The deep rift between Turkey and Israel did not emerge on board the Marmara. The big question is whether there is a way back from the Gaza-bound sail or whether the strategic alliance is completely hopeless – and what’s worse: Will the great friendship turn into outright hostility?
The collision course can be traced back to the beginning of the past decade, ever since the Islamic Justice and Development party took power in Ankara. Prime Minister Erdogan, President Abdullah Gul, and Foreign Minister Ahmed Davutoglu, all come from a clear Islamic background.
These officials have political, social, and business ties with Islamic states such as Saudi Arabia and Malaysia, rather than with the West. Unlike their predecessors, and in blatant contradiction to the spirit of Modern Turkey’s founder Ataturk, they no longer believe in cultural Islam only - one of symbols and ceremonies; they espouse political Islam, which brings them ideologically closer to Hamas and mostly to the Muslim Brothers.
On the declaratory front, Turkey still aspires to join the European Union. However, if during Ataturk’s rule Ankara faced the West with its back to the East, during Erdogan’s era it took a step back and declared that it intends to serve as a bridge. Yet with the passage of time it turns out that it places more weight on its Middle Eastern leg.
However, Ankara is not only looking to the Arab Middle East at this time. Before our eyes, it forges a classic independent and non-aligned policy: On the one hand, it is not in Iran’s pocket and avoids entering an official three-way alliance with Tehran and Damascus. For that reason, it joined forces with Brazil, another non-aligned state, to formulate the last uranium-enrichment deal with Iran.
On the other hand, Turkey is looking to the Arab street today, where it is increasingly perceived as the breaker of the Gaza siege, and seemingly leads the struggle better than Arab leaders - who do not take pleasure in the belligerent tone coming from Ankara in recent days.
Under Erdogan, Israel turned from an intimate strategic partner into a state like all others, and almost into a burden. The ties with it have become hostage to the Palestinian issue, and also to Hamas. The Turkish PM did not hesitate to embarrass Mahmoud Abbas and became the first world leader to invite Hamas heads for an official visit following their 2006 election win.
No interest in cutting all ties
The Turkish army also underwent a change. If in the past we got used to seeing the military get involved when the secular establishment was in danger, now, because of the reforms demanded of Erdogan by Europe and steps he took on his own initiative, the Turkish army is weakened, as is the case with the National Security Agency and Turkish Foreign Minister – two more Kamelist strongholds.
At this time, Turkey does not have an absolute interest in cutting all ties with Israel. Hence, it will not be rushing into such rash move. Ankara can continue to pummel Israel, while maintaining the ties. On the other hand, the Turks can jump on the peace bandwagon as a mediator, should something progress after all. Yet the lively protests and testimonials from the ship posed another test for the fragile relationship. Downgrading diplomatic ties, annulling all military ties, and expelling the Israeli ambassador are all possible.
In addition, it appears that Turkey aims to cause great damage for Israel in the international theater and be especially blunt in the process. The calls for convening the Security Council and NATO were merely the first harbinger. We may certainly see a Turkish demand to indict senior Israeli officials at an international tribunal. Turkey’s membership in the Security Council may also undermine Israel in respect to sanctions on Iran.
And what about the security aspects? It’s hard to believe that Turkey and Israel will clash directly. Ankara makes sure to remain on the international community’s legitimate side. On the other hand, who knows what will happen with Israeli technologies sold to the Turks, who are currently tightening their ties with Tehran and Damascus? Who knows whether Turkey will not allow Iranian planes carrying weapons to Syria/Lebanon to pass through Turkish airspace?
So how long will this last? The near future does not bode well. Erdogan is facing a referendum aimed at passing more reforms that will weaken the army and courts even further. His harsh speeches at parliament certainly gave him some backwind, and his chances of winning the referendum are good. Next in line are the general elections, expected to be held in about a year, with Erdogan coming in as a politically strong prime minister. After the elections, we’ll have a better idea about the direction Turkey is heading to.