Playing backgammon on a chess board

Playing backgammon on a chess board

Egemen B. Bezci / Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak
The Turkish proverb “every cloud has a silver lining” once again rang true when Israeli President Shimon Peres offered aid and his condolences for the mine disaster that claimed 301 lives in Soma, thawing the ice between Ankara and Jerusalem. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s reciprocation had even further softened the tension between the two states.

Since the 2009 Davos Summit, relations between the two countries have severely declined – the nadir being the Mavi Marmara flotilla incident in May 2010. However, regional realpolitik calculations concerning major issues like the ongoing Syrian civil war, ascending energy security issues in the eastern Mediterranean region and rising regional instability after the ouster of Mohamed Morsi in Egypt last year induced the two countries to reconcile.

The rebound in relations commenced after President Obama brokered a phone call in 2013. Despite the progress, there is still unresolved tension. On May 26, the Istanbul 7th Court for Serious Crimes, which has been holding the Mavi Marmara trial in absentia of the Israelis accused, ordered the arrest of Israeli soldiers and military officers.

It is vital to note the court decision will be declared void after the Turkish Parliament ratified the signed protocol that prevents suing or trying Israeli soldiers in Turkish courts. Although the court decision will not be implemented in practice, it should be highlighted that it does represent a wound in the Turkish conscience that will not soon be forgiven. As expected, the court decision was not welcomed by Israel, and was acknowledged as Turkey’s unwillingness to mend relations.

The ongoing tension has complicated what should be an economic boon for both countries. Since Israel discovered natural gas reserves in the east Mediterranean, this has become increasingly evident to Turkey. Israel is interested in exporting its natural gas to Europe via pipelines and Turkey wants to be the bridge for this project – a natural fit for the country straddling Europe, the Middle East and Asia. Certainly this situation also serves Turkey’s policy of becoming a regional energy hub. Given all that has recently transpired, little has been done to capitalize on this opportunity.

Should this joint gas project indeed move forward, the two states will inevitably become interdependent. However, as Turkish foreign policy is not crafted solely based on realpolitik and macroeconomic concerns, but also according to moral values – known as “Precious Loneliness” – faith is not high in Jerusalem in seeing this venture through. In turn, Israel has sought a new partner, eventually finding Cyprus.  In 2012, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu signed an energy exploration treaty with Cyprus, ignoring Turkish interests on the island.

Cyprus is not the only country in the eastern Mediterranean to trouble Turkey of late. The ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Bashar al-Assad’s retaining strength in Damascus are making the situation far harder for Turkish decision makers in Ankara. In 2011, Turkey lambasted Israel’s isolation in the Middle East. Today, no Turkish ambassador sits in three important Middle Eastern capitals: Cairo, Damascus or Jerusalem (Tel Aviv). With the region slipping away, Israel’s hand has only been strengthened in the reconciliation process.

Indeed, this new geo-strategic environment has reduced the urgency upon the Israeli government to normalize ties with Turkey. With Erdoğan’s history of harsh rhetoric against Israel in mind, Netanyahu is working to ensure that a signed protocol will end such public lashings at the Jewish state.

Successive accusations against Israel by senior Turkish government officials for every sort of domestic and international issue such as the Gezi Park protests, General el-Sisi’s takeover in Egypt and the Dec. 17, 2013 corruption probe, make the situation worse and create a lack of trust in Jerusalem.  

So why do Turkish leaders employ antagonizing rhetoric and political attitudes against Israel at the expense of Turkey’s national interests? Populism, not pragmatism, is what guides Turkish foreign policy makers, even at the cost of economic progress.

Turkish decision makers are playing backgammon, the game of the masses, on a chessboard where there is no room for luck or populism – only strategy and pure national interests. Full normalization between the two states will only be realized when both countries eradicate the distrust and start playing the same game on the same board.

*Egemen B Bezci is a policy analyst. He can be reached via twitter: @ebbezci
Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak is a doctoral candidate in the Graduate School of History in Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University and a junior research fellow at the MDC: Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies.