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Leon T. Hadar

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Turkish Foreign Policy: What Would Ataturk Do?

Posted: 09/16/11 10:02 PM ET

Even before the crisis in the relationship between Israel and Turkey over the raid on the Gaza "Peace Flotilla" had erupted last December, right-wing Israelis and American neoconservatives were promoting a new Grand Narrative: Turkey was joining forces with Iran and Syria in an anti-American and anti-Israeli Islamofascist Axis of Evil, seeking to destroy the Jewish State as part of a long-term strategy of re-establishing the Ottoman Empire and a Global Caliphate. Turkey was becoming the New Iran.

Indeed, according to a report in Haaretz, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his cabinet last January that Turkey was "consistently gravitating eastward to Syria and Iran rather than westward over the last two years" and that "the trend certainly has to worry Israel."

Moreover, Netanyahu provided his "full backing" for the diplomatic campaign that his foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman was conducting against the Turkish Prime Minister Reccep Tayip Erdogan -- Lieberman compared Erdogan to Venezuela's president Hugo Chavez -- which included the summoning of the Turkish ambassador to Israel for a meeting in which he was seated in a low sofa, and facing him, in higher chairs, were Israeli officials delivering a reprimand.

And following the Israeli raid on the flotilla, Israeli politicians, pundits and commentators reflecting the Likud-necon narrative were suggesting that under the leadership of the Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) Turkey was setting aside the secular and pro-Western orientation of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, and was being transformed into a radical Islamist state that was pursuing a Neo-Ottomanist strategy aimed establishing close ties with the Arab World and de-legitimizing the Jewish State.

The policy implication of such an account was that the U.S. and Israel had no choice but to regard Turkey -- like Iran -- as an assertive strategic and ideological power that was posing a direct threat to Western interests and the survival of Israel.

So it was a bit surprising that the recent decision by Ankara to downgrade its diplomatic relations with Israel has not triggered the same kind of Turkey-bashing by the usual suspects in Jerusalem and Washington. While rejecting Turkish demand that Israel apologize for the killing of nine people aboard the Mavi Marmara, Netanyahu insisted that Israel "regrets the loss of human life" and expressed his hope "that the way will be found to overcome the differences with Turkey." Israel "never wanted its relations with Turkey to deteriorate, nor does it want them to deteriorate right now," Netanyahu stressed.

"Turkey is not Israel's enemy and Israel is not Turkey's enemy," former Prime Minister Olmert said in a speech last week. "Turkey has previously functioned as a bridge to important and sensitive contacts of the highest importance to our interests, and it can continue to be so in the future," he said, reflecting a more realistic, if not accommodative approach towards Turkey that is shared by many Israelis.

Even a right-winger like Netanyahu recognizes that in the aftermath of the collapse of the friendly regime of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt -- and against the backdrop of the regional political instability being ignited by the Arab Spring -- Israeli leaders do not have the luxury of turning Turkey into a full-fledged enemy.

Moreover, it was difficult to accuse Turkey of allying itself with Iran and Syria in the same week that Ankara was giving the diplomatic cold shoulder to both Tehran and Damascus. It announced that it would install a radar system designed by the United States as part of a NATO shield against a possible missile attack by Iran on Europe and it joined the United States and the European Union (EU) in condemning the Syrian government's violent repression of demonstrators.

Indeed, the earlier notion that the Netanyahu-Lieberman duo were advancing -- and that was echoed by their allies in Washington -- that Erdogan and the AKP were pursuing a foreign policy based on an Islamist agenda reflected a common fallacy, that ideological principles -- as opposed to considerations of national interest -- are the main driving force behind the foreign policy of Turkey, or, for that matter, of other governments ruled by political movements committed to secular or religious doctrines.

Historians who have studied Soviet foreign policy have noted that many of the major decisions on war and peace that were made by Soviet leaders -- such as signing the pact with Nazi Germany and later joining the West in fighting Hitler -- were based less on abstract communist doctrines and more on traditional core geo-strategic of imperial Russia. In a way, Peter the Great would have probably approved of many of the critical foreign policy choices made by Stalin.

There are of course cases in which ideology does end up being elevated above the pursuit of national interests, For example, the self-destructive policies that were followed by Nazi Germany. Hence, German's Chancellor Bismarck would have not approved of the most important decisions made by Adolph Hitler before and during World War II.

