Sunday,18 November, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1131, 17 - 23 January
Sunday,18 November, 2018
Issue 1131, 17 - 23 January

Ahram Weekly

Egypt, Turkey, Israel

Turkey is pivoting back towards its Western/Israeli strategic grounding, a fact that Arab Spring countries, particularly Egypt, must take into account, writes Galal Nassar

Al-Ahram Weekly

As we kick off the new year, observers cannot help but to remark on the huge, almost 180-degree shift, in Turkish foreign policy, towards the Middle East in particular. Only yesterday, it seems, the popular assets of Erdogan’s Turkey had soared high in the Arab region as it appeared to defy Israel and its American sponsor. Ankara stood tall, a pillar of independence, the model of self-assertion, the beacon for every Arab in search of a modern Islamic nation that is not subordinate to US will and Israeli interests. What brought about the radical shift? Were there pressures brought to bear on Ankara that made it change its tune towards America’s “52nd state”?
Certainly, Tel Aviv worked in its idiosyncratic ways to patch up what it regarded as a passing storm cloud in its relations with its friend, and perhaps strategic ally. However, this was only of many factors that wove together to lead the Turkish triumvirate of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Abdullah Gül and Ahmet Davutoglu to revise their calculations with respect to their foreign relations at the regional and international levels, albeit taking into account a number of compelling developments and pressures on the home front.
The Turkish about face in its strategic orientation is epitomised in its decision to lift its veto against Israeli participation in non-military activities in NATO. Accordingly, as of the beginning of this year, Ankara has agreed that Israel can take part in conferences, meetings, workshops and other such activities on the condition that there is no encounter between Israeli and Turkish soldiers in these activities.
Some observers attribute this development to the powers of persuasion of NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen during a meeting that was held in Brussels in the first week of December 2012. Rasmussen, in this meeting, laid out a vision that sought to institutionalise the transatlantic pact’s relationship with Israel in a manner that brought it in line with the agreement of a number of East European NATO members to lift their vetoes against the participation of Egypt, Tunisia and Jordan in non-military activities. Yet, as much as this may make it appear that the impetus for the softening in the Turkish stance on Israeli participation in NATO came from NATO, it is impossible to divorce it from NATO’s approval of the Turkish request for the deployment of a series of Patriot missile batteries along the border with Syria — a request motivated by urgent Turkish national security demands related to a rush of developments in the Syrian crisis.
Therefore, two types or areas of interplay are involved, one of which concerns developments affecting Turkey’s regional relations. Its locus is the Syrian crisis, which has set Ankara at loggerheads with Tehran and Baghdad, both of which are solidly behind the regime in Damascus. At the same time, Ankara has so far been unable to compensate for the deterioration of its relations on these fronts with an upgraded relationship with Cairo, which has re-emerged as a prime contender in the management of regional affairs. Above all, Egypt has moved to the fore in the handling of the Palestinian question, as was evident in the latest Gaza crisis in which it performed the mediating role that undoubtedly Turkey had hoped to play.
The second area of interplay is Turkish-NATO relations. Turkey has realised that at critical moments for its national security it has only NATO to fall back on. On the surface, its need for Patriot missiles in response to the threat emanating from across its southern border compelled it to revise its perceptions of its relations with the West. But the problem goes deeper. Its mismanagement of the Syrian crisis caused the balance of powers in the management of this crisis to shift to other regional powers, although the chief vehicle for this shift was Washington, which had put its weight behind an alternative opposition leadership, the Syrian National Coalition that was recently announced in Doha, pulling the carpet out from under the Syrian National Council that had been heavily supported by Turkey.
The combined effect of these two areas of interplay was to drive Ankara to reassess its strategic outlooks, leading it, firstly, to reinstate the priority of the Western/NATO dimension; secondly, to rein in the impulsiveness in its drive to reorient itself towards the Arab and Islamic worlds and project itself as a friend of the Arabs and a counterweight to Iran and the Zionist entity now that Ankara, itself, needed an intermediary to help resolve the problems that came to plague a network of relations it had worked hard to build up; and, thirdly, to support Israel’s return as a NATO participant.
