times published the leaked report. Who leaked it and why was not known, but the Turkish foreign minister judged that there was no longer any reason to wait. Turkey rejected the report as being partial to Israel with contents exceeding the commission’s duties. Israel, on the other hand, through Netanyahu, announced that it had done nothing wrong and would not offer an apology. Turkey Strikes Back The Turkish government immediately initiated a number of measures against Israel. They reduced the level of diplomatic representation to second secretary. All military contracts have been put on hold. Turkey also announced that it will ensure the security of maritime traffic in the Eastern Mediterranean, and will work to challenge the legality of the Gaza Blockade at the International Court of Justice in The Hague. Finally, Turkey will lend support to all who suffered from the Israeli attack to the humanitarian aid flotilla. In the meantime, Prime Minister Erdoğan has escalated Turkey’s demands from Israel to include the termination of the blockade of Gaza, promising that other measures would follow. Only ordinary commerce, which for now is not subject to restrictions, seems unaffected. The Turkish prime minister’s anger has not subsided. He has called Israel the “spoiled brat,” adding that Israel cannot continue to behave that way forever. Erdoğan is going to visit Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya in mid-September, and there is no question that he will discuss relations with Israel with the new leaders. He added Tunisia and Libya to his planned trip, initially intended only for Egypt, in order to enhance cooperation with the newly emerging regimes. He has also mentioned the option of visiting to Gaza. His visit and speeches will inevitably reduce the ability of these governments to be accommodating to Israel. A multi-dimensional battle with Israel in the international arena appears to be taking shape. Why has Turkey chosen to challenge Israel so strongly? After all, it might have been possible to issue strong verbal responses to the Palmer Commission report and insist on an apology without resorting to measures that present a serious challenge against Israel. Many explanations have been offered.

A multi-dimensional battle with Israel in the international arena appears to be taking shape. Why has Turkey chosen to challenge Israel so strongly?
The Roots of Turkey’s Anger The preceding discussion has already referred to some of the reasons why Turkish-Israeli relations have deteriorated steadily and rapidly. Turkey has felt betrayed by Israel in a series of incidents. First, it was the attack on Gaza just as Turkey thought that it had gotten an Israeli agreement for proximity talks with Syria. Next, it was the attack on the Mavi Marmara, although Israel had been advised that the ship would not force its way to Gaza but continue on to an Egyptian port. Third, though not proven, Turkey suspected that Israel leaked the Palmer Commission report to the press, judging that it was quite favorable to Israeli viewpoints, and thereby undermining Turkey’s position on the issue. Turkey’s conclusions are that the Israeli government cannot be trusted to stick to its commitments and that Israel does not have any intention of making peace with its neighbors. Therefore, the Turkish government believes pursuing policies based on the assumption that Israel is interested in a Middle East peace is a waste of time. Israel will only respond to policies that oblige it to change its policies.

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Israeli reluctance to agree to solutions stands in the way of a Turkish vision to build a peaceful Middle East in which Turkey has a major economic and political role. Turkish attempts to build peace by cooperative efforts with Israel have so far failed to produce results. They are possibly now trying a competitive strategy to achieve the same end. difficult to develop a persuasive argument, however, that the deterioration of Turkey’s relations with Israel is mainly a result of the imperatives of domestic politics. In analyses of Turkish foreign policy, inevitably, whether a shift of axis is occurring or not is frequently examined to explain the worsening of relations with Israel. These examinations follow two different lines of thinking. Some analysts argue that the new Turkish government is an Islamic government motivated by religious considerations, and shaping Turkey’s foreign policy according to them. While it is true that the government party espouses an ideology that has religious colorings, whether this influences policy in a substantial way is hard to establish. Turkey continues to cooperate with its Western allies on a regular basis. If the enthusiasm about EU membership has dwindled, this owes as much to the EU members. Furthermore, Turkey is developing close relations with Russia and with non-Muslim countries in the Balkans, Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Religious considerations by themselves do not offer sufficient evidence that Turkey’s foreign policy is being reshaped along Islamic lines, translating into an anti-Israel policy. A rival explanation of an alleged axis shift focuses on the fact that Turkey has become economically and politically more powerful. It is acting more autonomously in international affairs, deviating from the policy guidelines of the Cold War hegemon United States. It has emphasized better relations with Brazil, Russia, India, and China, as well as with African, Latin American, and Asian countries. Rather than having an Islamic flavor, it may be argued that the new foreign policy represents either a third wordlist or a Gaullist one. In this framework, Israeli recalcitrance is seen as a

Turkish attempts to build peace by cooperative efforts with Israel have so far failed to produce results. They are possibly now trying a competitive strategy to achieve the same end.
Some observers offer a simpler answer. At the same time that Israeli-Turkish problems occupy the center stage of Turkish politics, Turkey has accepted the placement on Turkish soil of NATO anti-ballistic missile system radar targeting Iran. There has hardly been public debate on this decision. Under normal times, not only would the opposition but also a significant section of the governing party constituency have debated and probably opposed that decision. While it is true that the current debate diverts attention from other important questions and that the government may indeed be happy to avoid a major debate about the radar system, it is unlikely that a potentially explosive conflict that affects Turkey’s relations with other countries, most notably the United States, would be fostered for relief on another question. Questions of foreign policy may also be transformed into domestic issues for generating political support or votes as Ersin Kalaycıoğlu has explained in this series (“Turkish Foreign Relations and Public Opinion,” September 8, 2011). Foreign policy has clearly become the center of domestic debate, from which both government and opposition are trying to extract political capital. This may exacerbate the ongoing conflict, limit the government’s room for maneuver, and render it harder to take a step back. It is

It is difficult to develop a persuasive argument that the deterioration of Turkey’s relations with Israel is mainly a result of the imperatives of domestic politics.

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product of America’s unqualified support for Israel, which deserves to be challenged. Finally, we must keep in mind that what one country does in international politics is determined in part by what other countries do. In the case of Turkish-Israeli relations, Israel’s contribution to the decline should not be overlooked or underestimated. Those in the business of dissecting why states and governments behave the way they do often engage in complex analyses. Following that tradition, this author would like to suggest that a combination of the factors cited in the preceding analysis have each contributed in some measure to the deterioration of Turkish-Israeli relations. If one were asked to identify a single factor, however, Prime Minister Erdoğan’s sense of being deceived and his loss of faith in Israel as a reliable partner, I feel, stands out. Loyalty and trust figure importantly in Erdoğan’s vocabulary and behavior.

About the Author
İlter Turan is currently a professor of political science at Istanbul’s Bilgi University, where he also served as president between 1998-2001. His previous employment included professorships at Koç University (1993-1998) and Istanbul University (1964-1993), where he also served as the chair of the International Relations Department (19871993), and the director of the Center for the Study of the Balkans and the Middle East (1985-1993). Dr. Turan is the past president of the Turkish Political Science Association and has been a member of the Executive Committee and a vice president of the International Political Science Association (2000-2006). He has served as the program chair of the 21st World Congress of Political Science in Santiago, Chile, July 12-16, 2009. He is board chair of the Health and Education Foundation and serves on the board of several foundations and corporations. He is widely published in English and Turkish on comparative politics, Turkish politics, and foreign policy. His most recent writings have been on the domestic and international politics of water, the Turkish parliament and its members, and Turkish political parties. He is a frequent commentator on Turkish politics on TV and newspapers.

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