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Brent E. Sasley

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The Long Decline in Turkish-Israeli Relations

Posted: 09/13/11 05:07 PM ET

It's become an axiom to highlight the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident as the breaking point in Turkish-Israeli relations. But a closer examination reveals that beginning in the early 2000s, broader changes in the Middle East combined with political, social, and economic changes within both countries made a break in the relationship all but inevitable.

On the Israeli side, the early 2000s marked the end of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process as we know it. The rushed Camp David process in summer 2000 revealed the inability of both Israel and the Palestinians to compromise and give up on their most cherished goals. The outbreak of the Second Intifada in September 2000 embedded anger and mistrust among Israelis.

The Israeli unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon in May 2000 and from Gaza in summer 2005 was -- from the Israeli perspective -- a costly and mismanaged effort to keep trying. Continuing rocket attacks, provocations, and cross-border skirmishes indicated to Israelis that no matter what they did in the name of peace, the other side was simply not interested: their only goal was to destroy Israel, piece by piece if necessary.

Later, the 2006 electoral victory of Hamas and then its military takeover of Gaza in 2007 suggested that the moderates among the Palestinians (namely, Fatah) were weakening. The onset of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (official launched in 2005) combined with these developments to heighten the "siege mentality" in Israel, which included a broader suspicion of the rest of the region.

At the same time, Israel experienced very positive economic growth during the 2000s (with some slowdowns during the Second Intifada). Its diamond-cutting, defense production, bio-medical research, and computer telecommunications industries expanded considerably. As the country became wealthier, consumer goods became more readily available. Public interest was shifting away from foreign affairs and the conflict with the Arabs to domestic social and economic issues, culminating in the 2006 elections with a brief resurgence of the Labor party and the sudden appearance of the Pensioners Party, devoted exclusively to socio-economic concerns.

Although foreign policy intruded when conflicts with Hezbollah and Hamas erupted in 2006 and 2008-2009, the growing support for center-right (Kadima) and right-wing parties (Likud, and smaller far-right ones) indicated a growing Israeli preference for complete separation from and disregard with the Palestinians and the peace process.

In short, there was by 2010 far less interest in involvement in regional affairs apart from what was necessary.

On the Turkish side, in domestic politics the weakening of the Kemalists in the military and in the security forces changed the broader assumptions and expectations of Turkey's foreign policy. Growing Islamism (that is, a desire for more acceptance and presentation of Islam in the public sphere) created conditions of sympathy for Islamist parties in Turkey, who were bound to hold a different interpretation of Turkey's place in the world.

This was augmented by a split among the Islamists themselves, between the old hardliners and the new moderates -- the latter of whom formed the Justice and Development Party (AKP) of today. Their successes at governing at the municipal level enhanced their appeal. Finally, the sheer inability of the secular parties to end factional infighting and cooperate on a common political agenda left the Turkish public eager for a fresh party.

At the same time, economic growth and a growing need for more energy to feed the expansion of the domestic economy refocused policymakers' interest toward Turkey's neighbors, including former antagonists like Syria, Iran, and Iraq. Turkey moved to resolve outstanding issues with all of them, and to sign trade and other agreements.

In foreign affairs, snubs from the European Union made many Turks question their long-standing Western orientation. The late 1990s also witnessed a more aggressive Turkish foreign policy, culminating in 1998 when Turkey mobilized troops on the border with Syria to successfully demand the expulsion of PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan. This led to renewed confidence in its power, and a perception that it could more easily throw its weight around the region.

So although the 1990s was a period of warming Turkish-Israeli ties, by the 2000s both countries began to diverge in their needs and expectations. This was especially evident on the Turkish side. Ankara's need for non-Israeli trade items (like gas from Iran or markets in Syria) combined with growing interest in realigning itself toward Arab and Islamic countries.

The AKP, which came to power in 2002, saw these regions as Turkey's natural reference point. Israel's continuing occupation of the West Bank, the Gaza War of 2008-2009, and the growing strength of the right in Israeli politics only reinforced the AKP's perception that Israel was an unnatural ally. AKP leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan himself is a passionate believer in Palestinian rights, and genuinely horrified at Israel's actions against them. His reaction to the Gaza War has shaped much of the AKP's subsequent rhetoric and policy.

As the AKP has grown stronger in the domestic balance of power within Turkey, its ability to shape foreign policy has expanded. With Israel no longer seen as a valuable or even necessary ally, it was only a matter of time before a Mavi Marmara-type incident ruptured the relationship completely. Even without such an occurrence, the relationship would have dragged itself to death eventually.

There is very little to suggest that the two countries have enough in common at this point to move beyond the damage. Indeed, things are quickly moving in the opposite direction; the Turkish insistence on providing military escorts to ships sailing to Gaza all but guarantees a direct clash with the Israeli navy.

This type of hostility and antagonism appears to be the future framework for their relations.

 

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