An Israeli disdain for Erdogan’s policy shift | By Syed Qamar Afzal Rizvi


An Israeli disdain for Erdogan’s policy shift

THE Turkish-Israeli relationship remains sensitive to developments related to the Palestinian territories.

The gradual decline in Tel Aviv –Ankara relationship has been marked because of Hawkish Netanyahu’s policy toward the Palestinians and Erdogan’s systematic and pragmatic policy shift towards the East marked by its growing traditional bonds with Iran and Russia.

A political low point was reached on 31 May 2010, when Israeli commandos killed ten Turkish activists on board the Turkish-owned ship, Mavi Marmara, which was attempting to breach the blockade of the Gaza Strip imposed by Israel when Hamas seized control of the territory in 2007.

Diplomatic relations between Israel and Turkey were downgraded; military and intelligence cooperation, as well as tourism, suffered severely.

Despite this setback, the Turkish-Israeli trade relationship remarkably survived and even thrived. Turkey and Israel succeeded in decoupling economics and politics.

Subsequently, one must look into the developments that took place in May 2018, another diplomatic crisis ensued between Israel and Turkey after Israel Defence Forces (IDF) killed dozens of Palestinians and injured over 2,000 in violent protests in Gaza.

Turkey expelled the Israeli Ambassador, and Israel in turn expelled the Turkish Consul in Jerusalem.

This diplomatic rift was linked with the opening of the US Embassy in Jerusalem, which followed U.S. President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in December 2017.

The announcement shattered years of precedent set by the international community and escalated tension between Israel and Turkey; Turkish President Erdoðan convened an emergency gathering of Muslim leaders in Istanbul and criticized Israel by calling it “a terrorist” and “child-murderer” state.

Both in December 2017 and May 2018, Israeli politicians retaliated by rebuking Erdoðan.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fired back, saying that Erdoðan was responsible for the bombing of Kurdish villages and helped terrorists who killed innocent people, including in Gaza.

Seen from an Israeli angle, the sea change in Erdogan stance toward Israel is being driven by global and regional shifts that have pushed Ankara’s back against the wall: isolated from Europe and many Arab states, it is facing a potentially unfriendly White House, while its economy continues to get buffeted by the pandemic.

Opening a new chapter with Israel could help bring it back in the West’s good graces and restore a fruitful military relationship.

And yet seen from the Turkish angle, Israel continuation of an apartheid policy towards the Palestinians, and its unstopped policy of the military brinkmanship in the West Bank and Gaze are intolerable.

Politically, diplomatically, and security-wise, Turkey and Israel have drifted apart.

Their division on the Palestinian issue is the most precarious. Erdoðan has many times described Jerusalem and the Palestinian issue as red lines for Turkey.

Turkish-Israeli ties have also faced other challenges, including Israel’s vocal support for Kurdish independence in northern Iraq, which sharpened tension between the two countries.

While Turkey considers Hamas a legitimate political movement that is elected democratically in Gaza, Hamas is seen as a terror organization by the US, EU and Israel.

While Turkey and Israel normalized relations in 2016, and, in principle, they share important economic and geostrategic interests, developments since then indicate that the two countries remain deeply divided on central issues, most notably the status of Palestine and its people, Iraqi Kurdish independence, and the composition of a post-war Syria.

Turkey’s divisions with the United States and its Arab Sunni ally countries, with which Israel shares important objectives, have only compounded these differences.

In addition, Israeli and Turkish leaders, mainly Benjamin Netanyahu and Recep Tayyip Erdoðan, deeply mistrust each other, making it hard to put differences aside and focus on shared objectives.

Turkey lambasted Israel over its decision to move ahead with the construction of hundreds of homes in an East Jerusalem settlement and called on the international community to oppose Tel Aviv’s aggressive actions.

“Israel, which recently approved the construction of 108 additional illegal settlements in East Quds, this time with the decision to build a 1,257-unit new illegal settlement near East Quds, once again showed that it continues to violate international law and usurp the rights of the Palestinian people,” the Turkish Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

Like in the Özal era, Turkey under Erdoðan has undergone critical economic and social reforms.

Public services, health-care reforms and big infrastructure projects including bridges, airports and power plants have been succeeded by military investment and the funding of advanced technology, among other major developments.

While every modern Turkish ruler has distanced himself from the legacy of the Ottoman Empire, and Islam, to attempt to project a more “western,” “secular,” and “modern” face for the republic, Erdogan is the first who has actively embraced the Ottoman past and the empire’s Islamic heritage.

This is the root cause of the western criticism about Erdogan’s drive— a call back to the Ottoman heraldry.

There has been a constant Israeli desire to expel Turkey from the NATO membership because Turkey wants more trade with Iran via rail links and wants to work with Tehran in other ways.

From Russia, Turkey wants more S-400s and military hardware. Israel wants that the US should immediately move its Incirlik base in Turkey to friendlier country.

Yet despite what critics, opponents and even outside observers might suggest, Erdoðan doesn’t seek a return to pre-revolutionary Turkey.

His actions aren’t those of an overzealous Ottoman romantic but rather of a Meiji restorer, re-appropriating the republican revolution by redefining its spirit and essence to one that blends Western innovation with local culture, tradition and historic bonds — “Western technique, Ottoman spirit”.
As for the UAE-Israeli deal, Ankara’s response comes as expected.

The Turkish Foreign Ministry issued a statement supporting the Palestinian Administration, saying that the “history and the conscience” of the region’s people will not forget and never forgive the “hypocritical behaviour” of the United Arab Emirates in agreeing to a deal with Israel.

“While betraying the Palestinian cause to serve its narrow interests, the UAE is trying to present this as a kind of act of self-sacrifice for Palestine,” the Foreign Ministry said.

—The writer, an independent ‘IR’ researcher-cum-international law analyst based in Pakistan, is member of European Consortium for Political Research Standing Group on IR, Critical Peace & Conflict Studies, also a member of Washington Foreign Law Society and European Society of International Law.