In the wake of the declaration of the agreement that establishes diplomatic relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on Aug. 13, 2020, Turkish Foreign Ministry expressed its negative attitude to it and issued a statement saying: “The conscience of the regional countries will never forgive this hypocritical behaviour of the UAE.” Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan went one step further and said that Turkey might suspend its relations with the UAE, which Ankara has not done so far.
Incoherence in Turkey’s attitude
There are two sides to the incoherence of the reaction that Turkey displayed to this agreement: The first one is related to the regional context, firstly because it does not explain why Ankara maintains diplomatic relations with Israel while it denies the same right to the UAE. Secondly, other Arab countries –Egypt and Jordan- have already established diplomatic relation with Israel, so why another Arab country –the UAE- should be singled out and prevented from taking a similar step. What is more, Egypt and Jordan were at war with Israel and first signed a peace treaty and then established diplomatic relations while the UAE has never been at war with Israel. Thirdly, a more appropriate attitude would be for Turkey to refrain from interfering in the relations between two sovereign States.
In a sense, this step is in line with the plan initiated in 2002 by then-Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz. It was intended to become a multilateral peace plan. It provided for the withdrawal of Israel to the 1967 borders in exchange for the normalisation of relations with all Arab countries.
Normalisation of Arab-Israeli relations started actually with Egypt and Israel establishing diplomatic relations with the Camp David Accords of in 1978.
Jordan followed suit 18 years later with a treaty that also put an end to the state of war, which prevailed since the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948.
In other words, relations between Israel and the Arab countries follow their course independent from what Turkey could do to change it.
The second side of incoherence in Turkey’s attitude is related to the Turkish context itself:
First, Turkey has a deep-rooted tradition of solidarity with the Jewish people that goes back to more than five centuries. When King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castille decided in 1492 to expel “the heretics” (Muslims and Jews) from Spain, the Ottoman State received big communities of Sephardim Jews and settled them in big towns such as Istanbul, Izmir and then-Ottoman city of Thessaloniki. As a result, most of the Jews in Turkey speak today a language called ‘Sephardim’, which is the language spoken in Spain in the XVth century. When several Jewish families from Istanbul moved to Israel after the proclamation of the State of Israel in 1948, many returned back to Istanbul.
A country like Turkey that has such strong relations with the Jewish people should not take an action against the closer relations between Israel and another country like the UAE with whom Turkish people maintained brotherly relations for ages.
The second incoherence relates to Turkey’s attitude to the creation of the State of Israel. When the Resolution 181 of the General Assembly of the League of Nations for the partition of Palestine was voted in 1947, Turkey opposed it on the grounds that the creation of a Jewish state in the Middle East would cause instability in the region. However, when the Resolution was adopted after all, Turkey became the only Muslim-majority country that did not oppose this outcome. In other words, Turkey did its best to prevent the creation of the State of Israel, but, once created by a League of Nations, it recognized the State of Israel and maintained good relations with it.
After the creation of a Jewish State, Turkey adopted a balanced policy between Israel and Arab countries. This was within the framework of the implementation of principles dictated by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the republican Turkey, more than a decade before the creation of Israel.
Atatürk gave a piece of advice to Numan Menemencioglu, then-Under Secretary of the Turkish Foreign Ministry. He told him to maintain close cultural ties with the Arab world and do everything to further develop them, but not interfere in the intra-Arab conflicts and not to volunteer to give advice unless they ask for it.
In light of Atatürk’s advice, Turkey avoided for more than half a century any involvement in the intra-Arab conflicts. It remained equidistant to the conflicts between Israel and the Arab countries as well. This is how Turkey remained for decades a trusted partner in the Arab-Israeli conflict. It was able to talk to both sides. In 2008, Turkey was about to strike a deal between Israel and Syria, but it failed because of Israel’s launching the Operation Cast Lead in Gaza. From the creation of Israel in 1948 to the early years of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), Turkey remained faithful to this balanced approach to the Middle Eastern affairs.
The present Turkish government does exactly opposite of what Atatürk advised almost a century ago by siding with one Arab country against the others. The very first of deviation from this advice was when Turkey sided in 2017 with Qatar in the recent conflict between some Gulf countries and Doha.
Coming back to the Turkish-Israeli relations, they were very good in the early years of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) rule. In the very first visit by an AKP delegation to the United States in 2002, the Jewish associations and club s were queuing to talk to Erdogan who was not yet Prime Minister. He was banned to become a member of Parliament. Therefore, he visited the US in his capacity as the Chairman of the AKP. The welcome extended to Erdogan was so genuine that some of Jewish associations volunteered to host Erdogan even if it had to be late in the night.
Mavi Marmara incident
There have been several refraction points in Turkey’s relations with Israel. One of them was the Operation Cast Lead in 2008 carried out by the Israeli army. The operation cost the death of 1436 Palestinians. Turkey strongly reacted against Israel’s military operation.
