Turkey, Israel tension linked to Ankara's new alliances


ISLAMIC-TINTED ideology and a new Turkish emphasis on soft power over military may lie at the heart of a double crisis that has engulfed once-close ties between Israel and Turkey this week.

Relations between the two countries, tense since Israel’s attacks on the Gaza Strip last year, were dented last weekend when Israel protested at being excluded from joint airforce exercises in Turkish airspace.

The two countries’ militaries have been closely connected since the 1990s, when Israel provided Turkey with intelligence and software in its war against Kurdish separatism. Turkey and Israel were joined by their mutual mistrust of Iran and Syria, which sheltered Kurdish rebels until 1998.

Today, Turkey is working to end a Kurdish war that has claimed 40,000 lives since 1984, and Syria has gone from being enemy number one to Ankara’s best friend.

On Tuesday, the day the joint exercise was due to start, Turkey signed a civil and defence co-operation deal with Syria, which included an agreement to abolish mutual entry visa requirements.

While Turkish prime minister Tayyip Erdogan said he was following “public opinion” in excluding Israel from the exercises, analysts say he was probably gesturing as much at Syria.

Turkey’s new emphasis on “no problems on its borders” was in evidence again on Thursday, when Mr Erdogan flew to Baghdad to sign more than 40 memorandums of understanding, including one to export Iraqi natural gas to Turkey.

“Turkey’s influence in the region is expanding rapidly and it no longer feels it needs Israel as much as it did in the past,” said foreign affairs analyst Soli Ozel.

Turkey’s growing indifference to Israel is mirrored in the rapid growth in its trade to the Arab world. The Middle East and north Africa’s share in Turkey’s total trade has grown from 11.4 per cent of total volume in 2002 to 16.2 per cent today. But the crisis with Israel this week also has to do with the Turkish government’s sensitivity to the ongoing humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip.

“At an international conference in Sharm el-Sheikh this September, a number of countries, including Turkey, pledged sizeable donations” for the reconstruction of Gaza, said Suat Kiniklioglu, deputy chairman of external affairs for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

“Israel is not allowing construction materials in. This upsets Mr Erdogan greatly.”

Columnist Kadri Gursel said he believed Turkish-Israeli relations would have been slowly downgraded even if a secular-minded government was in power in Ankara. “The difference is that the AKP, for ideological reasons, has pushed through that change more brutally.”

On Wednesday, tensions over the cancellation of military exercises grew when Turkey’s state-run television channel, TRT, screened the first episode of a new series, Separation. Set in the Gaza Strip and replete with graphic scenes of Israeli soldiers shooting children and newborn babies dead, it sparked outrage in Israel and Turkey.

A series that “presents Israeli soldiers as the murderers of innocent children would not be appropriate in an enemy country and certainly not in a state which maintains diplomatic relations with Israel”, Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman said on Thursday.

Asked about the series yesterday, Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu said: “The foreign ministry is not an advisory board for television series. Autonomous bodies follow their own editorial policy, and we do not obstruct them.”

Headed by a board appointed by the Islamic-rooted government, however, TRT has long been criticised in Turkey for rehashing the government’s line.

While Mr Erdogan has repeatedly condemned anti-Semitism, his party has its roots in political Islam, which is staunchly anti-Israeli and often anti-Semitic.

A spokesman for Turkey’s 20,000-strong Jewish community said the series risked increasing anti-Semitic feeling in Turkey by presenting “political clashes in Israel as a religious war”.

Despite Turkish diplomats’ predilection for visiting their new allies in the Middle East and the growing coldness of relations with Israel, analysts believe it may be too soon to say Turkey is drifting out of the West’s orbit towards the Middle East.