The Turks' initial enthusiasm about the Arab Spring has passed and they are apparently no longer convinced that the Middle East is waiting just for them.
By Amos Harel |
|Erdogan wearing an Arab outfit of Saudi Arabian Wahhabists|
ISTANBUL − A short visit here this week reveals the discomfiture of the Turks − at least among the “talking heads” engaged in various forms of strategic analysis: diplomats, members of research institutes, businessmen, journalists − in the face of recent extreme developments in the Middle East. Five or six years ago, the ruling Islamic-based Justice and Development Party presented its regional policy as one of “zero conflicts.” Turkish dominance was to be achieved on the basis of leadership and economic ability, which would restore Ankara to the frontline status once held by the empire, after decades of observing developments in the Arab world from the side. That aspiration was not realized: Within a relatively short time, the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan managed to become embroiled in disputes with many of the country’s neighbors.
But the ambition remained. Turkey offered mediation services almost everywhere in the region, and in some cases received positive responses. In the early months of the Arab Spring, it appeared to Erdogan and his colleagues that things were going their way. The possibility of leading the bloc of Sunni Arab states and setting an example for the sister movements of the Muslim Brotherhood in countries like Egypt, Tunisia and Syria looked promising. Longtime adversaries of Erdogan, such as President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, were removed. The regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad was teetering, and for a moment it looked as though the Syrian version of the Brotherhood could succeed him.
But the past two years have been gloomier. The Turks’ initial enthusiasm about the Arab Spring has passed; they are apparently no longer convinced that the Middle East is waiting just for them. The romanticism has disappeared from Turkey’s perception of its regional role, and what even some Turks see as an obsession about the country’s leadership role in the region has dissipated.
All this is, of course, inseparable from the rivers of blood that have flowed in the streets of Arab cities. Notwithstanding their aggressive declarations against Assad, the Turks were unsuccessful in making a decisive move to topple his regime. They are also on the receiving end of some of the consequences of the Syrian civil war, which is now in the second half of its third year. About half-a-million Syrian refugees live in temporary camps scattered across Turkey. Ankara still refers to them as “guests” (meaning that the United Nations has not been caring for them in any official, organized fashion), and has already spent about $1 billion on them. The fighting in Syria sometimes spreads into Turkish territory, and this situation has spawned a bleak atmosphere of helplessness. A two-fold concern is beginning to gnaw at Ankara: that the Assad regime will survive despite all the efforts to topple it, and that even if it does fall, the new tone will be set not by a moderate local version of the Muslim Brotherhood but by Al-Qaida’s army of fanatic mercenaries, with their dozens of factions in Syria.
The situation in Egypt is hardly more encouraging, from Ankara’s perspective. Erdogan observed with great frustration the military coup that sent his friend, President Mohammed Morsi, to jail. At the end of August, no longer able to restrain himself, he issued one of his off-the-wall anti-Israel diatribes, blaming Jerusalem for the coup. The White House, not Israel, responded with a public reprimand of the Turkish prime minister for his conspiracy theory − yet another insult that was duly noted and documented in Ankara.
But like many Israelis, even Turks who are not fans of Erdogan have been astonished at American policy in the region in recent months. Ankara believed it would be able to persuade Washington to mount a punitive operation in reaction to the Assad regime’s extensive use of chemical weapons. President Barack Obama’s hesitation, after an initial commitment to attack, was received with disappointment in Turkey, despite the agreement to dismantle the Syrians’ chemical weapons that was achieved with Russian intervention. Turkey, like Israel, is apprehensive that the United States is gradually folding its flags in the region and that Washington’s military backing for its actions will no longer be as firm as it was.
In the meantime, Erdogan has faced rising domestic problems. The large-scale public protests in June, triggered by a local dispute over the preservation of a park in Istanbul, brought to the surface the frustration felt by many segments of Turkish society at the regime’s policy. They are appalled at the aggressive repression of dissidents, many of whom, among them army generals and journalists who were critical of the regime, have been jailed. Erdogan’s critics claim he is under pressure and is making many mistakes. They also see the series of policy changes he declared this week, which along with goodwill gestures toward the Kurds includes the lifting of the ban against women in the civil service covering their faces with veils, as being aimed at improving his diminished popularity in public opinion.
