|Erdogan said Turks supported his decision to cancel military exercises with Israel [REUTERS]
Since the Israeli war on Gaza last January, Turkey’s role in Middle Eastern politics has become significantly more prominenft.
When Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s
Justice and Development (AK) Party took office in 2002, it pledged that
it would not forsake its historic, religious and cultural bonds with
other Muslim countries.
During the Gaza conflict, the
party made good on its promise. Turkey’s government did not hesitate to
voice its displeasure at Israel’s military actions, which it said were
targeting the civilian population of Gaza.
Last week, the Turkish government demonstrated its loyalties again, banning Israeli warplanes from participating in an international military air exercise.
The Anatolia Eagle exercise has been held since 2001 under the auspices of a Turkish-Israeli military agreement signed in 1996. The war-game usually
involves Turkish, Israeli and US troops, and has been seen by Israel as
a golden opportunity for its pilots to practise over
a much larger air-space than usual.
The Turkish decision raised
eyebrows in Israel, where Turkey has long been seen as an ally, and has
prompted concerns about future relations between the two countries.
“It raises the question: What
direction is Turkish policy taking?” wondered Binyamin Netanyahu, the
Israeli prime minister, after Turkey’s decision was made public.
|Turks have traditionally supported the Palestinians’ right to their homeland
Observers believe that Turkey’s new attitude toward Israel is part
of a plan to revive the role it believes it should play as the leader
and guardian of the Muslim World.
“The new Turkish policy is interesting, in terms of trying to regain
its ties with the Arab and Muslim world,” said Mounzer Sleiman, the
director of the Centre for American and Arab Studies.
“It is not the first Turkish
government that has tried to do this, but the aspiration to join the EU
was an obstacle. This government realises that the road to the EU is
rough and complicated, so it chose to go with its strategic plans in
its Muslim environment instead of waiting indefinitely.”
Turkey also believes it is
traditionally and historically linked to the rest of the Middle East –
the Turkish Ottoman Empire ruled large parts of Asia, Africa, and
Europe for almost five centuries, until its defeat in the first world
The new policy, aimed at placing
Ankara at the centre of the Middle East’s geopolitics and
regaining Turkey’s former power and influence over the region, makes
conscious reference to the country’s imperial past. The trend is even
known as Neo-Ottoman, a term coined by Ahmet Davutoglu, the Turkish
foreign minister and architect of the policy.
It is a popular approach.
Erdogan says that the decision to exclude Israel from the Anatolia
Eagle drill was based on Turkish public opinion.
“Anyone who exercises political
power has to take account of public opinion … It is a question of
sincerity… I want people to know that Turkey is a powerful country
which takes its own decisions,” he said. “We do not take orders from
Erdogan believes that the
Turkish people back his goals to use the country as a
counter-weight in relations between Israel, the West and the Muslim
World. This viewpoint is shared by many observers.
who looks at the Turkish press and listens to people in the street
would realise how much the Turkish public opinion is in support of the
government’s new approach toward Israel,” says Yousef al-Sharif, Al Jazeera’s correspondent in Turkey.
“Also, the nature of the current Israeli government, which
consists of conservative figures like Netanyahu and [foreign minister
Avigdor] Lieberman, makes it easier for Erdogan to take such a tough
approach against Israel.”
Since it took office,
Erdogan’s government has been keen to show that Israel is no
longer the only serious power in the region. During the Palestinian intifada uprising in 2000, Turkey condemned Israel’s use of force and cancelled a proposed water deal wi
th Tel Aviv.
By the end of 2008, the neo-Ottoman doctrine was more advanced. When Tel Aviv launched a war on Gaza in late December 2008, Erdogan squarely blamed the Israelis.
But he also invoked the shared
history of Jews and Turks to make his point: “We are speaking as the
grandsons of Ottomans who treated your ancestors [Jews] as guests in
this land [Turkey] when they were expelled from Europe,” he said.
But such references will also remind Israel that the
cash-strapped Ottoman Empire turned down an offer by the Zionist leader
Theodor Herzl to cede Jerusalem to the Jews in return for huge loans
and a personal reward for Sultan Abd al-Hamid II (1842-1918).
Erdogan’s coded historical message was clear: Turkish policy towards
the Middle East is no longer led by political expedience, but by
|Erdogan, left, convinced Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, to resume Israel talks [AFP]
Until recently, political analysts and observers characterised the
relationship between Turkey and Israel as one based on mutual interests.
Israel needed a strong regional Muslim ally, and Turkey needed the
Jewish lobby in the US to prevent Greek and
Armenian groups from securing a congressional condemnation against
Turkey for its alleged role in the deaths of more than a million
Armenians in the early 20th century.
Some observers, however, now believe that Erdogan’s current
Middle East approach could jeopardise the delicate balance of power in
Elter Turkmen, a former Turkish foreign minister, warned earlier
this year that the short-term benefits may be outweighed by the
long-term disadvantages. “I do not think Turkish-Israeli relations
would reach the point of clash,” he said.
“Both sides will lose, Israel will lose a reliable partner and Turkey would lose the backing of Jewish lobby in Washington.”
Still, others question whether Turkey still needs the US Jewish lobby.
Turkey and Armenia signed a landmark peace accord earlier this
month, pledging to restore ties and open their shared border after a
century of hostility stemming from what Armenians said was the mass
killing of their people by Ottoman forces during the first world war.
Some believe that Israel and the US will nevertheless continue to
need Turkish help in brokering indirect talks between Israel and
Syria, widely seen as a crucial but difficult step in the Middle East
In June 2008, and after years of diplomatic effort, Turkey succeeded
in kick-starting indirect Syrian–Israeli talks. In Iraq, Turkey
maintained balanced relationships with almost all Iraqi factions. The
culmination of that successful policy was the visit of Muqtada al-Sadr,
the Iraqi Shia leader of the al-Mahdi Army, in May 2009.
Turkey also played a pivotal role in brokering a strategic deal
between al-Sadr, the Iraqi government, the UK and the US. Al-Mahdi
Army militias laid down their arms and released US and British hostages
they had been holding since 2007.
In return, the Iraqi government stopped the arrest campaign against
the al-Mahdi Army and released some of its jailed leaders such as Abd
al-Hadi al-Darraji, in 2009.
Middle East powerhouse
Bashir Nafie, a Palestinian historian specialising in Turkish
politics, believes that Ankara is adopting a multi-directional policy,
simultaneously resolving conflicts directly linked to its history
(rapprochement with Armenia and resolving its Kurdish problem), and
tackling the tensions in the greater region.
He said: “Turkey has realised that its future [is] not only with the
EU, but more importantly with its Arab, Muslim and Caucasian
neighbours. It also realises that Western arrangements imposed after
the first world war are the core of many problems the region is
suffering, and it is willing to solve the problems of that heavy
Hasan Koni, a former adviser to the Turkish
National Security Council, agrees that Turkey is likely to play an
increasingly important role in Middle Eastern politics in coming years.
the fact that there are no more neo-cons in the White House, and that
the new US administration is attempting to get out of Iraq, the US will
need Turkey to stand against Iran in Iraq and the Middle East in
general,” he says.
“Turkey is qualified to play that role since it is a Muslim state that maintains ties with both Israelis and Arabs.”