On Sunday, October 23, a devastating magnitude 7.2 earthquake struck southeast Turkey, killing hundreds and injuring thousands more. In a show of solidarity, Israeli officials called their Turkish counterparts to offer sympathy and relief aid. Turkey’s response prompted Commentary magazine editorialist, Jonathan S. Tobin, to pen the following:
“How determined is Turkey to repudiate its decades-long alliance with Israel? [The] decision by the Turks to…refuse assistance from Israel is a stunning indication of how far the Islamist government in Ankara is willing to go to make a point.… [Turkey’s Prime Minister Recip Tayip] Erdogan would apparently prefer to see his compatriots die rather than to allow Jews to help them.…”
Admittedly, Turkey did eventually accept Israel’s help, an act Defense Minister Ehud Barak hoped “may help reduce tension and open a new page in our relations with Turkey.” However, Turkey’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, quickly downplayed the gesture, reaffirming that the “political conditions remain” and that despite the support Ankara would not change its position vis-a-vis the Jewish state.
This episode begs the question: how did the once-strong Israel-Turkey relationship deteriorate to such a degree?
Many identify as the turning point the now-infamous May 2010 flotilla incident, in which nine Turkish nationals were killed when Israeli soldiers boarded the Mavi Marmara, a Turkish government-sponsored ship attempting to breach Israel’s blockade of Gaza.
However, a closer examination shows that Turkey’s dismantling of its strategic partnership with Israel began long before.
Jerusalem Post columnist Caroline B. Glick notes that since Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) took power in 2002, the regime “has inculcated the formerly tolerant if not pro-Israel Turkish public with virulent anti-Semitism.” Israel recently chastised Turkey’s Education Ministry for sponsoring an antisemitic website.
Glick also highlights the Turkish government’s support for terrorist groups like the al Qaida- and Hamas-linked IHH, which organized the flotilla to Gaza. Erdogan’s allegiance to Hamas, for instance, was already made overt following Israel’s 2008-2009 Operation Cast Lead, when the Turkish prime minister acted as the “international community’s” most vocal critic of the Israeli incursion into Gaza. Most conspicuous was Erdogan’s public, and well-publicized, rebuke of President Shimon Peres at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January 2009. Erdogan has also stated, “I do not think that Hamas is a terrorist organization.… They are Palestinians in resistance, fighting for their own land.”
More recently, Erdogan’s National Security Council removed Iran and Syria as designated threats, but labeled Israel a “major threat.” With respect to Iran, in particular, Turkey has become the regime’s economic lifeline, allowing the mullahs to use Turkish markets to bypass UN sanctions. And Turkey is one of a handful of countries to have invited the President of the Islamic Republic, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, on a formal visit.
It is worthwhile noting that Israel’s Operation Cast Lead has been largely vindicated. The military operation, aimed at halting Hamas’ indiscriminate firing of missiles at civilian population centers, provoked global condemnation, culminating in the UN’s issuance of the biased Goldstone Report. Yet Richard Goldstone, the UN fact-finding mission’s chief investigator, this year retracted many of his most dubious accusations—including charges of “war crimes” levied against IDF soldiers—in sequential op-eds written in both the Washington Post and NY Times.
This past September, after repeated delays at the behest of the Turkish government, the UN finally released the Palmer Report, the findings of an independent inquiry into the Mavi Marmara episode headed by former New Zealand Prime Minister Geoffrey Palmer. The report exculpated Israel for its defensive actions against Turkish militants aboard the ship, stating that IDF commandos “faced significant, organized and violent resistance from a group of passengers…requiring them to use force for their own protection.” Moreover, the report confirmed the legality of Israel’s Gaza blockade: “Israel faces a real threat to its security from militant groups in Gaza. The naval blockade was imposed as a legitimate security measure…and its implementation complied with the requirements of international law.”
Israel accepted the Palmer Report’s findings. Turkey rejected them outright, declaring the report “null and void.” Ironically, it was Turkey that had initially demanded the official UN probe.
Immediately following the report’s release, Turkey elevated its confrontation with Israel to new heights. Erdogan’s government downgraded the Jewish state’s diplomatic standing to second secretary level, effectively giving Israel’s ambassador 48 hours to leave the country. Turkey froze military cooperation with Israel, fortified its naval presence in the Mediterranean, and warned that the Turkish war ships would escort future flotillas to Gaza.Turkey also pledged to refer Israel’s blockade of the Strip to the International Court of Justice—despite the Palmer Report’s corroboration of the legality of the blockade—while simultaneously threatening to sue the IDF soldiers who took part in the raid.Turkish officials even went so far as to harass forty Israelis on a Tel Aviv-to-Istanbul flight by sequestering them upon landing and subjecting them to humiliating “searches.”
Concurrently, Erdogan embarked on a tour of Arab states to support the Palestinians’ unilateral bid for statehood at the United Nations. Using the trip as a platform to up his anti-Israel rhetoric, Erdogan called Israel “a spoiled child,” and claimed “the Israeli people are [always] resorting back to the issue of genocide in history and…acting as if they are the victims all the time.” At a meeting of the Arab League in Cairo, Erdogan stressed that Israel had to “pay a price for its aggression and crimes,” and subsequently accused Israel of committing “state terrorism,” claiming Israeli policies were “cause for war.”
Erdogan also steadfastly adhered to a previous demand that Israel apologize to Turkey for the flotilla incident, despite the Palmer Report’s recommendation that Israel only make “an appropriate statement of regret.”
Yet Turkey’s shift away from Israel was clearly predictable. Since taking office, Erdogan’s Islamist AKP party has reshaped Turkey in a manner that foreshadowed conflict with the lone democratic state in the Middle East. The government has used unlawful means to suppress and silence all significant organs of secularist opposition. The regime has limited press freedoms, blocking websites such as YouTube and imprisoning more than 60 journalists. According to the International Press Institute, Turkey has more jailed journalists than any other country in the world, including China and Iran.
The repression has also extended to Turkey’s military. The Kemalist constitution originally designated Turkey’s military as the protector of secular Turkey, bound to combat all threats posed by religious political parties. Over the past decade, however, the AKP has done everything possible to criminalize the military’s leadership and reduce its constitutional powers. To date, more than 160 officers have been charged with involvement in claimed coup plots. The witch-hunt peaked in 2007 with the so-called Ergenekon conspiracy, which resulted in the conviction of senior military commanders on trumped up allegations of attempting to topple the AKP government.
A government that suppresses internal freedoms can be expected to oppose and confront countries—including Israel—which maintain and promote freedom. Turkey fits the bill. In an interview earlier this year, former Turkish President Suleyman Demirel warned that the AKP has established “an empire of fear” in Turkey.
As a result, Middle East scholar Daniel Pipes in September wrote a National Post article designating Turkey, in addition to Iran, as “the most dangerous state of the region.” Pipes focuses on the AKP’s Islamization of the country, calling the phenomenon “Islamists without brakes,” and points to the abrupt resignation of four out of five Turkish chiefs of staff on July 29 as the end of the secular republic founded in 1923 by Kemal Ataturk.
“A second republic headed by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Islamist colleagues of the AK Party began that day,” Pipes asserts. “The military safely under their control, AKP ideologues can pursue their ambitions to create an Islamic order.”
Today, Erdogan is well positioned to capitalize on his Neo-Ottoman ambitions. Flush with victory after June’s election, in which his AKP won 50% of the vote, Erdogan’s goal of expanding Turkey’s influence throughout the Middle East has been given new life.
“Believe me, Sarajevo won today as much as Istanbul. Beirut won as much as Izmir, Damascus won as much as Ankara, Ramallah, Nablus, Jenin, and the West Bank,” Erdogan said of his landslide win.
Barry Rubin, director of Israel’s Global Research in International Affairs Center also believes “The elections in Turkey mark[ed] a revolution, an event every bit as significant as the revolutions in Iran and Egypt.” Like Pipes, Rubin claims that “The Turkey of secularism and Western orientation is finished. The Turkey that belongs to an alliance of radical Islamists abroad and at home has been launched.”
(Charles Bybelezer is Publications Chairman
for the Canadian Institute for Jewish Research.)