Will Turkey learn to live with the bitter truth in the Middle East?

Will Turkey learn to live with the bitter truth in the Middle East?

A conference organized in Ankara by the International Strategic Research Organization (USAK) on Turkish-Israeli relations in view of regional developments started with a heated debate when the first speaker, Professor Raphael Israeli, attributed Turkey’s policies toward Israel to Turks’ hatred of the Jewish people.

I won’t mention the reaction from the Turkish participants that came pouring in like rain. But every time the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is accused of being anti-Israel because of being anti-Semitic, we are reminded of this question: how come Turkey and Israel enjoyed good relations in the first years of the AKP’s rule?

The answer is simple: pragmatism – the key word that explains a lot of the AKP’s early successes in both domestic and international politics, as it overweighed emotional ideology. I would not go as far as to suggest that Turkey’s then-prime minister, who is currently the president, is anti-Semitic, but it is a fact that neither he nor the AKP rulers of that time were ever extremely fond of Israelis. But that was a time when Turkey was enjoying a tremendously positive image in the world especially as a peace seeking country with the famous “zero problem policy with neighbors.” Turkey was also trying to improve this image by taking mediation initiatives, and obviously a breakthrough on Israel-Syrian relations or the Palestinian issue would have greatly contributed to Turkey’s success story. So keeping good relations with Israel was necessary as the ultimate aim was to attain a lasting peace in the Middle East.

As was also suggested by the participants in the conference, Mavi Marmara incident, in which Turks were killed by Israeli soldiers in 2010, is not the reason but the outcome of the deterioration of relations due to the war in Gaza. 

The anti-Israeli feelings deeply rooted within the AKP elites have resurfaced again. They could have been “pushed back” by pragmatism again, but something else happened: with the exchange of words between then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Israeli President Shimon Peres, not only crowds in Turkey but crowds in the Middle East cheered Turkey for bashing Israel.

The Palestinian issue became once again the major obstacle in Turkish-Israeli relations, as it also provided the opportunity for Israel bashing that was initially enjoyed by masses both at home and abroad.

But bilateral ties were always tied to the Palestinian issue, Turkish diplomats and academics will remind you. Turkey and Israel normalized and improved their relations, only after the Oslo peace process started in the mid-1990s.

Yet one has to admit that Turkey has never seen a government so emotionally, ideologically and finally politically attached to the Palestinian issue as the AKP government – so much so that retired Ambassador Özdem Sanberk, who was appointed as Turkey’s negotiator for the Mavi Marmara talks, called the Palestinian problem a national interest issue. (The religious-based political parties that preceded the AKP on government always shared power and thus were balanced by their coalition partners).

With the election results in Israel, no one is hopeful about the prospects of peace. “Israel is going toward an apartheid regime and that will further increase the frustration of Turks,” a former Turkish diplomat told me. Then what will happen? Even if there is some kind of normalization with each side again exchanging ambassadors, will there be a state of cold war between the two countries at the political level?

There is still some optimism among former Turkish diplomats that pragmatism will enable the two sides to regain the relations – not to bring them to where they were in the 1990s, but at least to get them back on talking terms.

Will the AKP distance itself from its ideological-emotional attachment to the Palestinian issue and deprive itself of the “sweet” feeling of appreciation it gets from the crowds in bashing Israel?

Will it agree to learn to live with the prospect that the Palestinian issue will remain unsolved for years to come?

The AKP could perhaps be convinced of the fact that it is not Israeli bashing but engaging with Israel that could bring some change and slight improvement in the Palestinian issue.

At any rate, the answers to these questions will also depend on what will happen after the June 7 elections in Turkey as well.