Turkey’s Chill Further Isolates Israel

Henri J. Barkey, chairman of the international relations department at Lehigh University, was on the State Department's policy planning staff (1998-2000).

In May, when Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan characterized Israel’s incursions into the Rafah refugee camp in Gaza as the actions of a terrorist state, there was no mistaking that something had gone terribly awry in Turkish-Israeli relations. Their correct but standoffish relationship began to blossom in 1996. So numerous were their military agreements and commercial deals that it appeared, certainly in the Arab world, that the two countries were entering a strategic relationship.

Turkey’s changed tone doesn’t signify the end of the relationship, but it augurs a time of greater differences ahead, as well as underlining Israel’s increasing isolation. The worsening situation in the Palestinian territories and the rise of the post-Sept. 11 terrorist threat have contributed to the falling-out. But the transformation in Turkish attitudes also stems from internal developments in Turkey.

The most important domestic change is the political ascent of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party. Yet despite its leaders’ desire to be moderate and centrist, the party cannot escape its roots in Turkey’s Islamist movement. To its credit, the party has charted a liberal and reformist agenda to facilitate Turkey’s entry into the European Union. At the same time, Justice and Development has had to be careful not to rile Turkey’s military establishment, which is anxious about Erdogan’s growing power. For example, the party has backed down on such divisive religious issues as relaxing the ban on women wearing headscarves in government offices, schools and universities.


Erdogan’s blast at Israel similarly gives his party some political maneuvering room. First and foremost, it signals to his bedrock supporters that though the party at times makes concessions to the military, it can hold its own when it comes to Tel Aviv. On this the Turkish public is solidly behind the Justice and Development Party, because the Palestinian issue has always been important to Turks. Furthermore, limiting contacts with Israel puts the military on the defensive. Many Turks, especially Erdogan’s rank and file, regard the Israeli-Turkish relationship as the creation of the military, which needed access to weaponry, and Israel’s staunchest friend, Washington.

There are other reasons for Turkey’s new ambivalence toward Israel. The Turkish government is more self-confident than at any time in recent history. Reflecting a palpable transformation in Europe’s attitude toward it, Turkey’s prospect for getting a date to begin accession negotiations with the EU is excellent. No longer is the country perceived as crisis-prone. Turkish views are well received, and Turkey’s leaders enjoy greater esteem. As a result, the Justice and Development Party doesn’t need to curry favor with either Israel or its powerful supporters in Washington.

Second, the party wants to cash in Turkey’s new respectability for a greater say in international institutions. It was no coincidence that Erdogan’s criticism of Israel came soon after Ankara succeeded in landing the secretary-general office in the Organization of Islamic Countries.

Finally, Turkey’s harsher attitude toward Tel Aviv coincides with an unprecedented anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic diatribe in the Turkish press. Conspiracy theories, many of them with origins in Sept. 11, abound about Israel’s abilities and intentions everywhere in the world. My favorite one was in a recent column in Turkey’s most pro-government paper. It claimed that the events in Darfur, Sudan, were the result of Israel’s desire to claim the waters of the Nile. The Israelis, the conspiracy asserts, induced its Ethiopian Christian allies to rebel against the Sudanese government. Not only did the columnist not know where Darfur is, but he also was ignorant of the fact that the genocide in Darfur is perpetrated by Arab Muslim Sudanese on African Muslims.

Exaggerated, if not unsubstantiated, reports in the U.S. media about Israeli activities in northern Iraq have fed this frenzy. Israel’s long-standing connections to Iraq’s Kurds have added to the anxiety among Turks, who believe that Israel wants another like-minded non-Arab state in the region in the hope of undermining Arab unity. Ankara fears that such a Kurdish state would inspire Turkey’s Kurds, who make up about 20% of the country’s population, to seek independence of their own. Although it’s in Israel’s interests that Iraq remain a unified -- albeit federal -- state devoid of fundamentalist impulses a la Iran, few in Turkey would believe this.

The developments in Turkey, as important as they are in altering its attitude toward Tel Aviv, are also another manifestation of Israel’s growing isolation. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s unilateralist policies and seeming indifference to their political costs have erased much of the goodwill his predecessors had built up in parts of the world. One only need to return to August 1999, when Israeli rescue teams, credited with saving many lives, were the first on the ground after a terrible earthquake in Turkey. Today, those efforts have disappeared from the collective Turkish memory.


The change in Turkey-Israeli atmospherics is not a welcome development for Washington, which had hailed and supported the two countries’ rapprochement. It means that Washington’s role as Israel’s lone supporter, and all the attendant consequences, will only grow.