Turkey, Israel still need US as facilitator

Turkey, Israel still need US as facilitator

ISTANBUL - Hürriyet Daily News
Turkey, Israel still need US as facilitator

If Turkey is to work with U.S. in the Middle East, its relations with Israel are going to constitute an serious factor affecting how its relations with the U.S. will develop, says prosessor İlter Turan. DAILY NEWS photo, Hasan ALTINIŞIK

The second visit in one month of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to Turkey stems from the need to intensify talks on the common problems the countries face, as much as the necessity to make sure Turkish-Israeli reconciliation is on track, according to Professor İlter Turan from Istanbul’s Bilgi University. 

“The U.S. still has a role to play in facilitating Turkish-Israeli relations,” Turan said.

The U.S. Secretary of State has visited Turkey for the second time in a month. What does this tell us?

There are a number of issues on which action is required. Recently, the U.S. and Turkey have been making efforts to communicate as much as possible and cooperate in order to prevent any difficulties in their relationship. It is a sensitive time. For ministers to have a chance to talk to with each other [face-to-face], rather than on the phone, suggests that they felt the need to communicate more intensely on the common problems that we face. 

The second visit comes following the recent Israeli apology to Turkey. Does this mean that Turkish–Israeli reconciliation has facilitated more intensive dialogue between Ankara and Washington? Or from another perspective, are we to understand that the visit comes from a need to make sure the normalization between Turkey and Israel is on track?

I am not persuaded that those two perspectives are in necessarily conflict with each other. The apology opened the way for the restoring of relations, but there is still some distance to be covered and efforts must be made to make sure there is no relapse. The U.S. has played an important role in facilitating Turkish-Israeli relations, but the question of compensation is going to come up and one has to make sure that this does not evolve into protracted, highly publicized negotiations. Additional talks may also be useful in clarifying what the loosening of the embargo on Gaza will mean.

Other issues might come up as well. The U.S., for example, might have an interest in helping Turks and Israelis cooperate in sending the newly discovered Israeli gas in the Eastern Mediterranean to European markets. 

But you do agree that problems between Turkey and Israel have had a negative impact on Turkey’s relations with Washington.

When we talk about Washington, we must be aware that there are several Washingtons, not just one. We have the Washington of the White House, the Washington of the Defense Department, the Washington of the State Department, and the Washington of the U.S. Congress, and others. These are not always playing the same tune. There is a very strong anti-Turkish strain in Congress, while many congressmen are dependent on the support of people in their constituency who are interested in what happens to Israel. And there is a well-organized lobby in Washington. Thus, there is a clear need to change the atmosphere regarding Turkey in Congress. For instance, when the possibility of the U.S. and the EU conducting negotiations for a free trade area comes up, an important question arises as to what would happen to Turkey.

The logical road for the U.S. and Turkey would be for them to accept the same free trade agreement, in order to regulate their bilateral economic relations. However, many observers say that, under the circumstances, it would be very difficult to get this kind of agreement through Congress. Also, we have to understand that if we are going to work with U.S. in the Middle East, Turkey’s relations with Israel are going to constitute an important factor affecting how its relations with the U.S. will develop.

You have also talked about the possibility of a relapse in the reconciliation process between Turkey and Israel. What makes you talk about such a possibility?

Both governments had taken strong and rather exaggerated positions against each other. The Turkish government said the embargo to Gaza should be fully lifted, which was probably not a realistic position. Similarly, earlier, Israel had said there would be no apologies, no nothing. Now, of course, in both cases the two governments will be criticized by those who continue to maintain more militant positions. Each side has an interest in not appearing to give in too much to the other side, and getting something back in return.

The behavior of each government may be understandable in terms of their domestic political needs, but international developments cannot be managed so neatly. That means you cannot trust that the process will continue to go smoothly on its own without going sour. Therefore, the presence of a facilitator can be useful in encouraging further cooperation and helping the parties retain their perspective, not succumbing to the criticism of their respective oppositions.

Can Turkey play a role in facilitating a settlement in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict?

Turkey has already been trying to bring Hamas and Fatah together. The U.S. has suggested that Turks could do more to persuade Hamas to cooperate with the government in the West Bank. In that particular area, in believing that Hamas and Fatah should cooperate, the Americans and the Turks see eye to eye. Nevertheless, they may have different ideas as to what this united political movement should do. It does seem that the U.S. is also trying to persuade the Israeli government to do more to achieve a two state solution, and Turkey supports the main direction of this policy.

How do you think the Syrian issue will evolve?

It is clear that the U.S. is not interested in getting involved in Syria in a way that necessitates a military commitment, or an extensive commitment of money and material resources. However, I feel that Turkey may be somewhat successful in getting the Americans to understand that the current level of American abstinence is going to make things worse and more costly in the future. I have the feeling that the American contribution to bringing about change in Syria may increase.

The U.S. and Turkey seem to differ as to the nature of the Syrian opposition, as the former is concerned about the radical elements within the various opposition groups.

The Americans have expressed their legitimate concerns. There is a problem there, so measures need to be taken to ensure - to the extent possible – that the military material that may be passed on to the Syrian opposition does not end up in hands that would eventually use it against the Americans or the Turks. At the moment, what you have is protracted fighting. This kind of struggle can only elevate the importance of radical movements. So the quicker the struggle is ended, the greater the assurance that it will not be controlled exclusively by radicals.

How do you think the U.S. perceives Turkey?

A: Successive U.S. administrations have basically been trying to work with Turkey, with the recognition that there may be areas of divergence and friction. But they also recognize the fact that the only country in the region that can get things done, that has reasonable domestic peace, and that has a functioning democracy - although with shortcomings - is Turkey. So, this cooperation is important to the U.S. It has become all the more important since the U.S. has recognized that it is no longer going to be able to do things by itself, and that it has to work with other countries to build coalitions. With regards the Middle East, the Caucasus and Central Asia, Turkey seems to be as good a partner as you may hope to find in this part of the world.

Who is İlter Turan?

İlter Turan is a professor of political science at the Department of International Relations at Istanbul Bilgi University. He has served as the president of the school from 1998 to 2001. 

Turan was president of the Turkish Political Science Association from 2000 to 2009 and also served as vice president of the International Political Science Association from 2000 to 2006. He was also the program chair of the 21st World Congress of Political Science in Santiago, Chile, in July 2009.

He is the chairman of the board of the Health and Education Foundation and serves on the board of several foundations and corporations. He is widely published in English and Turkish on comparative politics, Turkish politics and foreign policy. His recent writings have focused on the domestic and international politics of water, the Turkish Parliament and its members, as well as Turkish political parties.