From this perspective, it is very likely that Ataturk would have approved much of the foreign policy agenda being pursued by Erdogan. Or to put it in more concrete terms, most of the decisions made by Erdogan -- remaining in NATO while improving strategic ties with Turkey's neighbors; continuing to campaign for EU membership while strengthening Turkey's economic position in the Middle East; the "trust-but-verify" approach towards Iran's nuclear military policies; conditioning the maintenance of the partnership with Israel on its treatment of the Palestinians -- fit very much with the kind of Realpolitik foreign policy embraced by Ataturk and his secular political successors.

Indeed, there was nothing very "Islamist" in the decision made by Turkey not to support the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 and its refusal to allow U.S. forces to cross Turkish territory on their way to Iraq, regarded as a turning point in the relationship between Washington and Ankara. The ousting of Iraq's Saddam Hussein and the Americans attempts to "remake" the Middle East were seen as running contrary to Turkish national interests by religious and secular Turks alike, concerned -- and rightly so -- that U.S. policy would destabilize the Middle East.

And the collapse of the U.S. hegemonic project in the Middle East and the rise of Iran as the new regional power, and French and German opposition to Turkish membership in the EU have created incentives for Turkey to fill the strategic vacuum by strengthening its political and economic ties with Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iraq and other Arab governments as well as with Iran. This Turkish strategy would have been embraced even under the leadership of the staunchest secular leadership.

Nor was the general direction of the Turkish policy towards Israel a demonstration of a new "anti-Israeli" approach. Erdogan's diplomatic effort to serve as a mediator between Syria and Israel made a lot of strategic sense, especially at a time when Washington's power in the region was eroding in the aftermath of the Iraq War, and offered long-term benefits to all those involved in the process, including the Israelis.

At the same time, the 2008 Israeli military operation in Gaza, which led to the collapse of the Israeli-Syrian talks under Turkish auspices, ran contrary to the interests of Turkey which was trying to co-opt the Islamist movement of Hamas and persuade it to moderate its positions. The television images of Palestinian civilian casualties in Gaza helped ignite anti-Israeli sentiments in what is after all a functioning democracy. In a way, the democratically elected governments in Ankara -- unlike the military governments that preceded them -- do have to respond to pressure from an electorate that sympathizes with the Palestinian cause. After all, the neoconservatives in Washington should be celebrating the victory of democracy in Turkey. Not!

In any case, the view that there is a direct relationship between the Islamist ideology of the current Turkish government and the deterioration in the relationship with the Jewish State derive from a myth about a "special relationship" between Ankara and Jerusalem. But Turkey has never regarded Israel as an ally -- but as just another important regional player with which it shares some mutual interests. The need to contain the pressure from Arab nationalists led by Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser and backed by the Soviet Union helped strengthen Israeli-Turkish cooperation during the Cold War. But even then, the relationship suffered a setback when Turkey downgraded its relationship with Israeli after forming the Baghdad Pact with Iraq in 1955 and pledged to come to the support of Jordan if attacked by Israel.

If anything, the recent diplomatic crisis between Ankara and Jerusalem resembles similar dips in the relationship between the two countries that had taken place when secular and/or military regimes ruled Turkey. Growing Arab-Israeli tensions and waves of rapprochement in the relationship between Turkey and the Arab states had major impact on Ankara's ties with the Jewish State under Ataturk's heirs.

In 1947 Turkey voted against the United Nations partition plan and the creation of Israel; but in 1949, after Egypt and Jordan signed armistice agreements with Israel, Turkey became the first Muslim state to recognize Israel. Diplomatic missions were opened in December 1950 at the legation level in Ankara and Tel Aviv, although from 1956, following the attack by Israel against Egypt, the legation in Tel Aviv was reduced to the lowest diplomatic level of charge d'affaires. That changed only in December 1991, six weeks after the start of the Arab-Israeli peace conference in Madrid, the Turks decided to upgrade the diplomatic representation of Israel -- and the PLO -- to the ambassadorial level.

Earlier on during the First Intifada, Turkey had signaled its support for the Palestinian cause by becoming the fourth country -- and the only government then maintaining diplomatic relationship with Israel --to recognize Palestine as an independent state. Turkey also joined most of the Arab and Muslim governments in denouncing Israel in response to its invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and the Israeli policies in the Palestinian territories.

Hence, Turkey's long-term interests have always been based on the understanding that geographical proximity, economic interests and civilizational considerations require that it normalize the relationship with its neighbors. This explains why it is unlikely that any government in Ankara would now establish a full-fledged alliance with a Jewish state as long as Israel remained at war with the Arab world. Israelis may not like that. But Ataturk would have approved.

 
 
 

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