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The crisis in Turkish-Israeli relations: what is its strategic significance?

Things change quite fast in international relations. Not long ago, a leading scholar on Turkish foreign policy made the following observation:
   During the Eighth Summit of the
   Organization of the Islamic Conference
   (OIC) in Tehran, 9-11 December
   1997, Turkey was strongly criticized
   by member states for its cordial relations
   with Israel and for its incursions
   into northern Iraq in pursuit of rebels
   belonging to the illegal Kurdish Workers
   Party (PKK). These two items
   were incorporated into the summit
   resolutions, and several leaders,
   including Egypt's Husni Mubarak,
   Syria's Hafiz al-Asad and Iran's Hashemi
   Rafsanjani, condemned Ankara's
   behavior in their speeches as hostile to
   Arab and Muslim interests. (1)

Eleven years later, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was being praised by Syria's Asad, Iran's Ahmedinejad and--if not so wholeheartedly--Egypt's Mubarak for his support to the Palestinians. Following Erdogan's abrupt walk-out from the Davos summit in 2009, his posters were displayed at demonstrations in Yemen and the West Bank. In fact, Turkish diplomacy has been so assertive that Arab leaders have had to declare that the Palestinian issue was an internal Arab matter. (2) In recent years, Turkey has been consistently turning its face away from Israel and distancing itself from the West. A decade ago, it was on the brink of war with Syria, (3) and it had formed a regional alliance system with Israel. (4) Now, commentators are debating a Turkish-Israeli diplomatic confrontation, and no day passes without a bitter exchange of words between Turkish and Israeli counterparts. Erdogan calls Israel the main threat in the region. Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman calls Erdogan another Chavez. Turkey has canceled its regular military exercises with Israel, and is forging a new economic and security partnership with Syria. The two are holding joint military exercises for the first time in history. Turkey refuses to go along with the West in imposing economic sanctions against Iran, instead calling attention to Israeli nuclear weapons. In protest, Israel has refused to deliver advanced weapons systems such as naval missile interceptors to Turkey.

The most serious negative development in Turkish-Israeli relations was the June 2010 Israeli storming of an aid flotilla attempting to break the blockade that Israel had imposed on Hamas-run Gaza. The Israeli navy stormed the Turkish vessel Mavi Marmara, the largest vessel in international waters in the Mediterranean Sea, killing nine and injuring scores of other civilians onboard, the majority of whom were Turkish. Israel described the incident as normal self-defense, whereas Turkish statesmen called it an act of "piracy," " murder by a state" and "state terrorism."

What has brought about such a reversal in Turkish relations with Israel? Why has Turkey become increasingly active on the Palestinian question, appearing to be more concerned about it than many Arab regimes? Is this because of the alleged pro-Islamic identity of Turkey's leaders, domestic political considerations or Real-politik calculations?


Turkey was the first Muslim nation to recognize Israel in 1949. In the context of the Cold War, Israel was a U.S. ally, whereas major Arab powers were closer to the Soviet Union. Turkey followed a balanced policy toward Israel and the Arab world, as it shared common strategic interests with Israel but common cultural ties with the Arab world. During much of the Cold War, Turkey stayed out of Middle East politics and avoided presenting itself as an ally of Israel. It kept its relations with Israel at the level of chief of mission after the 1956 Arab-Israeli war. In 1980, Turkey protested Israel's declaration of Jerusalem as its capital and withdrew its consulate. Between 1983 and 1989, Prime Minister Turgut Ozal emphasized improved relations with the Arab world. As will be discussed in some detail below, Israel gained new meaning in the eyes of the Turkish security establishment after the Gulf War of 1991, because the intensified Kurdish insurgency in northern Iraq benefited from Baghdad's loss of territorial authority there and from the logistical support of Syria and Iran. The militarization of Turkish politics in the late 1990s provided the necessary context for a security alliance between Turkey and Israel.

Israel's storming of the Jenin refugee camp in April 2002--a raid that inflicted massive civilian casualties--and U.S. acquiescence in it contributed directly to negative public opinion in Turkey. U.S. President George Bush called Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon a man of peace. (5) In November 2002, the Justice and the Development Party of Tayyip Erdogan came to power with a parliamentary majority that qualified it to form a single-party government. Despite the Islamic background of the AKP leadership, the new government emphasized strong relations with Europe and the United States.

The event that changed the strategic context of the Middle East, adversely affecting relations between Turkey and Israel, was the Iraq War of 2003. The war created massive negative public opinion in Turkey against the United States and its main regional ally, Israel, which was highly supportive of the war. Many Turks saw Israel as close to Iraqi Kurdish groups and indirectly to PKK terrorists. In 2004, Israel's targeted assassination of Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, the blind quadriplegic spiritual leader of Hamas--and later that of his successor, Abdulaziz al-Rantisi--generated a massive protest in Turkey, prompting Prime Minister Erdogan to call Israel a "terrorist state." (6)

Nevertheless, Turkey maintained its security relations with Israel, and the Turkish government used it to play the role of honest broker in negotiations between Israel and Syria. However, Turkish-Israeli relations reached a low point as a result of Israel's three-week offensive in the Gaza Strip in December 2008 and January 2009, which killed 1,417 Palestinians, including 926 civilians. The Turkish government was particularly angry because a mere five days before the start of the operations, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was in Ankara, promising a peaceful approach to the question. The disproportionate losses--only 10 Israeli soldiers killed--and the evidence of massive shelling of Gaza's civilian population with white phosphorus were attested to by a Human Rights Watch report: "[Israel] fired white phosphorus repeatedly over densely populated areas, even when its troops weren't in the area and safer smoke shells were available. As a result, civilians needlessly suffered and died." (7) Turkey arranged to bring some of the injured children to its own hospitals, where Erdogan visited them personally.

