Is­rael’s main Mus­lim ally is switch­ing sides

The Jewish Chronicle - - World News - SAMI KO­HEN

TURKEY’S de­ci­sion to bar Is­rael from a joint air force drill is part of the Turk­ish gov­ern­ment’s new anti-Is­rael pol­icy.

Turkey, which was the first Mus­lim coun­try to recog­nise Is­rael as a state, has for many years been Is­rael’s clos­est Mus­lim ally. The coun­tries do more than $3 bil­lion in trade a year, co-op­er­ate on de­fence is­sues, and Turkey is a favoured des­ti­na­tion for Is­raeli tourists.

How­ever, the gov­ern­ment has es­sen­tially launched an anti-Is­rael cam­paign since the Gaza of­fen­sive in Jan­uary.

At the World Eco­nomic Fo­rum in Davos in Fe­bru­ary, PM Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan made an­gry re­marks over the Gaza is­sue dur­ing a panel dis­cus­sion with Is­raeli Pres­i­dent Shi­mon Peres, and then walked off stage. This was a turn­ing point in Is­raeli-Turk­ish re­la­tions.

Pres­i­dent Ab­dul­lah Gul, who was sup­posed to visit Is­rael in the sum­mer, failed to do so. For­eign Min­is­ter Ahmet Davu­to­glu, who was in­vited to Is­rael last month, in­sisted on vis­it­ing Gaza as well, an idea Is­rael strongly re­sisted. Even­tu­ally he can­celled the visit al­to­gether.

Mr Er­do­gan con­tin­ued blast­ing Is­rael in­ter­na­tion­ally, most re­cently at the UN Gen­eral As­sem­bly, where he blamed Is­rael for the con­tin­u­a­tion of the hu­man drama in Gaza and the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity for not in­ter­ven­ing. At the same time, Mr Er­do­gan met a group of 50 US Jewish leaders, in­tend­ing to mend fences with Is­rael and Amer­i­can Jews. But that meet­ing also turned sour af­ter the PM’s harsh anti-Is­raeli re­marks over Gaza.

In a re­cent state­ment For­eign Min­is­ter Davu­to­glu made it clear that re­la­tions with Is­rael could only get back on track when Is­rael changed its pol­icy on Gaza.

The gov­ern­ment’s de­ci­sion to can- cel the air ex­er­cise was mo­ti­vated by the same pol­icy of keep­ing the Jewish state at arm’s length. What sur­prised many here is the fact that the mil­i­tary, which has al­ways been sym­pa­thetic to Is­rael, sub­mit­ted to the gov­ern­ment’s de­ci­sion. In the past there have been in­stances when it con­tin­ued to main­tain its ties with its Is­raeli coun­ter­part de­spite a more hos­tile at­ti­tude from the civil­ian power.

In this case, how­ever, the gov­ern­ment knew it had the pub­lic’s back­ing, as the me­dia and po­lit­i­cal cir­cles have ex­pressed op­po­si­tion to “open­ing Turkey’s skies to Is­raeli fight­ers, which bombed the in­no­cent Pales­tinian peo­ple in Gaza”.

A Turk­ish of­fi­cial who spoke on con­di­tion of anonymity said that “our ex­pec­ta­tion is that Turkey’s moves will in­flu­ence Is­rael to change its pol­icy and set an ex­am­ple to other coun­tries, par­tic­u­larly in the West, to show their in­ter­est in the Pales­tini­ans’ plight and their re­ac­tion against Is­rael’s be­hav­iour with deeds rather than words”.

There are sev­eral rea­sons for the change in Turk­ish at­ti­tudes.

First, the rul­ing Jus­tice and De­vel­op­ment Party (AKP) has pro-Is­lamic ten­den­cies. Al­though a prag­ma­tist, Mr Er­do­gan takes pains to show his affin­ity with the Arab and Is­lamic world. He has taken the events in Gaza very se­ri­ously, thus sat­is­fy­ing the large num­ber of Turks who sym­pa­thise with the Pales­tini­ans and are an­gry at Is­rael. This in­cludes op­po­si­tion par­ties and their sup­port­ers. No won­der that Mr Er­do­gan was re­ceived as a hero here when he re­turned home from Davos in Fe­bru­ary.

Sec­ond, the gov­ern­ment’s in­ter­na­tional ori­en­ta­tion has shifted from a close align­ment with the West to a “multi-di­men­sional for­eign pol­icy”. Al­though Turkey is still an ac­tive mem­ber of Nato and as­pires to join the EU, it has re­cently fo­cused on de­vel­op­ing ties with re­gional coun­tries and par­tic­u­larly Arab and Is­lamic states.

In this case, Ankara was afraid of an­ger­ing Syria and Iran with a NATO ex­er­cise which in­cluded Is­rael. Mr Davu­to­glu vis­ited Syria this week and Mr Er­do­gan is due to visit Iran next week, and so the tim­ing was par­tic­u­larly sen­si­tive.

On Mon­day, the Syr­ian for­eign min­is­ter dis­closed that Syria and Turkey con­ducted a joint mil­i­tary ex­er­cise last week near Ankara.

In gen­eral, the Er­do­gan gov­ern­ment has tried to as­sume a more ac­tive re­gional role. En­cour­aged by his new sta­tus as a re­gional player, Mr Er­do­gan looks at re­la­tions with Is­rael from a stronger po­si­tion and feels he can af­ford to take a firm — or harsh — at­ti­tude to­wards Is­rael. Ac­cord­ing to the same of­fi­cial, “the feel­ing is that Is­rael now needs Turkey more than Turkey needs Is­rael”.

Sami Ko­hen is the JC’s Turkey cor­re­spon­dent

PHOTO: AP

The Turk­ish PM storms off stage at Davos, af­ter blast­ing Is­rael

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