How much Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan damaged Israeli-Turkish relations with his harsh criticism of Israel for its three-week assault Gaza will probably become apparent in the coming weeks or months.
Erdogan’s foreign policy advisor, Ahmet Davutoglu, told a group of journalists in Istanbul that because of the high number of civilian deaths, the government had come under serious public pressure to react more severely to Israel, and there had even been demands for retaliation in the form of suspending military and political relations (Taraf, Sabah, January 20). In response to demands from the opposition parties that the government break off relations with Israel, Erdogan said, “We are not running a grocery store here; we are running the Turkish Republic.”
Davutoglu stated the case clearly:
In the final analysis, the government has pursued a long narrow line, which has been strong but at the same time has avoided inflicting irreparable wounds on relations [with Israel]. Turkey has never considered, for example, the option of recalling its ambassador, as it did when Sheikh [Ahmed Ismail] Yasin was assassinated. Why? Because in order [for Turkey] to play a role in the conflict, it has been necessary that all channels be left open. Israel has been one of those channels, even the primary channel (Sabah, January 20).
Sheikh Yasin, the spiritual leader of Hamas, was killed in an Israeli air strike on March 22, 2004.
In contrast, an Ankara-based Western diplomat said in an interview with Jamestown on January 22 that Turkey would be less acceptable to Israel as an honest broker, because Erdogan had been so strident.
Erdogan accused Israel of committing a crime against humanity in the first days of its air assault in late December; and he increased his criticism as the Israeli strikes intensified with the support of the ground troops, which led to large number of civilian casualties. Before the ceasefire became effective Erdogan said, “God will punish Israel.” He went further, demanding that Israel be expelled from the United Nations for ignoring the organization’s call to stop the fighting in Gaza, which he referred to as Israeli savagery (Sabah, January 18).
Despite his harsh criticism of Israel, however, Erdogan has stopped short of taking any retaliatory measures against Israel. The two countries have deep military, defense industrial, intelligence, and growing trade ties, despite the fact that this has come under strong criticism by Turkey’s opposition parties. Accusing the prime minister of double standards, Devlet Bahceli, the leader of the opposition Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), said, “Erdogan blinks his eye to Hamas but does not abandon Israel either” (Hurriyet, January 21).
Turkey’s Islam-oriented Justice and Development Party (AKP) had mediated between Hamas, the target of the Israeli offensive in the Gaza Strip, and the Egyptian government in an attempt to end the fighting before Israel implemented a ceasefire. Erdogan had been obliged to state earlier that he was not anti Semitic, inasmuch as the demonstrations risked inflaming anti- Semitic and anti-Armenian sentiments and some protestors were already shouting slogans to this end. Prime Minister Erdogan said during a televised speech to parliament on January 13, "I am a leader who has said that anti-Semitism is a crime against humanity." Prosecutors in the central Anatolian town of Eskisehir, meanwhile, have launched a probe into those carrying placards during anti-Israeli protests that read: “Jews and Armenians cannot enter, but dogs can” (Milliyet, January 18).
Israeli-Turkish military and defense industry relations have already deepened since the two countries signed landmark cooperation agreements in 2006. This was made possible with the support of Turkey’s politically powerful Turkish Armed Forces, despite strong opposition from the Islam-based coalition government at the time.
According to 2007 figures, defense trade between Israel and Turkey was about $2 billion with the balance in Israel’s favor (this figure was given to Jamestown last year by a Turkish diplomat). Turkey, whose defense industry has relied in particular on high-tech products from abroad, needs Israel more than Israel needs Turkey, a Western military attaché in Ankara pointed out in an interview with Jamestown on January 22.
A 1996 military agreement paved the way for Israel to participate in military training with several countries as part of the Anatolian Eagle exercises staged once or twice a year in Turkey’s Konya Province, some 250 kilometers from Ankara. Israel has currently been modernizing 170 of Turkey’s U.S.-made M 60 A1 tanks, while supplying Turkey with Heron Unmanned Aerial Vehicles as part of a $200 million contract.
“Israel is the most selfish country in this world. It may take the risk of cooling relations with Turkey. Turkey is in need of Israeli high-tech products,” the same Western diplomat told Jamestown. According to him, however, if Turkey can help in efforts to stop Hamas from smuggling arms, thereby contributing to Israeli security, relations between Israel and Turkey have the potential to be normalized.
In the meantime, an Ankara based U.S. diplomat told Jamestown that Erdogan’s harsh criticism of Israel had made the new Obama administration’s task difficult with regard to the Armenian genocide issue. Turkey has so far received strong support from the Jewish lobby in the United States in countering powerful Armenian and Greek lobbies for the adoption of a resolution by the U.S. Congress condemning Ottoman Turks for the massacre of Armenians in 1915. Although Turkey is improving its ties with Armenia, it does not accept the massacre allegations and urges the historians of both countries to investigate the events of 1915. U.S. recognition of the events of 1915 as a massacre of Armenians has the potential of damaging relations between the two allies, Turkey and the United States.
Erdogan’s siding with Palestinians and his strong criticism of Israel are thought by some to be an attempt by the ruling AKP to look good before the local elections on March 29. His policy has been described as short-sighted; it also carries the danger that the Jewish lobby may lift its strong support of Turkey in the United States with regard to the Armenian genocide controversy.