Turkish leaders and public opinion reacted to Israel's Gaza operation in an unprecedentedly strong way. The government was particularly angry because, shortly before the attacks, Israeli officials visiting Turkey guaranteed that there would be no resort to a military option. With a sense of betrayal, the Turkish government immediately announced an end to its mediator diplomacy in assisting the negotiating process between Israel and Syria. Massive demonstrations were held in almost every city in the country. During the Davos economic summit of 2009, Prime Minister Erdogan participated in a panel discussion with Israeli President Shimon Peres, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon and Arab League chief Amr Moussa. However, a bitter exchange of words with Peres, whom Erdogan accused of "knowing how to kill children well," and continued interruptions by the chair provoked him to leave the panel in protest. Following this event, rela tions between Israel and Turkey deteriorated dramatically.

Israel has officially protested the television series "Separation" shown on TRT, the state-owned television and radio company, in which actors playing Israeli soldiers kill Palestinian civilians, including children. In reaction to this film, in January 2010, Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon publicly insulted the Turkish ambassador by seating him on a lower-level sofa and verbally rebuking Turkey in his presence. Ayalon told the television cameras in Hebrew, "[Note] that he is sitting in a lower chair and we are in the higher ones, that there is only an Israeli flag on the table and that we are not smiling." Turkey strongly protested this event and obtained an official apology from Israel. In his inauguration of TRT's Arabic channel, el-Turkiyya, Prime Minister Erdogan referred to Israel as the main threat in the region, declaring that "Turkey would not remain with its arms folded in the face of another attack by Israel against Gaza." (8) Meanwhile, Israeli Foreign Minister Lieberman compared Erdogan to Libyan leader Muamar Qadhafi and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Adding even further to the tension, on the eve of the nuclear-security summit organized by President Barack Obama in April 2010, Turkey highlighted the question of Israel's being the only nuclear power in the Middle East. It was widely speculated that the Israeli prime minister canceled his participation in the summit in anticipation that this question would be raised.

The Israeli storming of the international flotilla in May 31, 2010, further escalated the conflict. The international flotilla aimed to carry humanitarian aid to Gaza, breaking the two-year blockade that Israel had imposed on the Hamas-run Palestinian territory. Israeli navy commandos launched a helicopter attack in international waters on the Turkish-owned Mavi Marmara, the largest ship in the flotilla, killing and injuring scores of civilians onboard, the majority of whom were Turkish citizens. In the absence of Prime Minister Erdogan, who was on an official visit to Chile, the initial, somewhat muted, Turkish reaction came from Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc, who called it an act of piracy. Erdogan cut short his tour to return to Ankara and sent his foreign minister to New York to call for an emergency Security Council meeting. In Erdogan's terms, the Israeli action amounted to state terrorism: "They have once again showed to the world that they know how good they are at killing people." He warned Israel, "Turkey's hostility is as strong as its friendship is valuable." (9)


Kenneth Waltz's Man, the State, and War gave the study of international relations a template of analysis incorporating three alternative ways to examine causes of events. He calls them images. (10) The first image is the level of individual leadership, which sees international events as outcomes of idiosyncratic factors. The second image locates the cause on the level of domestic politics. Finally, causes of international events can be sought at the level of the international system. According to Waltz, the anarchical character of the international system is the main reason states fight wars. He discards individual and domestic-politics explanations as irrelevant to international politics. Waltz's later work, Theory of International Politics, is even more assertive in this regard. Here he calls theories that locate the causes of state behavior in the international system "systemic," and theories that locate them in individual and domestic levels "reductionist." (11)

In this article, I apply Waltz's template of analysis with two important differences. First, I do not share Waltz's statist paradigm, which regards international politics as an interplay of states and sees the causes of international events as solely resulting from the anarchical character of the international system. Waltz introduced the individual and domestic levels only to repudiate them. In analyzing the causes of the crisis in Turkish-Israeli relations, however, I do not reject the validity of individual-level variables and domestic politics. Secondly, I take Waltz's template but not his realist paradigm, which ignores the role of non-material factors, including perceptions, historical memory and national identity. Being a structural realist, Waltz did not discuss the role of identity or perceptions in international politics. However, these variables can be incorporated into the template at every level of analysis. Hence, a constructivist modification of the template is necessary to offer the ideational context of foreign policy that would supplement the material-structural context. However, such a modification would require escaping the equally statist interpretation of constructivism, such as the one formulated by Alexander Wendt. (12) Unlike Waltz, Wendt offers a social theory of international politics, but, in line with Waltz, he discards the role of individual and domestic-level actors to explain the foreign policy behavior of states. Both offer systemic theories that treat states as unitary actors speaking with one voice.

What we see in the case of Turkish-Israeli relations, however, is that individual and domestic-level explanations are not to be discarded totally. Attributing Turkey's new assertiveness in the Middle East only to international factors overlooks the agency of the Turkish political elite, whereas explaining it solely as an individual or domestic-politics-driven choice underestimates structural causes. (13) It is necessary to integrate all the levels in order to arrive at a more comprehensive explanation. On the individual level, the personality of the Turkish prime minister as well as the Israeli leaders can be said to have played a role. On the domestic level, one should examine the context of Turkish domestic politics and public opinion following the Iraq War. Furthermore, Turkish-Israeli relations can be seen as the locus of confrontation between the secularist military and the conservative civilian government. Finally, on the systemic inter-state level, where states are seen as singular and unitary entities, one should examine Turkey's interpretation of its own security and economic interests. In contributing to the crisis between Turkey and Israel, ideational and material factors at all these levels played a role.


