Paul Alster had a column yesterday in the Times of Israel predicting a reconciliation between Israel and Turkey. Seems like a reasonable enough proposition, particularly in light of the news that Israel has repaired and returned four Heron drones belonging to Turkey after agreeing to fix them over a year ago. Sure, there are other factors to weigh, such as the Turkish warning to Israel just last week not to violate Northern Cyprus’s airspace or the reports of Turkey vetoing Israel’s participation in this weekend’s NATO summit, but let’s assume that Paul Alster is a glass half full kind of guy. Reasonable people can differ on this issue, and for every sign that the freeze between the two countries is only getting deeper, there are signs of thawing in the relationship.
On the other hand, the specific arguments made by Alster in support of the proposition that Turkey and Israel are going to mend their relationship border on the patently ridiculous, and his command of the facts is, to put it charitably, a bit suspect. Let’s look at some representative examples.
Erdogan (who went out of his way to antagonize and inflame relations with Israel at every possible opportunity) seems to have realized what a grave misjudgement he made in allying himself to two of the most despotic leaders on the planet, and by association being tarnished with the very dirty brush that has seen them gain pariah status across the globe.
I hardly think that Turkey has been tarnished with any brush that puts it at risk of becoming a pariah. At the moment, Turkey is being touted as a model by all sorts of Islamist political parties across the Arab world, is increasingly relied upon by the United States as a vital ally in the Middle East, has the second largest military of all NATO members, is once again making some progress on its EU bid, and is universally viewed as one of the most important actors of the coming decades. Does this sound to you like Turkey’s international status has been put at risk in any way? Undoubtedly Turkey waited too long to give up on Assad, but after that initial stumble Turkey’s reputation does not seem very much worse for the wear.
Exactly what was truly behind Erdogan’s posturing is hard to figure, as he had long been pushing for membership in the EU, and his cozying up to Iran and Syria was hardly likely to endear him to Turkey‘s potential European partners. This ill-conceived strategic gamble has clearly backfired and quickly blown up in Erdogan’s face. The prospect of the EU admitting a new member-state that is joined at the hip with two of the world’s most corrupt and authoritarian regimes was never going to prove a vote winner in Brussels; the tactic seeming to reveal a significant flaw in the political maneuvering of a man who has gradually been losing his way, only three years after he appeared to be a major player with growing influence on the international scene.
Hard as it may be to figure out for Alster, let’s see if we can come up with some reason for Erdoğan’s “posturing” in which he tried to develop closer ties with his neighbors. Might it be Turkey’s stated policy of zero problems with neighbors? Guess it wasn’t that hard to figure out after all.
As for this argument with regard to the EU, Turkey was not exactly sailing effortlessly toward EU membership before it consciously improved its relations with Syria and Iran. More saliently, there are a number of reasons why Turkey is having problems with its accession bid, from European cultural bias to worrying government suppression of the press to discredited witch hunts of military officers. Being “joined at the hip” with Iran and Syria is so far down the list of things that EU member states are worried about that to mention it betrays a staggering lack of knowledge about the real issues surrounding Turkey’s EU bid.
A PLAY IN ONE ACT
Herman van Rompuy: Nice to see you again Tayyip. I must say, you have made amazing progress in your efforts to join the EU. Who would have thought that just months after Sarkozy was out of office you would have made your peace with Cyprus and successfully negotiated all 35 chapters needed to gain accession to our club? We have never before seen such singleminded devotion by an EU applicant.
Recep Tayyip Erdoğan: Thank you Herman. My fellow countrymen and I are most excited to take our spots in the European Commission, the European Council, the Council of Europe, and your various other bodies that have such wonderfully differentiated names. So when do I get my official EU membership badge?
Herman van Rompuy: Unfortunately, you made the grave mistake of being joined at the hip with Syria and Iran, which is the single greatest flaw we have ever encountered from a prospective EU member and is the subject of the double secret 36th chapter which you have now violated. As such, you are no longer considered to be a “major player with growing influence” – after all, your credibility with Iran, Pakistan, and Sunni Arab states is worthless to us, as is your rapidly expanding economy and military strength. Please confine yourself to Kadıköy and all points east from now on, as we have voted in Brussels to revoke your Europe visitation privileges.
In recent months, with Iran becoming increasingly isolated by the international community as a result of its alleged development of nuclear weapons, and the Syrian government continuing to massacre large numbers of its own people while driving many more to seek refuge in Turkey — causing a growing humanitarian crisis within Turkey’s own borders — Erdogan’s government, amid rumors that Ankara is keen to re-establish relations with Jerusalem, has been noticeably short on its previously stinging anti-Israel rhetoric.
Right, I forgot about how popular Israel is among the international community. That BBC poll released just last week revealing Israel to be ranked above only Iran and Pakistan in favorability, and in which majorities in Spain, France, Germany, and Britain viewed Israel negatively, didn’t accurately capture the public relations value in Europe for Turkey of cozying up to Israel following Iran’s isolation and Syria’s horrific massacre of civilians (both of which everyone knows are Turkey’s fault, of course). That is precisely why Turkey’s top officials have in the past six months ceased berating reporters for not focusing on Israel’s nuclear weapons or accusing Israel of not wanting peace with the Palestinians or bragging about isolating Israel and bringing it to its knees. Isn’t it great how that previously stinging rhetoric has just disappeared?
This easing of the tensions in the eastern Mediterranean is surely more down to necessity on the part of the Turks than to a sea change in the attitude of their leader. With the door to Europe slammed in their face, Syria and Iran remaining on the international blacklist, no improvement in their relationship with Greece, and problems on their eastern front with Syrian refugees and Kurdish separatists, Turkey is surely keen to find friends in the region.
Yes, Turkey’s isolation is really terrible. Granted, the P5+1 talks were held in Istanbul last month, and Turkey is fresh off the NATO summit in Chicago, and Turkey’s approval rating in the Arab world is 78%, but Turkey is still desperate for a friend, and that is why it is going to make up with Israel. Not because the world’s superpower is pushing for it, not because it benefits Turkey’s tourism industry and export markets, not because the two countries have a long history of military cooperation, but because Turkey is feeling terribly isolated and lonely. I mean, everyone knows that Turkey is just another term for Iranian/Syrian province, right? And oh, let’s not forget about Alster’s reference to Turkey’s “majority secular population” in which 83% of Turks identify themselves as religious and 55% self-identify as either “extremely” or “highly” religious.
I could go on, but I think you get the point. I do not know what your expertise is, Mr. Alster, but it is clearly not this. Israel and Turkey may very well reconcile, but just as a broken clock showing the right time twice a day is not evidence that it is working, an Israeli-Turkish rapprochement will not be a testament to your analytical skills in the realm of foreign affairs.