Turkish hopes that the official visit to Ankara by Israeli President Shimon Peres would strengthen Ankara’s recently strained relationship with Israel received a setback, following a very public disagreement over the two countries’ attitudes toward Iran and Hamas.
The 1996 agreements between Turkey and Israel to cooperate in military training and the defense industry were hailed by many as the beginning of a strategic realignment in the eastern Mediterranean. There were widespread expectations that they would be reinforced by stronger political and economic ties. However, although bilateral trade has continued to increase and Turkey has become a popular destination for Israeli tourists, hopes that the rapprochement could be underpinned by strategic projects, such as the transportation of Turkish water to Israel, have come to nothing. Fundamental differences on a number of key issues have overshadowed closer political cooperation, particularly since the moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in Turkey in November 2002. AKP ministers have frequently been outspoken in their criticism of Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians. Privately, a large number of AKP supporters are not just anti-Israeli but simply anti-Semitic (see EDM, November 5). In February 2006, the AKP outraged many in Israel by hosting an official Hamas delegation in Ankara.
But the October 10 decision by the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee to characterize the killings of Armenians in World War I as a genocide (see EDM, October 15) served as a reminder to Ankara of the benefits of a good relationship with Israel. Previously, the Jewish lobby in the United States had frequently campaigned on Turkey’s behalf in Washington. However, in recent years – and particularly since the Hamas visit – Jewish-American support for Turkey has waned. In the wake of the Foreign Affairs Committee’s approval of the genocide motion, several Turkish newspapers noted how many Jewish members of the committee who had previously tended to support Turkey had voted for the motion (Milliyet, Radikal, October 11).
The AKP is keen to play a major role in the Middle East peace process by attending the summit meeting in Annapolis later this month as part of a longer-term strategy of establishing Turkey as a regional power. Yesterday (November 12), in an address to the Sixth International Ataturk Congress in Ankara, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan gave probably the most candid exposition to date of his government’s goal of transforming the Middle East into a zone of Turkish influence.
“If those who want to do something in the region fail to achieve a result the most important reason is the concept of doing something ‘despite Turkey.’ This is the biggest mistake made by the Europeans and others,” he said (Radikal, November 13).
But an attempt by Turkish President Abdullah Gul to reassure Peres of Iran’s peaceful intentions led to a very public demonstration of how far apart the AKP and Israel are in their attitudes toward the regime in Tehran. Gul tried to assure Peres that Iranian threats to “wipe Israel off the map” were just rhetoric and that Tehran had no hostile intentions. Speaking at a joint press conference, Peres retorted that Iran had publicly threatened Israel, that its nuclear program was not for peaceful purposes and that Tehran was supporting international terrorism. When asked whether he was worried about Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Gul, in an unmistakable reference to Israel’s own nuclear capabilities, replied: “We are against all nuclear weapons in our region” (Milliyet, Radikal, Hurriyet, November 13).
When pressed by Gul to support Turkey’s efforts to prevent the killing of the Armenians being characterized as a genocide, Peres merely commented that he believed that all discussions about a genocide in Turkey should be left to historians (NTV, CNNTurk, November 12).
However, he was more forthcoming about Turkey’s preparations to stage a cross-border military operation against camps belonging to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in northern Iraq. Peres declared his support for Turkey’s right to defend itself before pointedly adding that Israel was also struggling against terrorism and condemning what he described as the steps Hamas was taking against the peace process. In an implicit reference to Turkey’s contacts with the organization, Peres then asked Turkey to use its influence to ensure the release of two Israeli soldiers captured by Hamas in summer 2006 (Hurriyet, Vatan, Radikal, November 13).