According to Waltz, from the perspective of individual-level explanations, "Wars result from selfishness, from misdirected aggressive impulses, from stupidity." (14) He is critical of classical- realist approaches, such as those of Niebuhr and Morgenthau, that see the principal causes of war as human nature.

On the individual level, one can look at the psychological as well as the ideological background of leaders. This is the template that the domestic and international critics of Prime Minister Erdogan and his government appear to prefer. Erdogan comes from Istanbul's Kasimpasa district, known for its rowdy behavioral patterns, which he has frequently displayed in other domestic incidents. (15) In addition, he and other AKP leaders are personally sensitive to the Palestinian issue because of their Islamist backgrounds. Such explanations tend to frame Erdogan as an impatient prime minister who cannot handle international crises. According to one Israeli academic, "Just as the Kemalists were gearing up for accession to the European Union, Erdogan came along and emphasized the very elements they had tried to suppress for the past century." (16) However, this is an extremely shallow interpretation of the position of Turkish domestic actors in foreign policy, as Erdogan and his government have strong EU membership aspirations and are supportive of its reform process.

Undeniably Erdogan's personality has contributed to the dramatization of the crisis. A proud and charismatic leader, Erdogan has a low tolerance for being humiliated and deceived, as demonstrated by his actions during several events, including Davos. He is known as a politician who cannot hide his true feelings. His own perception of having been cheated by his Israeli partner, who promised him peace just two days before the Gaza attacks, made him angry. Furthermore, one cannot simply ignore the effect on his and his family's emotions of the humanitarian crisis in Palestine, in general, and Gaza, in particular. Perhaps a more circumspect leader would handle the crisis in a different way, but there would still be a crisis in relations due to factors located at other levels.

On the other hand, there have been many occasions when Erdogan has displayed an unemotional temperament. He demonstrated calm crisis management during the AKP closure case in 2008, when he was criticized by many as being excessively calm. Furthermore, he appears to be pragmatic rather than ideological. He singlehandedly defended allowing the passage of U.S. troops through Turkish territory during the Iraq War in 2003 and contracting Israeli firms in the demining of the 877 km border area between Turkey and Syria. Opposition had been mounted even by his own party to the latter project, which if implemented would have allowed Israeli firms to demine the area and use it for organic farming for 44 years. The parliament approved the project, but the Turkish Administrative Court rejected it on the pretext that demining and organic farming are two different matters. Erdogan defended the project in parliament, accusing his opponents of fascism: "We cannot arrive at an enlightened future with such a backward mentality." (17) The opposition accuses Erdogan of double-talk. In the words of Devlet Bahceli, leader of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), "Erdogan winks at Hamas but does not abandon Israel either." (18) Erdogan responded to Bahceli's calls for ending economic relations with Israel: "We are not running a grocery store." (19) With regard to Israel, "The AKP appears to have adopted an ideology-free approach towards Turkey's economic policies at home and abroad." (20)

Perhaps Erdogan has contributed to dramatizing the crisis, but focusing on his personality as the most important factor presents a distorted picture. We need to consider other variables to avoid such a reductionist approach. Erdogan and other politicians calculate their interests and operate within the constraints of domestic politics.


When analyzing foreign policy in liberal democracies, one must take into account the political calculations of domestic actors. Robert D. Putnam describes the interaction between domestic politics and international politics as two-level games. (21) In liberal democracies, foreign-policy decisions reflect both the national and international levels. The concerns of societal and political actors will be taken into consideration when governments interact with other states.

Democratic peace theory also links the democratic nature of domestic political structures to foreign-policy behavior, emphasizing that liberal democratic states solve their differences through nonviolent means for both institutional/structural and normative reasons. In democratic regimes, the electoral process, public opinion, division of power and other legal-political restrictions limit the chances for belligerent behavior. However, this does not explain why democratic states are more aggressive towards nondemocratic regimes. Here, the normative explanation offers help, arguing that democratic regimes have similar normative preferences and cultures, which bring them closer. (22)

Turkish-Israeli relations do not lend support to normative explanations of democratic peace theory, as they were negatively affected by the fact that both countries are democracies. Democracies allow public opinion to play a role, so that competition among domestic political actors appears to be in sync with public concerns. From a domestic perspective, Israeli attacks on Gaza in the winter of 2008-09 were motivated by the Kadima party's need to appear tough in the run-up to the general elections of February 2009. The Israeli government's failure to stop the rocket shelling from Gaza and secure the release of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier captured by Hamas in 2006, became major electoral issues for Kadima. The Gaza attacks, however, alienated Turkish public opinion and strengthened sympathies towards Palestinians. The Turkish government, facing important municipal elections in March 2009, needed to take control of an angry public. Characterized by conflict among the secularist establishment, Islamists and Kurdish nationalists, Israel was always a domestic political issue.

Historically, Turkey's close ties to Israel have been perceived as a reflection of Turkey's secularist identity, especially vis-a-vis the growing Islamist challenge. (23) Turkey also has a strong pro-Israeli business and intellectual lobby that desired warm relations between the two countries. Third, relations with Israel gained a strategic value for the Turkish military establishment because of the Kurdish insurgency. In addition, because of Syrian support to the Kurdish insurgents, those who advocated a military solution to the Kurdish problem regarded Israel strategically.

The ascent to power of the Islamist Welfare Party in 1996 challenged the secular establishment's dominance in regional policy as Prime Minister Erbakan moved to strengthen Turkey's ties with the Muslim world. The military pressured Erbakan to sign significant military agreements with Israel in order to demonstrate their power. As Erbakan already shared the government with the liberal center-right leader Tansu Ciller, this created a three-headed foreign policy. Relations with the Muslim world were directed by Erbakan's team, relations with Israel were guarded by the military, and relations with Europe were managed by Ciller. This wasn't a happy division of labor, however, and shortly after signing a natural-gas deal with Iran, Erbakan was removed from power by the military-initiated February 28 process. The military's dictates against Erbakan included a warning on relations with Iran, perceived by the generals as a threat to Turkish secularism. After the collapse of the government, a weak coalition was formed by Mesut Yilmaz, who owed his position to the military and thus delegated Middle East foreign-policy making to them.

