Turkey’s foreign policy toward Israel has been ambivalent since 1949, although Turkey was the second Muslim-majority nation to recognize Israel as a state. In a historical context, Israel has always been a U.S. ally, whereas almost all Arab Muslim-majority states have been against the U.S. and during the Cold War were closer to the Soviet Union. In this political landscape, Turkey has adopted a policy which is based on a balanced position. While Turkey has maintained political relations and shared common strategic interests with Israel, it avoids declaring itself a strategic ally of Israel, in order to maintain its cultural and economic relations with the Arab world. In particular, the militarization of Turkish politics in the late 1990s has expanded the relationship between Turkey and Israel in the context of security problems. Those relations have taken a new face with the AKP’s (Justice and Development Party) era because the new Turkish government has pursued a foreign policy which aims to give Turkey a key role in the Arab-Muslim world.
The core elements of the new policy can be seen in the books of current Foreign Minister AhmetDavutoðlu, who is the main architect of Turkey's new foreign policy and known as a successful politician in applying his theoretical vision to the real world. In his work Strategic Depth (StratejikDerinlik), Davutoðlu highlights the main vectors of the current foreign policy of Turkey and suggests that in the 20th century political administrations in Ankara were not aware of the potential of being the successor to the Ottoman heritage. In his view, they therefore failed to use Turkey’s historical and geopolitical advantages. He argues that Turkey should leave its prejudices against Muslim countries and seek economic and cultural cooperation in the region. That is probably why Turkey sets its primary objective in the region as having “zero problems” with its neighbors. Hence, according to the foreign minister, improving ties with the Middle Eastern countries is not an option for Turkey but a necessity. Probably the rediscovery of the Middle East by Turkey stands in relation to the political approach of the EU to its membership process. The so-called “let Turkey go” policy of some EU countries has paved the way for Turkey’s shift toward the East following a more assertive regional policy.
Many relevant facts support the point Davutoglu raises, such as geographic location, military power, economic strength and cultural influence. Turkey’s so-called “strategic location” between Europe, the Middle East and Asia provides it with a unique opportunity to host various economic, political and cultural cornerstones connecting various countries across multiple policy fields. First of all, Turkey is an energy corridor because the neighboring countries such as Iran, Azerbaijan and Iraq are essential energy suppliers. The geographic location also provides a strategic importance for Turkey as a NATO member, a U.S. ally and an EU candidate. Having a longstanding chaotic political, economic and military history but important energy resources, the Middle East constitutes a perplexing dilemma particularly for the U.S., Russia, the EU and increasingly China as well. Therefore, a relatively stable, strong, democratic country at the gate of the region allures the attention of the global stakeholders in the region.
According to Global Firepower, Turkey possesses the sixth-strongest military power in the world and the second-largest armed forces in NATO after the U.S. In a region where military might is considered an imperative for a stable political regime, having such a military advantage provides Turkey with strong leverage in establishing its model in the region. Furthermore, Turkey is yet to acquire nuclear weapons, which will definitely increase its military capacity dramatically. All these also make Turkey an important barrier against Iran, which has increasingly been considered a major threat to regional and global security.
Turkey is the seventeenth-largest economy in the world. It has the second-highest population in the Middle East after Egypt, and also in Europe (excluding Russia) after Germany. Turkey has already been emerging as an investor in many neighboring economies. For some economists, like Frank Holmes, its high level of private consumption also means that it could serve as an economic anchor for the region. In 2011, Turkey’s GDP grew about eight percent, faster than many of the country’s emerging market counterparts. Furthermore, Turkey is a member of G20, the WTO, IMF and several other international organizations, which makes Turkey a more dependable economic actor in a highly unstable region.
A number of free trade agreements (FTAs) with most Middle Eastern countries since 2000 indicates the country’s significantly growing economic activism in the region. Joint business councils were established with Syria, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates in 2005, with Qatar, Kuwait and Oman in 2006, and finally, with Libya and Israel in 2007. As a result of these efforts, Turkey’s exports to the Middle East and North Africa have increased remarkably.
As the heir to the Ottoman Empire, Turkey has a historical mission in the region when it comes to cultural matters. From food to dressing, from architecture to daily life, and more recently from movies to fashion; Turkey already enjoys a cultural hegemony on the region. Turkey’s cultural relations with the Middle East have also developed considerably since 2000. The most important indicator of this development has been the cultural exchange agreements signed between Turkey and several Middle East countries following the takeover by the AKP government in 2002. As a result, Turkey’s cultural cooperation with many countries in the region has rapidly developed in the fields of fashion, education and tourism. For instance, after a decrease in the second half of the 1990s, according to figures provided by the tourism ministry in Ankara, the number of tourists visiting Turkey from the Middle Eastern countries has reached a peak of 2.5 million in 2007 and has doubled in each consecutive year since then. With this tremendous increase in the number of Arab visitors to Turkey, as some Arab observers note, Istanbul replaced Beirut as the top Arab tourism destination.
The increase of Turkey’s influence also derives from its political performance in the Middle East because it has increasingly become an outlet for the frustrations of Arab-Muslim countries. Partly responsible for this development is a lack of an effective Arab-Muslim leader-state, which could strongly demonstrate the interest of Arab-Muslim countries in the international arena and in the confrontation with Israel. This gives Turkey a historical chance to become a “role model,” a term frequently used by AKP commentators. Political analyst Bertrand Badie of the Center for International Studies and Research in Paris observes that: “Turkey is probably trying to take benefit from the political vacuum in the Arab world as Turkey is more and more powerful in the region. The relationships between Turkey and its Arab neighbors – as well as Israel – will be less warm but probably more efficient and powerful.”
Turkey under the AKP uses Islam in its rhetoric. The AKP also utilizes anti-Israel sentiments in the region. These have permitted it to impose its influence on the region. To build up on such a hegemonic relationship through an Islamic agenda, Israel, as IdrisAhmedi puts it, “is certainly a useful punching bag for Turkey in its pursuit of domestic and regional popularity.” Ahmedi argues that “after watching for the past three decades as Iran successfully used anti-Zionism to establish its credentials as the regional champion of Islam and Muslims, the AKP has realized that hegemony in a region with an Arab majority cannot be achieved without opposing Israel.”
In using anti-Israeli sentiments in the region as a means to increase its influence, the Gaza aid flotilla served well the aim of the Turkish government which seeks to delegitimize and isolate Israel. So far, it seems like the Turkish tactic has been effective in the rest of the world, except the U.S., which was the only country to oppose the U.N. resolution that condemned the Israeli attack on the flotilla. Turkey’s rigid stance on the flotilla issue has resonated much more positively particularly in the Arab world. Being aware of the political gains of its attacks on Israel, it is likely that the Turkish government will continue to denounce Israel. Two strong allies of recent times, thus, are now destined to an increasingly deteriorating relationship.
To sum up, Turkey’s foreign policy has significantly changed in recent years and obviously shifted toward the Middle East. Israel seems to be challenged by this new occurrence. Erdogan’s way may gain popularity in the Middle East and in the rest of the Arab-Muslim world, but it can become an obstacle to continuing “business as usual” with Israel as long as trade and military arrangements remain the cards Israel can play. Policy makers of Turkey probably attribute substantial importance to the strategic cooperation and economic relations with Israel. This is simply because Turkey’s ostensible regional aspirations require a certain level of diplomatic and economic relations with Israel, an important player in the Middle East and a closer U.S. ally. In this constellation, Erdogan has but limited room to maneuver.
*Kenan Engin is lecturer at the University of Heidelberg (International Relations)
*Cevat Dargin is graduate student in political science at the Brooklyn College of CUNY
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