Highly charged dispute
In the background of all this is Turkey’s highly charged dispute with Israel. Underlying the tension is the rise of the Islamists to power in Turkey, their anger at Israeli policy toward the Palestinians, and Erdogan’s own personality. Indeed, the blatant lack of chemistry between the Turkish prime minister and his Israeli counterpart, Benjamin Netanyahu, was obvious from the first moment. However, there were three key developments in the deterioration in relations: Israel’s Operation Cast Lead against Hamas (the sister party of the Justice and Development Party) in the Gaza Strip immediately after the visit of then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to Ankara, when Erdogan tried to reignite Israeli-Syrian negotiations and Olmert did not update him about Israel’s intentions; the 2010 humiliation of the Turkish ambassador to Israel, who was made to sit on a low chair in a meeting with the deputy foreign minister at the time, Danny Ayalon; and, above all, the Marmara episode, in which Israel intercepted a flotilla to Gaza in May 2010.
The protracted crisis between the two countries has already generated a minor industry of conciliatory initiatives. They have yet to reach the scale of the Israeli-Palestinian peace industry, which has organized hundreds of conferences around the world in the past few decades, with a traveling show of players from all sides. Still, the tension between the former allies is today attracting no few do-gooders from the international community. In comparison to a similar conference that was held a year ago in Rome, the meeting I attended this week in Istanbul, a conference of researchers from Turkey, Israel and Germany, actually produced a modicum of progress. In Rome, most of the participants, from both sides, believed that the Marmara affair was unbridgeable and that Netanyahu, and still more Erdogan, had no interest in resolving it. But then, last March, Obama visited Israel, and Netanayhu acceded to his request to call Erdogan and apologize for the flotilla incident.
The Turks are still putting forward two demands as conditions for an official end to the crisis with Jerusalem: Israeli compensation to the families of the nine activists who were killed when naval commandos boarded the Marmara; and Israel’s lifting of its siege of Gaza.
The payment of compensation is being delayed because of what is being termed Israeli concern about precedents. The siege question has become less relevant, but Erdogan is ignoring that fact. Indeed, since the coup in Egypt three months ago, Cairo has outdone Israel in imposing a tight closure on the Gaza Strip via the Rafah terminal and in embittering the life of Hamas. Israel relaxed the closure considerably immediately after the Marmara episode, in response to international pressure. Even now, it is Israel that is stepping up the traffic of trucks into Gaza, at the request of the Palestinian Authority − thereby indirectly aiding Hamas − with the aim of preventing the dire economic situation in the Strip from becoming even worse.
But the core problem remains the complete lack of trust between the leaders. Erdogan apparently is not interested in completing a public reconciliation process with Israel before the presidential elections in Turkey next summer, in which he is expected to run. Having assailed Israel so sharply, he has reason to fear that he will be perceived as zigzagging if he now reaches a compromise with Netanyahu. For a long period it looked as though Erdogan was profiting from Ankara’s persistent tension with Jerusalem, even enjoying it. It became clear in retrospect that his public admonishment of President Shimon Peres at the Davos conference in 2009, after Operation Cast Lead, was not a spontaneous flare-up but rather a pre-planned provocation on an international stage.
The crisis in Israeli-Turkish relations has had a serious negative impact on the economic ties between the two countries, particularly in the realm of tourism. In the past few years, the number of Israeli tourists going to Turkey annually declined by half a million, to about 100,000 a year (though there was a substantial rise during the Jewish holidays this fall, perhaps due to the signs of reconciliation). On the other hand, in this period, tourism to Turkey from other countries increased by 6.5 million people, so the Turks see no cause for concern. Defense-related commercial ties between Israel and Turkey are all but frozen. In the overall balance, Turkey is more important to Israel, in both imports and exports, than Israel is to the vast and constantly growing Turkish market.
Yet despite all this, there is a powerful light shining at the end of the tunnel. It stems from Israel’s natural-gas resources. The Turks, as some of the participants in the Istanbul conference made abundantly clear, are still very much interested in signing a major deal for the purchase of natural gas from the fields that have been discovered by Israel in the Mediterranean. The Turkish economy increasingly needs gas, and Ankara feels that it is currently too dependent on its chief suppliers, among them Russia and Iran, which are also charging high prices. Decisions need to be made quickly. Israel has designated 2014 as the year in which it will decide where to export its gas, and other options loom in the background, among them a deal with Cyprus.
Intensive talks on the subject are being held by Israel and Turkey, but much depends on Erdogan himself. He is so far not taking a stand and is letting the talks proceed. In the end, it is up to the political decision-makers, including the prime minister. Theoretically, at least, such a deal could create an opening for a great improvement in the relations between the two countries. At this stage, after all the regional upheavals and the crises between Israel and Turkey, no one is deluding himself into thinking that the passionate strategic love affair of the 1990s can repeat itself. However, the partial reconciliation achieved in March under Obama’s mediation, together with the opportunity for a gas deal, has cast a slightly more optimistic light on the darkened relations between Jerusalem and Ankara.