Thus, during the Erbakan-led coalition government that was in power between 1996 and 1997, the military dictated several important agreements with Israel in order to humble the Islamist Erbakan before his constituency. In an article he coedited, former General Cevik Bir, the deputy chief of the general staff during the February 28 process, gives some clues to the motivations behind the removal of Erbakan from power:
   The army made it clear to Erbakan that
   it would not sit idly by and watch Turkey
   turn toward Islam or allow Israeli-Turkish
   military relations to be jeopardized....
   Erbakan was kept in check.
   Turkey and Israel concluded their most
   important military cooperation agreements

   during Erbakan's tenure, which
   ended in June 1997, when the Islamist
   prime minister tendered his resignation
   under pressure from the MGK. (24)

However, the Turkish military's imposition of a pro-Israeli foreign policy on the civilian government lost steam after the AKP came to power in 2002, especially after the Iraq War in 2003. This may have been due to Israeli support of the Iraqi Kurdish authority. While pro-Israeli opinions are occasionally expressed in the Turkish media, Israel is no longer part of the secularist-Islamist competition in Turkish politics today. Furthermore, the Turkish military is unhappy with the military procurement agreements with Israel. According to Turkish defense-industry sources, "In many projects involving Israeli companies--including the modernization of Turkey's U.S. General Dynamics-made 170 M60 A1 tanks and the joint production of countermeasure dispenser systems--Israel failed to honor its offset and technology-transfer commitments." (25)

Overall, public opinion in Turkey during the Bush administration was the most anti-American and anti-Israeli in any country where reliable polling takes place. Historically, however, Turkish public opinion has not been anti-American. (26) Poll results have improved somewhat under Obama, but it is still very low compared to many other nations. (27) Erdogan's tough stance on Israeli attacks on Gaza enjoyed massive public support. According to a January 23, 2009, poll by the Turkish research company Genar, more than two-thirds of Turks backed his stance. Upon his early return from Davos, he was welcomed by thousands of flag-waving party supporters at Istanbul's Atatark Airport. This was a good show of power in the wake of local elections scheduled to take place on March 29. The AKP needed to counter the growing challenges from the Saadet party, now led by a younger and more dynamic leadership. The party still needed to respond to criticism from conservative segments of the population that the pilots who bombed Gaza were trained in Turkey. (28) Furthermore, the AKP competes for votes in Kurdish-majority provinces.

A common Islamic language might be particularly useful for the AKP in connecting with the Kurdish ethnic community. The recent democratization initiative that included the inauguration of a new 24-hour Kurdish-language channel, TRT-Shesh, is believed to have boosted Erdogan and his party's image among the Kurds. Erdogan spoke in Kurdish in his congratulatory address inaugurating the channel, becoming the first Turkish prime minister to speak in Kurdish on a public occasion. In the meantime, the Turkish Higher Education Council has initiated preparations to start Kurdish language and literature programs at leading Turkish universities. However, such steps are potentially divisive in the non-Kurdish community. The two sides need a common cause of solidarity that they can equally embrace. As the self-perceived grandchildren of Saladin, Kurds are thought to be particularly sensitive to the Palestinian question, and there have been several large demonstrations in Kurdish-majority cities, including Diyarbakir. According to the Islamist newspaper Vakit, the Kurdish nationalist movement is attempting to take ownership of Saladin as a Kurdish nationalist leader and undermine his image as a Muslim commander. (29) Erdogan, "the conqueror of Davos," might appeal to them as a heroic figure able to bridge ethnic divisions.

A superficial analysis of the domestic context of Turkish-Israeli relations might mistakenly conclude that the AKP is leading the anti-Israeli, or even anti-Semitic, mood in the country. The reality is that Turkish public opinion is even more critical of Israel than the government would prefer. The Iraq War has created a deep anti-American mood that automatically includes Israel. All political parties and interest groups have to respond to public demands to appear tough on the issue. One can observe the level of anti-Israeli feeling among opposition members in parliamentary debates, particularly on the border-detaining project mentioned above. Kadir Ural (MHP, Mersin) questioned the government: "Did our people elect you to give these lands to Israel?" (30) Tekin Bingol, from the secularist CHP, was even more poignant: "My audience is the members who acted sensitively [to reject] the March 1 motion [asking the parliament to permit U.S. troops to access Iraq using Turkish soil in 2003]. On that day, we did not fear America, but only God. Now I am saying, don't be scared of America or Israel, but be fearful of God; listen to your conscience." (31)

In May 2010, veteran CHP leader Deniz Baykal had to step down following a controversial sex- tape scandal. He was replaced by Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who immediately tipped the electoral balance in CHP's favor. Even if the most optimistic poll data placing him above Erdogan can be discarded, a modest increase in the percentage of CHP votes will result in a loss of a significant number of seats for the AKP, particularly in large cities. The news of the Israeli attack on the Istanbul-based ship Mavi Marmara as it was nearing Gaza, along with the killing of nine Turkish citizens, was received with the utmost shock in Turkey. For the first time, Turkish civilians became directly involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, suffering casualties caused by Israeli forces. (32) Even those who did not share the ideological background of the organizers perceived a sense of national humiliation. For instance, Devlet Bahceli, leader of the nationalist MHP, described the incident as a blatant attack on the Turkish nation. (33)

The AKP government's reaction to the flotilla incident was limited to seeking international condemnation of Israel through the UN Security Council, NATO and the Organization of the Islamic Conference. The government withdrew its ambassador to Israel and canceled three joint military exercises planned for 2010, as well as a soccer match. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu secretly met with Israeli Trade Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer in Brussels on July 1. The meeting caused an uproar in Israeli politics, as it was conducted without informing Israeli Foreign Minister Lieberman. In the meeting, Davutoglu reiterated Turkey's demands for an independent investigation into the incident, the lifting of the blockade on Gaza, an Israeli apology and compensation to victims' families. After an initial rejection, Israel accepted the UN probe of the incident, which will be the first of its kind in Israeli history. In addition, the blockade was eased considerably.

