The axis of Turkish-Israeli relations is shifting and this is not in the interest of Turkey, contrary to what some might argue. The latest “crisis” with Israel, over the Turkey’s last-minute decision not to include Israel in the Anatolian Eagle exercise and the following provocative new TV series on state television, led many around the world to rethink Erdogan government’s attitude towards Israel. When the infamous “one minute” comment was made by Erdogan in Davos, many in Turkey and Israel thought it was a gesture for domestic consumption. Erdogan’s defense of Iranian nuclear program in the UN and his comments about Israeli nuclear deterrent raised a few eyebrows, but perhaps this last incident might prove to be the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s (in this instance, the Turkish-Israeli relations’) back. You might ask why is this bad? After all, the decision is quite popular with the public and perhaps partly taken to appease the possible nationalistic backlash about the recently signed protocols with Armenia. Erdogan admitted as much when he said he listened to the appeals of the public regarding Israel. I argue that there are at least three reasons why the changing dynamics of Turkish-Israeli relations is not in the interest of Turkey.
First, Turkey and Israel developed a very close and profitable cooperation on the issues of defense and security over the last decade or so. This cooperation enabled Turkey to modernize its armed forces and transfer valuable technological know-how from Israel. Israeli firms, on the other hand, found a good customer for their goods. Furthermore, Turkey significantly benefited from Israeli intelligence, particularly in its fight against terrorism. In return, Israeli pilots had the chance to train in Turkish airspace, over terrain not unlike Syria or Iran. In short, from a pragmatic point of view, both countries derived significant material benefits from cooperation. It is not in Turkish national interest to endanger those gains.
Second, in accordance with Foreign Minister Davutoglu’s “zero problem” doctrine, Turkey has been signing deals and making security arrangements with Syria, Iraq, and perhaps will do so with Iran when Erdogan visits Tehran at the end of the month. Turkey supported Hamas since it came to power and puts all the blame on Israel regarding the consequences of the operation in Gaza last winter. In short, Turkey has been strengthening its ties with almost all of Israel’s enemies while continuously criticizing and alienating Israel itself. Turkey also aspires to be the “mediator/facilitator” in the Israeli-Syrian conflict as well as in the Israeli-Palestinian issue. But playing such a role requires the trust of all parties to the conflict, and recent Turkish actions make such aspirations all but impossible. Peace and stability in the Middle East requires a safe and secure Israel. If Turkey wants “zero problem” in its near abroad, aligning itself with Israel’s enemies is not the way to go.
Lastly, by allying itself with authoritarian regimes and sponsors of terrorism (from which Turkey itself suffered enormously) and abandoning the only other democracy in the Middle East, Turkey is not acting like a candidate for the European Union. The recent developments strengthened the hands of anti-Turkey groups in the EU and reinforced an image of Turkey as another anti-Israeli, Middle Eastern country. Many, in and out of Turkey, also worry that the shift in Turkish policy towards Israel represents a more general shift in Turkey’s direction, towards the Middle East and away from Europe. Such a shift is clearly not in the interest of those that hope to see a more democratic and prosperous Turkey.
I once co-authored a paper, with Ozgur Ozdamar, arguing that Turkish-Israeli relations represent an axis of stability in the Middle East. Now that axis is about to be broken. It does not bode well for Turkey, Israel and the rest of the Middle East.
The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author/s who retain the copyright.