JERUSALEM— The widening rift between Turkey’s Islamic-oriented government and its secularist armed forces is liable to undermine diplomatic efforts to end Ankara’s strained relations with Israel.
Those relations were made worse last year by Israel’s interdiction of the Mavi Marmara, a ship trying to break Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip, which left nine Turks dead and several Israeli soldiers wounded.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (pronounced erdovan) is demanding a formal apology by Israel, monetary compensation for the bereaved families and an end to Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank — conditions that his Israeli counterpart, Benjamin Netanyahu, refuses to meet.
These terms conform to his ruling AKP party’s negative attitude toward the Jewish state, but run counter to the military establishment’s view that cooperation with Israel, especially insofar as arms procurement and development is concerned, should take precedence.
Last week’s resignation of the Turkish armed forces’ commander in chief, Gen. Isik Kosaner highlights the army’s dissatisfaction with Erdogan’s regime. It was preceded by the arrest of at least a dozen senior officers on suspicion of plotting a coup d’etat.
Turkey’s overall trade with Israel exceeded $4 billion annually before the current spat erupted. The state-owned Israel military industry was awarded lucrative contracts to modernize M-60 tanks and combat helicopters while various Israeli firms that produce sophisticated electronic equipment have been doing big business with Turkey.
Since the Mavi Marmara incident, when Israeli naval commandos who were dropped on deck by ropes from a helicpter overhead, Turkey has recalled its ambassador from Tel Aviv and lowered the level of diplomatic relations with Israel.
Secret talks that have been under way for nearly a year produced a carefully worded text deemed acceptable to both sides insofar as the officials involved were concerned, but the respective governmental leaders have been unwilling to accept it publicly because of domestic political considerations.
According to well-informed sources, a United Nations report on the Mavi Marmara’s seizure in international waters has been held up until the end of this month lest it render the tentative Turkish-Israeli deal inoperable.
The deterioration of Israel’s diplomatic links with Turkey is a major setback and a blow to one of the underlying concepts of Israeli foreign policy, i.e., the forging of close ties with the so-called “Outer Ring” of regional neighbors. This concept, which the late Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion forged in the 1950s, advocated cordial relations with Turkey, Iran, Ethiopia and Cyprus to offset the enmity that existed at that time with the “Inner Ring,” consisting of Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.
In the interim, peace treaties were concluded with Egypt and Jordan and the once-flourishing political and economic relationship with Iran collapsed due to the Islamic Revolution in which the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini gained the ascendancy in Teheran.
Erdogan’s hostility toward Israel is due, in part, to his belief that Turkey’s predominant interest lies in strengthening its ties with the neighboring Arab states — which were part of the pre-World War I Ottoman Turkish Empire) — Iran and the predominantly Muslim states of central Asia.
On the other hand, the military establishment, which upholds the principles advocated by Kemal Ataturk, the flamboyant general who overthrew the empire and established the Republic of Turkey as a secularist, Western-oriented state, regards the relationship with Israel as a mutually beneficial embodiment of this stand.
Prior to Erdogan’s rise to the premiership, successive Turkish governments tried in vain to gain entry to the European Union, basing this goal on the fact that Turkish territory extends into southeastern Europe. But several European states, including France, which were wary of including Turkey’s 70 million Muslims in their geographical and political fraternity, thwarted these attempts. This attitude enhanced the prospect that Erdogan’s Islamic-oriented party could defeat its secularist rivals.
In the meantime, Erdogan systematically eroded the army’s longtime ability to overthrow regimes that veered from Ataturk’s political philosophy. Since 1960, it has staged four coups d’etat to this end.
At the civilian level, the cooling of Israel’s relationship with Turkey has meant a change of direction for vacation travel. No longer do Israelis flock by the hundreds of thousands to Turkey’s relatively inexpensive, attractive and well-serviced tourist resorts.
Instead, Greece, especially its Eastern Mediterranean islands, is the current preference.
This trend was bolstered by the Greek navy’s action last month and in June as well to prevent a second flotilla of Gaza-bound ships from challenging the Israeli naval blockade.
Had Erdogan authorized the Turkish navy to pursue a similar policy and thereby prevent Turkish-owned vessels like the Mavi Marmara from setting sail last year the current impasse in Turkish-Israeli relations might have been avoided.
(Jay Bushinsky, an Israel-based political columnist, can be reached at email@example.com.)