The flotilla attack also resonated in Israeli domestic politics. The Kadima government's tough stance on Gaza in winter 2009 came in the context of the approaching Israeli general elections. Kadima barely lost, allowing Likud leader Netanyahu to form a coalition government comprising ultra-rightwing Yisrael Beitenu, led by Foreign Minister Lieberman, and the liberal Labor Party, led by former Prime Minister Ehud Barak. Lieberman and Barak are believed to be in competition to shape Israeli foreign policy. Lieberman's tough talk and his deputy's undiplomatic behavior towards Turkey's ambassador are thought to reflect their own domestic calculations. Based on Israeli foreign ministry sources, Barak Ravid reported in Haaretz that Lieberman tried to foil Barak's scheduled visit to Ankara following renewed tensions between the two countries. He quotes a senior Foreign Ministry official as saying: "There's a feeling Lieberman wants to heat things up before Barak's visit to Turkey," and--referring to the humiliation of Turkey's ambassador--"Everything ... was part of Lieberman's political agenda." (34)

Another dimension in Turkish-Israeli relations is the significance of the American Jewish lobby, for Turkey is linked to American politics. Deprived of a strong Turkish-American diaspora, Turkey has depended on the support of Jewish-American groups to block the passage of Armenian-genocide resolutions in the U.S. Congress. Cognizant of this fact, Turkish leaders have always sought good relations with Jewish-American organizations. This support, however, was contingent upon Turkey's having good relations with Israel. Now that Turkish-Israeli relations have entered a period of crisis, Jewish members of Congress have shown little interest in the case. (35) The Turkish media suspect Jewish members of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee of having voted for approval of the resolution. Turkish media refer to the "Jewish" chair of the committee, Howard Berman, who stated in his opening remarks that it was now time to recognize the Armenian genocide. (36) The committee voted 23-22 to approve the non-binding resolution, clearing the way for it to be considered by the full House. (37) The carefully watered-down response of the United States to the flotilla incident should also be considered in this context. Unlike Turkey's European allies, the United States shied away from a strong condemnation of the incident. The statement by House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) that "Israel--rightfully so--invoked its right to self-defense on the Mavi Marmara" was the strongest support provided Israel by a top American lawmaker. (38) Pro-Israeli American media pundits, who had been vocally critical of Turkey's assertive diplomacy towards the Middle East for many years, offered full support to Israel in this case as well. (39) Prime Minister Erdogan accused the United States of distancing itself from the death of Furkan Dogan, a U.S. citizen of Turkish descent who was killed in the Israeli attack by five point-blank shots, four of which targeted his head. (40)


In the post-Cold War context, the primary Turkish concern was the Kurdish question. Turgut Ozal, who held power between 1983 and 1989, sought a democratic solution to the Kurdish issue and normalized ties with the Arab world. However, his accession to the presidency and later his death in 1993 created a leadership vacuum on the liberal center right, allowing the return of the military as a significant force in domestic and international politics. Turkey moved closer to a military solution for handling the Kurdish problem. The military saw Israel as a source of technology and a counterbalance to Syria, which supported the PKK. According to this calculation, Syria, the PKK and Greece formed one alliance; Turkey, in response, moved closer to Israel. Referring to a defense-cooperation agreement concluded between Greece and Syria in 1995, Sukru Elekdag, former Turkish ambassador to Washington and an influential member of the foreign-policy elite, outlined a new Turkish defense strategy in 1996 aimed at preparedness for "two and a half wars," meaning simultaneous full-scale wars against Syria and Greece and war on a reduced-scale against the PKK insurgency. (41) In this context, Israel was a natural ally for Turkey, and Turkey moved ever closer to Israel. Many observers were keen to regard the relationship as a strategic alliance or a new axis, (42) and several graduate students wrote their theses on it. (43) Only a few observers pointed out that the alliance had its limits. (44)

Starting with the Demirel-Inonu coalition government in 1991, Turkish leaders continuously visited Israel: Foreign Minister Hikmet Cetin (1993), Prime Minister Tansu Ciller (1994) and President Suleyman Demirel (1996) were the first of their rank to do so. Soon afterward, high-level military contacts and agreements ensued. General Ismail Hakki Karadayi, chief of staff of the army, visited Israel in 1997, followed by Defense Minister Turhan Tayan and Deputy Chief of Staff Cevik Bir. Israeli counterparts of these civilian and military leaders reciprocated with visits to Ankara. During these contacts, several important military agreements were signed.

In October 1998, Turkey threatened Syria with attack unless it deported the PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, who had sought refuge in Syria. Syria's deportation of Ocalan and its closure of PKK camps in Syria and then in the Syrian-controlled Bekaa Valley changed these strategic calculations. In November 1998, 11 days after the Syrian expulsion of Ocalan, the two countries signed the historic Adana Agreement, according to which Syria declared an end to its support for the PKK. In response, Syria was removed from the Turkish military's threat list. In an article written in 1998, former Turkish Chief of Staff General Huseyin Kivrikoglu, in deviation from classical military discourse, avoided direct reference to any state as an external threat, instead focusing on two internal threats. He described the military as a "force primarily used against external and internal threats to Turkey's territorial integrity and the republican regime." (45) This was a reference to the Kemalist establishment's two internal enemies, the Kurdish insurgency and the Islamists. Signifying the change in relationship, Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer, who came from within the Kemalist bureaucratic establishment, attended the funeral of Hafez al-Asad in 2000. The improvement in Turkish-Syrian relations was further strengthened when Bashar al-Asad, who favored close relations with Turkey, emerged victorious in the ensuing Syrian power struggle.