It is followed in 2009 by an incident (‘One Minute!’ incident) in the World Economic Forum in Davos where Erdogan, addressing the Prime Minister Shimon Peres, used a less-than-moderate narrative.
The flotilla incident (Mavi Marmara) of 2010 added insult to injury in Turkey-Israeli relations. Turkey wanted to send humanitarian assistance to Gaza. It could do so by cooperating with the Israeli authorities, but chose to do it by confronting them. If Turkey had not wanted to cooperate with the Israeli authorities, it could send the humanitarian assistance through the Egyptian port of Al-Arish and from there through the Rafah border gate to Gaza. Turkey opted for the confrontational approach and the ship carrying the humanitarian assistance goods were attacked by the Israeli Defence Forces and ten Turkish citizens were killed.
The relations reached an all-time low level. The two sides withdrew their Ambassadors. When the heath of the conflict cooled down slowly, Turkish Foreign Minister Davutoglu proposed two conditions to be fulfilled for the relations to be restored: 1) A public apology by Israel; 2) Indemnity to be paid to the families of the Turkish citizens killed during the attack. Immediately after this statement, then-Prime Minister Erdogan added a third condition to be fulfilled: the lifting of the embargo on Gaza. Under the strong pressure by the US president Barrack Obama, the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu offered a verbal apology to Erdogan on telephone. Erdogan announced acceptance of apology on behalf of the Turkish people. In June 2016, the two sides also agreed to normalize ties, Israel agreed to pay compensations to the relatives of the victims of Mavi Marmara, while Ankara agreed to cancel legal proceedings against Israeli soldiers who committed the raid against the Mavi Marmara vessel. The agreement, however, did not not refer to the condition of lifting the embargo against Gaza. The two countries later increased diplomatic representaion to the level before the incident.
Thriving Economic relations with Israel
Despite the tug of war between Turkey and Israel, economic cooperation continues to develop unabated. When the political relations reached the lowest point in 2011 as a result of the Mavi Marmara incident, Turkey’s imports from Israel increased 51 percent and reached 4.5 billion US dollars.
In 2014, when the Operation Protective Edge, which lasted 80 days, was being carried out in Gaza, the volume of bilateral foreign trade reached its highest level in the recent years. Curiously enough, when Turkey came up as the strongest critics of Israel for the transfer of the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, the bilateral economic relations recorded its highest point by coming close to 6 billion US dollars.
In 2014 the number of the Israeli tourists visiting Turkey was 188,000. This figure reached 569,000 in 2019, an increase of 250 percent.
Contiguous military and security cooperation with Israel
Turkish-Israeli relations in military and security area is a slightly different story. Late Turkish prime minister Necmettin Erbakan’s approach to relations with Israel has always been cool. Ironically, these relations developed faster in 1990s when Erbakan was prime minister. In order to discredit Erbakan’s performance, the military establishment in Turkey wanted to promote cooperation with Israel, exactly when he was prime minister. As a result, the upgrading of 54 F-4 (Phantom) fighter aircraft and closer cooperation in the field of military training took place in this period. Turkish military personnel went to Israel for training and Israeli aircraft used the Turkish specious air space in Konya for military exercise.
The upgrading of 170 US-manufactured M-60-A1 tanks has also been carried out by the Israeli experts in Turkey. This project was negotiated again in Erbakan’s time, started to be implemented before AKP came to power and completed in 2010 after ten years of laborious work. The financial scope of the tank modernisation project was 690 million US dollars.
Two decades later, the direction of the tide changed and these relations reached its lowest level, to such an extent that, upon the Mavi Marmara incident, Turkey withdrew from the planned joint Turkey-Israel-US naval exercise called ‘Reliant Mermaid’, an exercise that was repeated annually for almost ten years.
Cooperation with Israel in the area of intelligence is still going on with the exception of fighting the PKK terrorist organisation. In view of the Israeli support for the Kurdish cause, Turkey is cautious in cooperating with Israel on this specific issue.
Turkey’s criticism of the establishment of diplomatic relations between UAE and Israel lacks credibility, because despite ups and downs Turkey maintains relations with both Israel and the UAE. It is not convincing for a country to maintain diplomatic relations with both Israel and the UAE on the one hand, and criticise the establishment of diplomatic relations between them on the other.
The same reasoning applies to the establishment of the diplomatic relations between Bahrain and Israel. Again, Turkey has full diplomatic relations with both Bahrain and Israel, but it criticizes the establishment of the relations between these two countries.
To conclude, Turkey, with its dynamic economy, will be among the first countries that will benefit from stability in the Middle East. Blocking or unnecessarily criticising the normalisation of relations among the Middle Eastern countries damages Turkey’s image and its own national interests. Israel and Arab countries will establish diplomatic relations when they believe it is time to do so. Turkey would do better by encouraging such relations rather than criticising them.
* Yaşar Yakış, Former Turkish Foreign Minister.
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