Turkey expelled Israel’s ambassador and froze military cooperation with his country on Friday after an international study into the deaths of nine Turks aboard an aid convoy that was attacked by Israeli coast guard last year failed to trigger an apology.
The Turkish posturing apparently exacerbated a diplomatic rift between Ankara and Jerusalem that coincides with popular unrest across the Arab world.
Israel intercepted a small fleet of blockade runners bound for Gaza in May of last year. The attack killed several humanitarian activists who resisted the raid and soured Israeli relations with Ankara where Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s conservative government forcefully condemned the incident. Its deputy prime minister likened the action to “piracy” and characterized it as “a dark stain on the history of humanity.” Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu compared the attack to 9/11.
Turkey demanded a formal apology from Israel for the incident as well as reparations for the families of the deceased. When its demands weren’t met this week, it barred Israeli military aircraft from Turkish air space and vowed legal action against the Israeli soldiers that were involved in the incident.
Its vehement rhetoric should not necessarily be interpreted as newfound resentment with the Jewish state however.
For decades, Turkey had been among few in the region that virtually allied with Israel. But like many of its neighbors, it worries about Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Perhaps it pretended to be outraged last year and is Turkey consciously estranging itself from Israel in order to ultimately justify building an independent nuclear deterrent.
Israel is currently the only nuclear state in the Middle East. If Tehran acquired an atomic weapons potential, it would upset the existing balance of power in the region which, before the “Arab Spring” happened, was dominated by countries that are aligned with the United States — Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
Turkey has, in recent years, pursued a foreign policy that is more independent of the West and involves stronger trade relations with nearby Egypt, Jordan and Syria. The country realizes that it can be a regional power and exert influence throughout the Middle East, using its exports and ties with Europe as leverage.
In order for Turkey’s “zero problems with neighbors” policy to succeed, it needed distance between itself and the West. To be recognized as the neutral arbiter it aspired to be, Turkey could not be seen as a friend of Israel’s in a region where governments and popular movements routinely arouse anti-Israel sentiment for political gain.
The Arab uprisings that toppled decade-old dictatorships in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya this year continue to fuel major disturbances in Syria and forced the Turks to reconsider their approach. Turkish engagement with authoritarian regimes in Damascus and Tehran had not fostered the very stability Ankara wished for. Instead, Syria’s attempt at repressing civil unrest may provide an opening for Kurdish discontent and militancy to flourish anew.
If Turkey’s foreign policy is to survive the Arab Spring, an even more outspoken pro-Palestinian agenda could help. Erdoğan’s vocal support for the Palestinian cause held his administration in good stead among Arabs who took to the streets to demand democracy in Egypt and Syria. Its closeness with the Ba’athist regime in Damascus, by contrast, accomplished little in the end. President Bashar al-Assad hardly recognized Turkey’s call that he end the violence against demonstrators.
So Turkey is changing its foreign policy again, this time in favor of not just its neighboring governments but its neighboring people. Turkey, with its novel blend of moderate Islamism and secular administration, uniquely positioned between the Muslim world and Europe, should have been on the side of those to whom it appealed most all along — the very educated, cosmopolitan youngsters who are agitating against the corrupted and oppressive enlightened despotisms of their time.
The Turkish president’s condemnation of Assad last weekend was a precursor of Ankara’s realignment. Abdullah Gül asserted that there was “no place for totalitarian regimes and one-party governments” in the Middle East anymore. “Clearly, the leaders of these countries will take the initiative or they will be changed by force,” he added. A force which Turkey, no doubt, will support lest it end up like Germany did for opposing the NATO intervention in Libya — distrusted by its old friends and despised by the new power brokers in the region who would not be quick to forgive it for conniving with their predecessors.