The recent escalation of relations between Turkey and Israel has been going on with an unprecedented speed and density. Looking at the relations from a wider perspective is necessary in order to understand the implications for the Middle East, its future and the position of Turkey, Israel and the U.S. in the following period.
Turkish foreign policy, especially since the beginning of the decade, has been trying to expand its spheres of influence first in the Middle East and then in the world. Starting in 1998, for example, under the framework of "Opening Up to Africa Policy," Turkey became the 25th non-regional member of African Development Bank in 2008. As a result of similar attempts, Turkey was elected as a member of the Security Council of the UN, beginning in 2009. The present AKP government used this expansion successfully in the domestic policy. Erdogan’s "One Minute" request was one of the reasons that stopped the declining votes of AKP in the local elections in 2007. The recent raid to the flotilla, similarly, created nationalist sentiments, supported by the speeches delivered by the members of the government.
After the Israeli raid to the flotilla, there were a small number of people who anticipated military action against Israel in Turkey. Blent Arinc, the vice-Prime Minister of Turkey nullified the expectations saying, "No one should expect us to declare war to Israel." The Israeli raid to the flotilla, the Turkish reaction against the raids and the subsequent effects actually remind the British ocean liner Lusitania that was bombed by Germany before the U.S. entered the WWI.
The ocean liner Lusitania was bombed by German forces near Ireland in May 1915, after Germany warned the passengers about the possible dangers. As a result of the sinking, 1,198 people died, 128 of whom were American subjects.
Although there was public outcry in the U.S. after the sinking, the government did not over-react. This event as such did not automatically lead the US to declare war on Germany. Although the liner was sunk in 1915, America entered the war only in 1917. However, it became one of the milestones in the history of WWI and intensified anti-German sentiments among the Americans.
Similar to that, Turkey has not and will not declare war on Israel solely as a result of this raid as such, naturally. However, it is also true that this will lead to further escalation of relations between the governments.
If we consider Turkey’s relationship to Palestine, it is seen that domestic policy making is the major engineer. Turkey’s aid to Gaza does not only aim at helping the people there, but it is also a critical political move that will stop the declining votes, caused by the newly-elected opponent leader Kilicdaroglu. Turkey’s readiness for clash in Israel, on the other hand, aims at expanding its spheres of influence in Middle East and in the world by decreasing Israel’s ability to move. In short, while the Palestinian side of the story is directed at securing the leadership at home (among other humanitarian reasons), the Israeli policy of Turkey aims at expanding Turkish influence abroad. However, Turkey’s two-tier approach to issues in the Middle East have not worked out as expected.
Although Turkey could take the crew back from Israel through international pressure, she could not get full support from the US government. Obama’s wait and see policy is soon replaced by Biden’s statements about Israel’s legitimate right to check the flotillas. Biden’s statements show that on the American side, the dilemma between the two allies no longer exists.
The major reason for American support to Israel is Turkey’s unwillingness to sanction Iran in the way U.S. and Israel want.
Considering the economic and political implications, Turkey’s relatively softer approach to Iran is understandable. It is known that Turkey and Iran has around 10 billion dollars of trade volume. Moreover, conservatives that support Palestine in Turkey support Iran, too, when there is Israel, as the other.
Although Turkish government could arouse reaction against Israel from international bodies, Turkey seems to be left alone by the US government, as Biden’s statements show. Turkish government tries to reconcile the domestic opinion about Iran and Palestine while keeping America on her side.
At present, the U.S. has two major allies that are really concerned about Iran in the region, Israel and Turkey. The Iran question forces the US government to make a decision between the two allies in the short term. Biden’s words reflect that it will be the Israeli government that will have priority over Turkey. In addition to Biden, the recent compromise in the UN about the sanctions in Iran makes it more difficult for Turkey to prevent harsh sanctions to Iran.
Iran is the fixed foot of the compass in the Middle East nowadays, to which most of the movements are tied. With the Gaza reaction, Turkey aimed at gaining time and space in Middle East about Iran through international platforms. A large-scale US-engineered movement against Iran will decrease Turkey’s influence, while making Israel the major geopolitical power in the region. Turkey wants to stop or at least slower this process with the Gaza reaction, but the US-Israeli partnership does not agree.
What is significant about the Israeli raid and the Turkish reaction, lastly, is that there is a new clash added to the world politics, namely, the Turkish-Israeli clash. On the side of Turkey, there were already many problems that have been waiting solution, such as the questions about Armenia and Cyprus. And now, a new concern has been added to the Turkish foreign policy: Israel.
Erhan Simsek, MA
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