Is Israel ‘trembling’ and ‘on its knees,’ or is Ankara dreaming?

Is Israel ‘trembling’ and ‘on its knees,’ or is Ankara dreaming?

Last week, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu briefed the Turkish Parliament Foreign Relations Committee on several issues, but the Turkish press reported mostly about his statement regarding Israel. Mr. Davutoğlu said Turkish policy was to “bring Israel to its knees,” which he maintained has indeed been achieved. This type of empty and self-damaging talk reminded me of another, similarly unhelpful incident that had taken place in New York during the September U.N. General Assembly. 

The prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, was paying a visit to the Türkevi in downtown Manhattan when one of the interns took his picture and exclaimed: “My legs and my hands are trembling [with excitement].” To which the prime minister responded: “We have not caused anybody to tremble until this day, except for Israel.” Without any relevant context, and unprovoked by anything in the immediate surroundings, Mr. Erdoğan has betrayed deep-seated feelings of hostility toward Israel, as did his foreign minister in Parliament last week.

Anybody reading these two statements, and a number of related ones in between, must wonder what is going through the mind of these two prominent Turkish leaders. For almost all observers of events in the region over the past few months, such talk raises serious doubts as to how realities are perceived from Ankara these days. I wonder if anyone watching the eastern Mediterranean has seen Israel either “trembling” or “on its knees” facing a mighty Turkish power, as the following questions suggest:

How has that small, poor and weak country managed to still refuse even to apologize to Turkey, let alone pay compensation or lift the Gaza blockade? How, we may ask, has a helpless country such as Israel continued full-speed to develop its newly discovered gas fields in cooperation with Cyprus and Greece? And how, with all its trembling and kneeling, has that technologically backward country just canceled the $90 million sale of a sophisticated military surveillance system to the Turkish Air Force? Oh, yes, and a few days ago in Vienna, a trembling Israeli defense minister, Ehud Barak, left the hall on his knees when President Abdullah Gül rose to address an international conference, simply because he was fed up with the constant Israel-bashing by Turkish leaders.
Obviously, the realities seen from outside Ankara are quite different from those described by Mr. Erdoğan and Mr. Davutoğlu. While very strong on rhetoric and verbal provocation, results on the ground have been anything but impressive, bringing Turkey little honor in much of the international community. The Israeli prime minister has instructed his Cabinet ministers not to respond to any inflammatory statements made by Turkish leaders, and instead keeps saying that Israel respects Turkey as an important country in the Middle East and wishes to have good relations with it. I thought Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should respond strongly to every statement so that he does not leave the Turkish public exposed only to the attacks of some Turkish leaders. Looking at the results thus far, however, I am not sure if Netanyahu’s attitude might not be more suitable to the virtual world which Ankara is trying to create, without much success.

Indeed, it is a pity that those who formulate Turkish foreign policy, especially in the Middle East, do not see the common interests that clearly exist between Turkey and Israel. These interests have become even more urgent in the face of the Arab Spring, as in the case of Syria, Egypt, Iraq and the Palestinians. The current crisis prevents cooperation on a number of crucial fronts that harm Turkey’s security and well-being, such as in: fighting Jihadist terrorism in the Sinai Peninsula and along the Turkish-Syrian border; or exchanging intelligence warnings to protect vital strategic assets for both countries; or checking Iran’s ambitions that are a major threat to Turkish interests in the region as well as to Israel’s security; or promoting economic cooperation in the eastern Mediterranean for mutual benefit. This is only a partial list, of course.

Unfortunately, as long as some prefer “winning” wars of words instead of serving the national interests of their country, relations with Israel will remain in deep crisis. Both sides need to find a way to rebuild cooperation and protect their people from harm by others.

Professor Ehud R. Toledano is university chair for Ottoman and Turkish Studies in the Department of Middle East and African History, Tel Aviv University.