In the absence of Syrian support, the PKK camps were relocated to northern Iraq, where they benefited from the no-fly zone that was effectively outside Baghdad's military control. They then became subject to constant cross-border operations by the Turkish air force, creating tension between Turkey and the Iraqi Kurdish parties as well as indirectly with the United States, which was caught in between its ally Turkey and its important new Kurdish allies.

The attacks of September 11, 2001, and the AKP's ascent to power with a massive parliamentary majority were two other important events. September 11 prepared the American public for an attack on Afghanistan and Iraq, but the new Turkish leadership was not particularly supportive. The Iraq War of 2003 added to this new strategic context two distinct outcomes that had repercussions on Turkish-Israeli relations: the empowerment of the Iraqi Kurds and the enlargement of Iran's geostrategic sphere of influence. The Turkish parliament's refusal to allow the passage of U.S. troops meant further strategic distancing between Ankara and Washington.

The U.S. occupation of Iraq and the evolution of Iraqi Kurdistan into a semi-independent territory made it impossible for Turkey to continue its cross-border operations against the PKK camps. Boosted by this new strategic environment, the PKK announced in 2004 that it was ending its five-year unilateral ceasefire and would resume its insurgency. In May 2010, the PKK announced a large-scale war to be fought all over Turkey. According to independent observers, Turkish civilian and military leaders were disappointed to see Israel give military support to an Iraqi Kurdish administration that then allegedly passed it on to PKK militants. Veteran journalist Seymour Hersh quotes a former CIA deputy chief of base in Istanbul, Philip Giraldi, as saying:
   Turkish sources confidentially report
   that the Turks are increasingly
   concerned by the expanding Israeli
   presence in Kurdistan and alleged
   encouragement of Kurdish ambitions
   to create an independent state.... The
   Turks note that the large Israeli intelligence
   operations in Northern Iraq incorporate
   anti-Syrian and anti-Iranian
   activity, including support to Iranian
   and Syrian Kurds who are in opposition
   to their respective governments. (46)

The Israeli-PKK connection was largely asserted in the Turkish and international media, but there was no official confirmation. However, the highest level of confirmation came with a PKK rocket attack on Turkey's Iskenderun naval base that killed seven sailors. The attack came hours before the Israeli storming of the peace flotilla, which was due to reach Gaza just after midnight on May 31, 2010. On May 10, 2010, Turkey, for the first time since the Ottoman era, had commissioned a naval fleet (TDGG) to operate independently in the Mediterranean Sea, directly challenging Israeli supremacy. The PKK's attack on a strategic Turkish installation was the most daring in the organization's history. CHP leader Kilicdaroglu immediately came forth, not only denouncing both incidents but also connecting them, arguing that "the similarity between the two incidents is meaningful." The ruling AKP's Deputy Chairman Huseyin Celik responded, "We don't think the incident [[skenderun attack] was coincidental." (47) Since the CHP and the AKP rarely agree on any issue, their unanimity is striking.

In this context, Turkey found itself in need of security cooperation with Iran and Syria rather than with Israel and the United States in the struggle against terrorism. This was a complete reversal of the security context of the 1990s, when Turkey was Israel's strategic ally to defend against the strategic alliance between Iran and Syria, which was supporting the PKK. The military adjusted to these changes by abandoning its two-and-a-half-wars strategy. The Turkish military now aims to prepare itself for the ongoing battle against the PKK insurgency and one full-scale war with a state. Syria's status in Turkish strategic calculations has been elevated from threat to strategic ally.

Despite its security cooperation with Iran, however, Turkey is deeply concerned about the increasing power of the Islamic Republic. As a result of the Iraq War, the Shiite elements that Iran had supported during the Saddam Hussein years are in power in Iraq. In addition, the war demonstrated that Iran, too, might be in the target range, even without provocation. Thus, the Iraq War provoked Iran to increase its military deterrence by seeking a nuclear deterrent. For Turkey, this means that the traditional balance of power in the region, in place since the Qasr-i Shirin agreement of 1639, has been tilted in Iran's favor. Even though Turkey does not consider Iran an existential threat, it risks being reduced to a secondary power, isolated from Middle East affairs. Turkey prefers to deal with this challenge by diplomacy and active engagement, countering Iran's growing power in the region by trying to sway Arab public opinion to its side. Turkish policy makers appear to believe that it cannot do this successfully without becoming active in the most pressing issue for Arab public opinion, the Israeli-Palestinian question.

One reason Turkey cannot confront Iran as a member of the Western alliance system is related to Iran's growing importance for Turkey as a source of natural gas and a market for Turkey's increasingly assertive export sector. With its recent economic development, Turkey is now the seventh-largest economy in Europe and the fifteenth largest economy in the world. It has a young and dynamic population approaching 80 million. Its largest trading partner is no longer Germany, the country that had been in this position since the late Ottoman era, but Russia, which provides 68 percent of Turkey's natural gas. An exclusive Turkish-Israeli security alliance would no longer work in the context of Turkish economic empowerment and diverse trade interests.

