Can the “Gaza damage” to Turkish-Israeli Relations be reversed?

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 17

During Israel’s incursion into Gaza, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan harshly criticized the operations. His condemnation received the applause of a majority of people in the Muslim world; but it has created concern about the Jewish communities in Turkey (see EDM, January 7, January 15). In response to Erdogan’s human rights remarks about Israeli policies in Gaza, The Jerusalem Post ran an editorial saying:

We’re not convinced that Turkey has earned the right to lecture Israelis about human rights. While world attention focuses on Gaza, Turkish jets have bombed Kurdish positions in northern Iraq. Over the years, tens of thousands of people have been killed as the radical PKK pursues its campaign for autonomy from Turkey (The Jerusalem Post, January 5).
In the following days, the American Jewish Committee (AJC), B’nai B’rith, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the Conference of Major American Jewish Organizations, and the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs signed a letter expressing their concerns about the possibility of rising anti-Semitism in Turkey (Milliyet, January 23). President of the ADL Abraham Foxman said that Turkish Jews felt they were under siege and threatened, and Erdogan’s harsh criticism toward Israeli policies played a role in this (Hurriyet, January 23).

In a cabinet meeting on January 26 ministers discussed the Jewish concern. Deputy Prime Minister Cemil Cicek stated that “The Turkish government has no problem at all with citizens of Israel, Jewish people across the world, and Turkish Jews. Turkish politics [toward Gaza] is directly related to Israeli policies. All Turkish citizens have the same rights, and their security is the responsibility of the Turkish Republic” (Sabah, January 27). Foreign minister Ali Babacan also stressed that Turkey’s position was against Israeli policies, while acknowledging that the criticism of Israel could harm Turkish-Israeli relations in the short run. Babacan thought, however, that Israel would not want to harm relations because Turkey and Israel had mid-term and long-term strategic commitments (Sabah, January 27). Babacan further stated that “Turkey does not approve of what Hamas does; however, it is a fact that without taking Hamas into consideration, a permanent peace is not possible (Radikal, January 27).

As the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government tries to ameliorate the negative effects of Erdogan’s harsh censure of Israel, the Turkish media have started criticizing Erdogan’s anti-Israel rhetoric. Journalists have pointed out that once people have lost their confidence in the system, it is too hard and too late to restore it. Erdogan’s rhetoric had caused Turkish Jews to lose their confidence in the system (Hurriyet, January 27). Editor in Chief of Milliyet Sedat Ergin wrote an editorial outlining Erdogan’s mistake in his position against Israel. Ergin argued that Erdogan should have warned Hamas about its rocket attacks on Israel, asked Hamas to stop its terrorist strategy, and pursued a policy to balance Fatah and Hamas. Erdogan should not have equated Jews with Israeli policies (Milliyet, January 27).

Perhaps Erdogan has finally realized that his rhetoric could potentially harm Turkey’s vital interests and endanger Turkish Jews. He is planning to meet with Israeli President Simon Peres at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on January 29 (Hurriyet, January 27). Given the fact that Erdogan had rejected Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s offer to discus the Gaza crisis during the war, the Erdogan-Peres meeting could be a sign of reinitiating Turkish-Israeli relations.

Given the fact that during the election campaign President Barack Obama indicated to Armenian communities that he may recognize the 1915 events as “genocide,” the Turkish government needs the support of its traditional ally, the Jewish lobby, more than ever. Furthermore, the president of the ADL already made the controversial claim in 2007 that "on reflection, we have come to share the view of Henry Morgenthau, Sr. [the U.S. ambassador to the Ottoman Empire during World War I] that the consequences of those actions were indeed tantamount to genocide. If the word genocide had existed then, they would have called it genocide" (The Jerusalem Post, August 23, 2007). The tension caused by Erdogan’s statements about Israel could further separate Turkey from the Jewish lobby in Washington.

Moreover, in terms of the domestic political power struggle between the powerful military and the AKP, the Jewish lobby could ally itself to the military. If Jewish organizations in the U.S. for some reason decide to support the military against the AKP government and if the military generals wanted to cooperate with an angry Jewish community, which is likely, the AKP could enter into political turbulence trying to maintain its unquestioned power. It has already been reported that:

While Prime Minister Erdogan refused to meet or talk with top Israeli politicians until Tel Aviv agreed to a cease-fire, the Turkish General Staff accepted a briefing on the Israeli version of the Gaza offensive given by Israeli military officials last week. The Israelis firmly believe that the Turkish military is a solid anchor for them (Today’s Zaman, January 15).