(Re)Building Bridges to Ankara
by Stewart Pollock on Friday, April 20th, 2012
Many Americans tend to see the conflict between Israel and Iran as a game of chess with only two players, and everyone else in the region just picking sides. But, like almost everything else that happens in the Middle East, the real situation is far more complicated. Israel may have few friends in neighboring Arab nations, but that does not mean that the entire Muslim world wishes to see them “driven into the sea.” As much as a result of Iran’s belligerence as Israel’s conciliation, the majority of nearby Muslim powers have neglected to take sides, or even shown pro-Israeli inclination.
Perhaps the most significant of these third parties is Turkey, the black sheep of the Muslim world. An officially secular, yet heavily Sunni republic, Turkey straddles the line between Eastern Europe and the Middle East, both culturally and politically. Although it has often been lumped in with Syria, Iran, and the rest, Turkey has done its best to remain relatively aloof of the Arab-Israeli conflict, at least on the national level. According to Eric Wahlberg, writing for Global Research, Israeli-Turkish relations have normally been “smooth,” with widespread economic collaboration. In the region, at least, Turkey is the closest thing Israel has to an ally. Emphasis on “closest to.”
Amongst the general populace, opinions are more complicated. A few high profiles incidents in recent years, such as the 2010 attack on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla by Israeli commandos in which nine unarmed Turks were killed, have led to an increasingly negative perception of Israel within Turkey. On a national level, Israeli leaders have further inflamed tensions by drawing closer to Greece economically and by signaling increased support for the Greek Cypriot cause. All of this prompted Turkey in 2011 to expel Israel’s ambassador, and more recently to vote against a U.S. led effort to impose new sanctions on Iran.
At first, this seems like Turkey overacting to relatively minor slights by throwing its lot in with Iran, all under the pretense of protecting Palestinian interests from Zionist aggression. A cursory glance at the current Turkish government’s makeup seems to support this assessment. The ruling party, the Justice and Development Party, has Islamic ties, and has often been accused of undermining Turkey’s secular roots, established by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk when he founded the post-Ottoman republic. According to Soli Ozel, writing for Bloomberg, “Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogen called Mahmoud Ahmadinejad ‘a friend’ and dismissed worries about Iran’s nuclear program as ‘hearsay.’”
In reality, there is little indication that Turkey is abandoning Israel to the wolves. The current nadir in relations is as much due to Israeli brashness as Turkish anger. Israel has been overzealous in Gaza, and its failure to apologize for the flotilla snafu has done little to help its position. Likewise, there is little evidence to suggest that the JDP is some sort of Islamist front.
The metaphorical bridges between Israel and Turkey may have been damaged, but they are far from burned. It is optimistic to say that diplomatic gestures will be enough to restore Turkish-Israeli relations to their previous levels. Serious sacrifices by Israel, especially when it comes to the conflict over economic resources (read: oil) in the Mediterranean may be called for. Turkey, meanwhile, will have to prove its continued commitment to secularism, especially as Iran continues to put its anti-Israeli rhetoric into pseudo-Islamic terms.
As difficult as it may seem, there is hope for a mending of the rift in Israeli-Turkish relations. Turkey, unlike Iran, is a rational player. Its leaders in Ankara don’t want war any more than Israel or the US do. Assuming this commitment holds, then Turkey, with whom Iran has expansive trading ties, may be the buffer that prevents a full scale war from breaking out over the Iranian nuclear program. The window for diplomacy, despite the Israeli insistence to the contrary, has not yet closed.
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