Turkey's growing natural-gas imports from Russia and Iran contributed to its negative balance of trade, which it has to correct by increasing its exports to them. While its chief trading partner remains Europe, the volume of its trade with Russia has surged to nearly $40 billion, from $3.8 billion in 2001 and $14 billion in 2006. Meanwhile, its trade with Iran has also increased in recent years at a record pace, from $10 billion in 2008 to a projected $20 billion by 2011. In contrast, its volume of annual trade with Israel and the United States is $3.3 billion and $11 billion, respectively. (48) Due to quotas on key Turkish products, most significantly textiles, trade with the United States is not expected to rise significantly. Clearly, trade relations with Russia and Iran, which will double in the next two decades, are much more strategic. In short, the geostrategic changes that followed the end of the Cold War and then the Iraq War generated powerful influences over Turkish foreign policy, making it difficult for Turkey to maintain its one-dimensional Western orientation.

One final note on the international context of the impact of globalization on Turkish foreign policy: In the age of globalization, foreign policy is no longer the monopoly of the state, as occasionally non-state actors force states to implement decisions they would otherwise avoid. The flotilla incident shows that this is the case for Turkey. Globalization has altered the sociopolitical landscape, allowing the periphery of society to ignore the center and achieve social mobilization simply by connection with the world. Today, Turkish civilian organizations with their schools, clinics, businesses and humanitarian relief agencies have a presence in more countries than the Turkish foreign ministry. In other words, official Turkish foreign policy has lost much of its significance; it has been privatized. One of these organizations, IGG, acted on its own initiative in collaboration with other global activists in trying to break the Israeli blockade on Gaza. The strongest response to the incident came from another non-state actor, Fethullah Gulen, the leader of the large Islamic civil-society network. Both non-state actors attempted to take ownership of Turkish foreign policy, a process made possible by globalization.


The personalities of Erdogan, Israeli Foreign Minister Lieberman and his deputy Danny Ayalon have contributed to the drama of the Turkey-Israel conflict. Yet, individual actors alone would not be able to divert the orientation of their country's foreign policy without the requisite domestic and international political variables. Furthermore, there is little evidence to suggest that Erdogan single-handedly tarnished Turkey's ties with Israel just to implement his hidden Islamist discourse, as his domestic opponents, including the secularists, contend. Rather, the opposite is the case.

Domestic politics also plays a role; political actors have to take their political constituencies seriously for electoral purposes. Here, despite democratic peace theory's expectation of a convergence of values between two democracies, more democracy in Turkey and Israel contributed to the escalation of tension. The increasingly anti-American and anti-Israeli public mood in Turkey following the Iraq War influenced the government's response to Israel in an election season. Quite reflective of this background, opponents have taken on the ruling party, not for being critical of Israel, but rather for not being sufficiently so.

Finally, Turkey's growing power, its security cooperation with Syria and Iran to deal with the Kurdish insurgency, and its competition with Iran over Arab public opinion have prepared the necessary regional and international background for a new strategic environment in the region. At the same time, Turkish foreign policy is no longer a monopoly of the state. Non-state actors, as the flotilla incident suggests, can often influence strategic choices.

(1) Suha Bolukbasi, "Behind the Turkish-Israeli Alliance: A Turkish View," Journal of Palestine Studies, Autumn 1999, pp.101-05.

(2) In response, Turkish President Abdullah Gul declared that the Palestinian issue was not only the issue of Palestinians or Arabs, but also the issue of Turkey and all Muslims. AA, December 2, 2009.

(3) Stephen Kinzer, "Turkey's Ties to Syria Sink to War in All But the Name," The New York Times, October 4, 1999.

(4) Amikam Nachmani, "The Remarkable Turkish-Israeli Tie," Middle East Quarterly, June 1998, and Ilan Ber man, "Israel, India, and Turkey: Triple Entente?" Middle East Quarterly, Fall 2002.

(5) "Bush: Sharon 'Man Of Peace'," The Washington Post, April 19, 2002.

(6) Sahin Alpay, "The Complexities of Turkey's Relationship with Israel," Today's Zaman, January 5, 2009.

(7) "Rain of Fire, Israel's Unlawful Use of White Phosphorus in Gaza,"

(8) April 6, 2009.

(9) "No One Should Test Turkey's Patience, PM Erdogan Warns," Today's Zaman, June 2, 2010.

(10) Kenneth Waltz, Man, the State and War (Columbia University Press, 3rd edition, 2001). For a review and summary of this book, see David Singer, "International Conflict, Three Levels of Analysis," Worm Politics, Vol. 12, No. 3, April 1960.

(11) Kenneth Waltz, Theory of International Politics (McGraw-Hill, 1979), p. 60.

(12) Alexander Wendt, Social Theory of International Politics (Cambridge University Press, 1999).

(13) Saban Kardas, "Turkey: Redrawing the Middle East Map or Building Sandcastles?" Middle East Policy, Vol. 17, No. 1, 2010, p. 116.

(14) Kenneth Waltz, op. cit., p. 16

(15) Hakan Yavuz, Secularism and Muslim Democracy in Turkey (Cambridge University Press, 2009).

(16) Anat Lapidot-Firilla, "What Is behind Turkey's Antagonism toward Israel?" Haaretz, February 20, 2009.

(17) Erdogan, "Israil karsitlanna catti," Milliyet, May 24, 2009.

(18) Hurriyet, January 21, 2009. Quoted in Lale Sariibrahimoglu, "Israeli-Turkish Relations Put to the Test," Eurasia Daily Monitor, Vol. 6, No. 15, January 21, 2009.

(19) "Basbakan Erdogan'dan 'duygusal konusuyor' diyenlere tepki," Milliyet, January 6, 2010.

(20) Tarik Oguzlu, "The Changing Dynamics of Turkey-Israel Relations: A Structural Realist Account," Mediterranean Politics, Vol. 15, No. 2, 2010, pp. 277-78.

