In the cauldron of Middle East politics, the unlikely alliance between
Turkey and Israel often stood out. Seemingly impervious to Arab
opposition and the tracts of disputed land lying between them, the two
countries had over the past decade traded intelligence, struck billion-dollar arms deals and hosted each other’s militaries for training sessions.
Even when Turkish leaders occasionally railed against Israel’s policies
toward the Palestinians, military cooperation continued unhindered
behind the scenes, anchored by Washington across the Atlantic.
But the relationship has officially soured. On Oct. 9, Turkey decided to
exclude Israel’s air force from participating in a routine NATO war-games
exercise, code-named Anatolian Eagle, to be held just days later in the
Turkish city of Konya. War games involving multiple countries take months to
organize, and the last-minute decision was clearly unexpected. The U.S. and
Italy pulled out shortly after they heard about the snub, with Washington
calling the move by Ankara “inappropriate.” Turkey’s reason for barring
Israel Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said his country “was showing its
sensitivity.” “We hope that the situation in Gaza will be improved, that the
situation will be back to the diplomatic track,” he said.
The friction is the latest in a relationship that has been worsening since
last December, when Turkey predominantly Muslim but officially
secular condemned Israel’s incursion into the Gaza Strip that left 1,500
Palestinians dead. In January, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan
stormed out of a debate with Israeli President Shimon Peres at a conference
in Davos, Switzerland. Wagging his finger at Peres, an emotional Erdogan
accused him of “murdering children on beaches” an outburst that made Erdogan a
hero on streets across the Arab world. “If bilateral relations between
Turkey and Israel touched bottom after that incident, the current crisis
shows that they are to remain there for some time to come,” says Ilker
Ayturk, a political science professor at Bilkent University in Ankara.
Another incident occurred at the U.N. General Assembly in
New York City in September, when Erdogan was the only world leader to allude to Gaza in his speech. He also told reporters that “there should be accountability for anyone guilty of war crimes in Gaza.” Days earlier, Davutoglu had canceled a trip to Israel after being refused permission to visit the Gaza Strip.
“Not being allowed to visit Gaza was the last straw,” says Sahin Alpay, a
political science professor at Bahcesehir University in Istanbul. “That,
combined with the Gaza attacks last year and the [Israeli Prime Minister
Benjamin] Netanyahu government’s refusal to freeze settlement activity in
the West Bank they all added up.”
The two countries have sparred before, but Turkish criticism of Israel has
grown more forceful since Erdogan’s Islamic-rooted Justice and Development
Party came to power in 2002. For decades Turkey was obsessed with Europe and all too keen to comply with the official NATO line, but in recent years it has started to look east, cultivating a role as a regional superpower. From Syria to Iran, the government has aggressively pursued closer ties with its neighbors. Amid the latest spat with Israel, Turkey signed a historic peace accord with its age-old foe Armenia and sent a 10-Minister delegation to Syria to negotiate the lifting of visa requirements for tourists traveling between the two countries.
What sets the war-games snub apart from other recent disputes is that for
the first time, military relations between the two countries have taken a
hit. This is a result of the Turkish government’s having increased its control
over the country’s powerful generals in a bitter and ongoing seven-year
power struggle. “Until very recently, it was the upper echelons of the
Turkish military who determined the scope and pace of the strategic
relationship between Israel and Turkey,” Ayturk says. “What we are
witnessing is the chief of staff allowing, willy-nilly, Erdogan to take the
initiative. They are acquiescing in a ‘political’ decision.”
On a popular level, almost as worrying as the political brinksmanship being
played out between Turkey and Israel is the speed with which official
hostility has trickled down to the streets. Visitors from Israel to
Turkey formerly the second most popular travel destination for Israelis
after the U.S. have fallen 47% since January, compared with the same period
last year. The Turkish government has also been less than careful in fanning
the flames of anti-Semitism. Erdogan recently exhorted university students
to take a page from “the Jews,” whom, he said, “invent things and then sit
back and make money off those inventions.” Innocuously meant, perhaps, but
dangerous nonetheless, particularly as Turkey is home to a Jewish minority.
Pragmatism is still likely to keep the crisis in check. Israel is
involved in two major defense projects in Turkey that are worth more than $1 billion, and the prickly issue of Iran’s nuclear program looms larger than anything else in the region. But the latest dispute signals that it is no longer business as usual between the two erstwhile friends.
See pictures of 60 years of Israel.
See pictures of Israeli soldiers sweeping into Gaza.