Not only does it follow from the foregoing that Turkey’s decision to reduce the level of its veto against the inclusion of Israel in NATO activities was not solely the product of NATO pressures but also and more importantly that Turkey’s “green light” to NATO with respect to Israel is likely to extend to its own bilateral relationship with that country. Turkey needs to revive cooperation with Israel because it knows that this is the gateway to ensuring ongoing and effective NATO support for Turkish national security needs. It simultaneously realises that, at this time, the only way it can check the Israeli bid to encircle Turkey through closer relations with Greece and Cyprus is through a rapprochement with Tel Aviv.
Not that any of this is new to decision-making circles in Ankara. True, tensions between Turkey and Israel had mounted since the Erdogan government posed itself as a more vociferous champion of the Palestinian cause, as occurred when he vehemently protested against the Israeli “pre-emptive” invasion of Gaza in 2008-2009. Moreover, these relations reached the point of near rupture following the Israeli assault against the Mavi Marmara, killing nine Turkish civilians on this ship that was leading the Freedom Flotilla that was delivering humanitarian relief to Gaza in defiance of the Israeli blockade, and which led Ankara to demand an official apology and compensation for the families of the victims as a condition for restoring normality to this bilateral relationship. Nevertheless, in spite of the deterioration, Erdogan continued to affirm his government’s policy of maintaining a “balance” in its regional relationships (and by extension with Israel) and between its relations in the Middle East and those with Europe. The Turkish prime minister made this outlook explicit during one of his visits to Tehran when he said: “Turkey will not sacrifice its relations with the West for the sake of an alliance with the East... One side of our face points west and the other points east.” This remark was a response to an interviewer’s question as to whether Erdogan’s tough line with respect to Israel was a sign that his government was now turning eastward after decades of “secular” Ankara’s aloofness to its Islamic environment. Moreover, Erdogan went further, adding: “Ankara will sustain its relations with Israel, but it refuses to allow Israel or its allies abroad to pressure it into adopting their political positions.” This tempered with the suggestion that “Turkey and Iran can forge a new regional order that will reduce the size of the vacuum [in the region] and put an end to the schemes of enemies abroad.”
At that time, the Turkish prime minister had just signed several trade agreements with Tehran that were intended to raise their annual level of bilateral trade from $12 billion in 2009 to $20 billion in 2011. Also during that visit to Tehran (which took place on 29 October 2009), the Turkish Foreign Ministry’s spokesman, Burak Özügergin, amplified on the Turkish strategic orientation at the time: “Turkey is expanding its relations, not changing them. We have strong friendships with Syria, Iraq, Iran, Russia, Georgia, Armenia, Greece, Bulgaria and other countries... This means that we do not have a negative attitude towards any country. We will not accept being with one group against another. We do not support the policy of axes.” The spokesman stressed that this orientation would not come at the expense of its relations with the West and Israel.
Turkish-Israeli relations continued to deteriorate sharply, as this was still in the aftermath of the Mavi Marmara incident. This applied in particular to military cooperation, in which context Turkey refused to allow Israeli planes to take part in the Anatolian Eagle air force exercises that year and only two days afterwards it held joint military manoeuvres with Syria. Nevertheless, it is important to note that even at the height of their bilateral dispute, Ankara’s doors were still open to a level of strategic cooperation with Tel Aviv. Israeli Minister of Trade and Industry  David Ben Eliezer and Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak both called on Ankara shortly afterwards, even if certain parameters had been put into place: the Israeli ministers were only allowed to meet with their Turkish counterparts and not with either President Gül or Prime Minister Erdogan.
In all events, the abovementioned developments that compelled Ankara to turn to NATO have brought reconciliation between Ankara and Tel Aviv closer within reach. Certainly, Avigdor Lieberman’s resignation as foreign minister is fortuitous in this regard and Ankara hopes that the forthcoming parliamentary elections in Israel will produce a government in Tel Aviv that is more accommodating to the requirements for developing a healthier partnership with Turkey.
For the countries of the Arab Spring, it will become increasingly important to evaluate their relations with Turkey and other regional powers. Egypt, in particular, must give careful thought to strategic cooperation with a NATO member that has strategic relations with Israel in light of the major risk this would naturally entail to Egyptian national security and its Arab dimension. The prevailing framework for its assessment must be the “nation state” which operates in accordance with knowledge of its territorial boundaries as well as its awareness of the acceptable boundaries for cooperation or clashes with other countries in the region and the world, as determined by an objective evaluation of its higher national interests.

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