(21) Robert D. Putnam. "Diplomacy and Domestic Politics: The Logic of Two-Level Games," International Organization, Vol. 42, 1988, pp. 427-460.

(22) Zeev Maoz and Bruce Russett, "Normative and Structural Causes of Democratic Peace, 1946-1986," The American Political Science Review, Vol. 87, No. 3, 1993, pp. 624-638.

(23) Hakan Yavuz, "Turkish-Israeli Relations through the Lens of the Turkish Identity Debate," Journal of Palestine Studies, 1997. For a counter argument that stresses strategic rationale, see Mahmut Bali Aykan, "The Turkey-U.S.-Israel Triangle: Continuity, Change, and Implications for Turkey's Post-Cold War Middle East Policy," Journal of South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 22, No. 4, Summer 1999. A discussion of the academic writings on the relationship can be found in Bulent Aras, "The Academic Perceptions of Turkish-Israeli Relations," Alternatives: Turkish Journal of International Relations, Vol. 1, No. 1, Spring 2002.

(24) Cevik Bir and Martin Sherman, "Formula for Stability: Turkey Plus Israel," Middle East Quarterly, 2002.

(25) Lale Sariibrahimoglu, "Turkey's Military Procurement Dilemma with Israel," Eurasia Daily Monitor, Vol. 6, No. 99, May 22, 2009.

(26) Giray Sadik, American Image in Turkey (Lexington Books, 2009).

(27) According to Pew Global Attitudes Project, the U.S. popularity in Turkey has increased from 9 percent in 2007 to 14 percent in 2009. 33 percent of Turkish respondents believe that Obama "will do the right thing in world affairs" as opposed to 2 percent for the former president in 2008. However, Turks are pessimistic about whether he will be fair towards the Middle East, with 52 percent thinking he will not be. According to Worm Public Opinion of June 2009, Obama's own favorability in Turkey is 45 percent.

(28) To remove one major point of criticism against the government's alleged double talk regarding Israel, Turkey refused to extend an invitation to Israel to participate in joint military exercises in Konya in October 2009. Moreover, Turkey moved to hold military exercises with Syria in December 2009. "After Snubbing Israel, Turkey to Hold Defense Drills with Syria," Haaretz, November 2, 2009. Also see "Locked Out of Turkey, IAF Now Searching for Space to Drill," Jerusalem Post, April 16, 2010.

(29) "DTP, li Vekilden Sehalattin Eyyubi Cevabi," Vakit, Ekim 29, 2009.

(30) Turkish Grand National Assembly (Genel Kurul Tutanagi 23. Donem 3. Yasama Yili 94. Birlesim) May 27, 2009.

(31) Turkish Grand National Assembly (Genel Kurul Tutanagi 23. Donem 3. Yasama Yili 97. Birlesim) June 2, Haziran, 2009.

(32) "Raid Jeopardizes Turkey Relations," The New York Times, May 31, 2010.

(33) "Israel's Attack Blatant Hostility toward Turkish Nation, Bahceli Says," Today's Zaman, June 2, 2010.

(34) "Israel-Turkey Relations Deteriorate As FM Seeks to Recall Envoy in Ankara," Haaretz, January 12, 2010.

(35) "Jewish Lobby Sits Out Vote on Armenian Genocide," The Jewish Daily Forward, March 19, 2010.

(36) "Ermeni Tasarisi Kabul Edildi," Sabah, March 4, 2010. "Howard Berman Kim?" Bugun, March 05, 2010.

(37) Al-Quds Al-Arabi editor-in-chief Abd al-Bari Atwan claims that the Israeli lobby was behind the approval of the resolution. See "Jewish Lobby behind U.S. Armenia Genocide Vote," Haaretz, March 6, 2010.

(38) "Top U.S. Lawmaker: Israel 'Rightfully' Raided Flotilla," AFP, June 2, 2010.

(39) Robert L. Pollock, "Erdogan and the Decline of the Turks," The Wall Street Journal, June 3, 2010; Thomas Friedman, "As Ugly As It Gets," The New York Times, May 25, 2010; and "When Friends Fall Out," The New York Times, June 1, 2010.

(40) The silence of the U.S. media was broken by Roger Cohen two months after the incident. "Forgotten American," The New York Times, July 26, 2010.

(41) Stikru Elekdag, "2 1/2 War Strategy" Perceptions, March-May 1996, No. 1, pp. 33-57.

(42) Daniel Pipes, "A New Axis: The Emerging Turkish-Israeli Entente," National Interest, Winter 1997/98; and Amicam Nachmani, "The Remarkable Turkish-Israeli Tie," Middle East Quarterly, June 1998.

(43) Randy J. Smith, "The Pragmatic Entente: Turkey's Growing Relations with Israel," MA Thesis, Princeton University, Jan. 2000.

(44) Gokhan Bacik, "The Limits of an Alliance: Turkish-Israeli Relations Revisited," Arab Studies Quarterly, 2001.

(45) Huseyin Kivrikoglu, "Land Forces Organization," Ankara Savunma ve Havacilik (September-October 1998), pp. 10-11. Quoted in Nil S. Satana, "Transformation of the Turkish Military and the Path to Democracy," Armed Forces and Society, Vol. 34, No. 3, April 2008, p. 366.

(46) On Israeli support to Iraqi Kurds, see Seymour M. Hersh, "Plan B," The New Yorker, June 21, 2004.

(47) "Similarities between PKK, Israel Attacks Raise Suspicions," Today's Zaman, June 1, 2010.

(48) These figures were obtained from various sites. For reference, see the website of Turkish Ministry of Industry and Trade,

Dr. Kosebalaban is assistant professor of politics at Lake Forest College in Illinois.
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Author:Kosebalaban, Hasan
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Date:Sep 22, 2010
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