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Turkey Says Goodbye to Israel and the West

June 4, 2010 – 2:08 pm8 Comments

Turkish and Israeli flag pinsBy Efraim Inbar

The “Gaza flotilla” incident provided viewers with TV broadcasts of mass street protests of incited Turks against the Jewish state, including the torching of Israeli flags. Prime Minister Erdoğan, who occasionally makes anti-semitic statements, seemed to be taking every opportunity to slam the State of Israel.

Turkey, an important strategic partner of Israel in the 1990’s, turned into a bitter adversary. Turkey, an important regional state, distanced itself for almost a century from the Arab world, which the Turks quite rightfully perceived as backward, fanatical, corrupt and undemocratic. Yet, in the last few years, Turkey has been in the throes of an identity crisis, in which Muslim tradition, which is still entrenched within Turkish society, aspires to greater expression than was hitherto permitted by the secular regime in Ankara.

The AKP, the ruling Islamist party since November 2002, become emboldened after its reelection in July 2007 to make significant changes to Turkish foreign policy. Ankara’s relations towards Israel cooled, especially in the wake of the Gaza war in the winter of 2008. Scathing criticism, cancellation of joint military maneuvers and warming toward Hamas have characterized Turkish policy.

Noteworthy, the deterioration of relations between Ankara and Jerusalem is of Turkish initiative, over which Israel has no influence. The extreme stance taken by Turkey towards Israel is part of the major transformation of Turkey’s foreign policy. In fact, Turkey is turning away from the West. Its position diverges from that of the West on Hamas, but also on other important issues. Ankara hosted Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, accused of war crimes, despite the protest of the European states. Turkey is the only member of NATO to have hosted Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Turkey has even announced that it will not join sanctions against Iran and in the past month has strived, together with Brazil, to extricate Iran from its uncomfortable diplomatic position due to its ongoing nuclear program. Turkey is also growing closer to Syria, in the Iranian camp. Moreover, Turkey has stepped up its activity in the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC). Turkey has also tightened its relations with Russia, which aims to curb US role in international affairs.

Yet, it is not a foregone conclusion that Turkey will persist in this direction. The army, which constitutionally enforced the secular-democratic nature of the regime, has become weaker in its position in the past few years, and cannot be expected to intervene as in the past. One should hope for change through democratic channels. Among Turkish society many still support the secular parties, which are far from pleased with the rush towards the Muslim world. Even among moderate Muslim quarters there is a sense of unease regarding Turkey siding with radical Islamic elements such as Hamas and Iran. One should also recall that Shiite Iran was an historic rival of the Sunni Turks.

Indeed, support in public opinion for the ruling Islamic party is in decline. This is mostly due to corruption and abuse of civil rights. Were elections held today, the Islamist party would lose many seats, and two secular parties would possibly have made up the government coalition. If current trends in public opinion hold till the next elections, scheduled for July 2011, it is likely that Turkey will emerge with a new prime minister. It is possible that precisely due to his situation in the polls, Erdogan has decided to exacerbate his relations with Israel in order to gain public support.

Israel should refrain from escalating tensions with Turkey, but should not tolerate insults. This will only be perceived as a weakness. Firm responses to the Turkish prime minister are in order. Firm, level-headed responses will be of some assistance to pro-Western Turks.

A major political drama is unfolding before our eyes in this important country. We are only spectators. Only the Turks can determine their future. For the sake of the free world, but primarily for their own sake, let us hope that they choose democracy and progress.

The author is professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University and director of the Begin-Sadat (BESA) Center for Strategic Studies. He will deliver four lectures on Middle East subjects at the Limmud Oz Conference at Monash University.

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