The strains in Turkish-Israeli relations have increased over the past week, raising questions about the durability of the strategic relationship between the two countries.
Earlier last week, Ankara’s decision to cancel the international dimension of the multinational Anatolian Eagle air defense exercise dealt a serious blow to ties between Israel and Turkey. Israeli defense sources maintained that the Turkish decision was meant to exclude Israel from the joint military exercise as an extension of its recent criticism of Israeli operations in Gaza. The Turkish foreign ministry initially argued that the cancellation of the international element of the exercise had no special political significance. However, later statements from Turkish government officials, including the Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, clearly acknowledged that the decision was motivated by concern to protest against Israel’s indiscriminate use of force against Palestinian civilians (EDM, October, 15).
The crisis was further exacerbated by a Turkish television series, Ayrilik (Separation), broadcast by the Turkish Radio and Television Corporation (TRT), Turkey’s state-run broadcasting agency. The series, prepared by a private company for TRT, portrayed Israeli soldiers murdering children. The airing of the show sparked fierce criticism from the Israeli government, and its foreign ministry officials summoned the deputy chief of mission at the Turkish embassy in Tel Aviv to protest. Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman issued a statement saying that, “the series, which has no connection to reality whatsoever, is not even suitable for an enemy country and certainly not for a country that has full diplomatic relations with Israel.” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu related such actions by the Turkish government to the question of the orientation of its new foreign policy: “Of course, it raises the question of the direction of Turkish diplomacy. We hope it is in the direction of strengthening peace and not the extremist forces” (Anadolu Ajansi, Reuters, October 15).
Turkish officials reacted negatively to Israeli criticisms, denying any responsibility on the part of the government. The Turkish State Minister responsible for the TRT, Bulent Arinc, who also serves as the deputy prime minister and is an influential figure in the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP), maintained that the series did not reflect Ankara’s stance against Israel. Arinc also added that the Turkish media watchdog, the Supreme Board of Radio and Television (RTUK), is the only body legally authorized to monitor television broadcasts and that the government does not interfere with such programs. He ruled out any cancellation of the show and added that Turkish-Israeli relations will remain strong (Anadolu Ajansi, October 16).
Davutoglu also protested against Israeli criticism of Turkey. He emphasized that the TRT was an autonomous institution and that the government did not practice media censorship. He also added that the foreign ministry did not provide any guidance to the producers of Ayrilik. He defended Ankara’s position by arguing that it could not remain silent over the ongoing humanitarian tragedy in Gaza, and this protest should not be construed as an “anti-Israeli stance” (Cihan, October 16). Erdogan also commented on the crisis at a public gathering, portraying Turkey as a peace-loving country, and he maintained that it would continue to take a stand against oppressors, referring to Israel’s actions against the Palestinians (Anadolu Ajansi, October 18).
The row with Israel has received mixed reactions within Turkey. Media outlets supportive of the AKP government focused on the negative humanitarian consequences of the Israeli military activities in the Palestinian territories. They highlighted the Israeli atrocities against civilians in order to make a case that Turkey was justified in its criticism of Israel’s use of force against civilians. They also maintain that Israel was recently criticized not only by Turkey, but also the United Nations, the European Union and the Obama administration, arguing that Israel had experienced similar tensions with other countries with which it maintained cordial relations. By pointing to other countries taking a stance against Israel, the Turkish government aims to deflect responsibility for the recent crisis away from itself and refocus attention on Israel’s actions (Sabah, October 16).
The pro-government media has also speculated on whether these developments might mark the collapse of Turkish-Israeli political ties. Their aim was to respond to the charges that Israel might retaliate by severing its ties with Turkey and punishing Ankara by suspending sales of military equipment or withdrawing support of the Israeli lobby for Turkey in the U.S. Congress (EDM, October 15). Supporters of the government’s Israel policy argue that Tel Aviv could not easily opt for this alternative, given its dependence on Turkey. Moreover, in response to the suggestions that Ankara is reorienting its foreign policy toward radical views in the Middle East, they argue that as a result of its recent initiatives, Turkey has received praise for actively promoting peace and stability in the region. In their view, it is Israel that is viewed by the international community as the country responsible for creating tension (Zaman, October 16).
However, an increasing number of Turkish analysts and diplomatic observers have criticized the government’s position. They are critical of its argument that in protesting against Israel the Turkish government is simply responding to public pressure (Milliyet, October 17). In a recent television program, six former foreign ministers who served in various governments in the last thirty years discussed Turkish foreign policy. The common message emerging from their discussion was summarized as follows: “Sustaining Turkish-Israeli relations is in Turkey’s long-term interests. The current policies basically target domestic audiences, and contradict Turkish interests. In conducting foreign policy, there is no such thing as catering to the demands of public opinion” (Hurriyet, October 17).
Despite these criticisms, the AKP government appears determined to follow moral politics and change Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians through a deliberate policy of distancing itself from Israel. The burden of proof will be on the government, to show that its moral objective to protect the Palestinian cause will not come at the detriment of Turkey’s national interests.