A Big Chill: A Duo Divided by Democratic Legitimacy


In recent months there has been much talk of a "serious crisis" between Turkey and Israel. There is no single explanation for the problematic relationship between the two countries. However, a brief analysis of the friendlier bilateral relations in the past may help us better understand the present situation....

In recent months there has been much talk of a "serious crisis" between Turkey and Israel. There is no single explanation for the problematic relationship between the two countries. However, a brief analysis of the friendlier bilateral relations in the past may help us better understand the present situation.
The Turkish government has been openly critical of a number of Israeli policies, ranging from harsh security measures against the Palestinians to alleged Israeli intelligence activities in northern Iraq. In the mid-1990s, in contrast, Turkey's expectations of Israel created a far different situation.

One major expectation was that Israel was under the obligation to support Turkey because the latter's national security establishment fought against the negative political manifestations of Islam in the region. The domestic political deadlock in Turkey also justified the alliance with Israel in the framework of Ankara's regional outlook - whereby Iran was held responsible for its influence over Islamic issues in Turkey, and Syria for its maneuvering on the Kurdish question. However, Ankara's subsequent high priority to enter the European Union, its adoption of the Copenhagen criteria, its political and legal reforms, and its economic reforms supervised by the International Monetary Fund, put an end to the final vestiges of Turkey's Cold War policies, including the national security state.

Since then, the change in Turkish domestic politics has led to a new orientation in foreign policy, particularly since the advent of the ruling Justice and Development Party. Turkey has succeeded in improving its relations with neighboring countries. For example, Turkish officials have convened gatherings of representatives from countries bordering Iraq on a periodic basis, an initiative that has been taken seriously by the UN. Turkish leaders are a voice for reform in the region, and have advised Arab leaders not to use the Palestinian question to delay this process.

Turkish foreign policy has been far more in tune with domestic societal demands than ever before. The March 2003 motion that denied American troops the use of Turkish territory in the war against Iraq was a historical turning point. Ankara made clear that it valued and would follow the principle of democratic legitimacy in taking its regional and international decisions.

As Turkey has made strides toward greater security and democracy, Israel has not been able to keep up in terms of promoting security and democracy at home. This has increased the distance between the two nations. Given the negative implications for the entire Middle East of Israel's policies toward the Palestinians, Ankara has urged immediate Israeli action on the Palestinian question. This emphasis on foreign policy legitimacy has put Turkey at odds with Israel.

Although there is no strong anti-Israeli sentiment among the Turkish people, Turks are sensitive to the images of Palestinians suffering under Israeli occupation, and sympathize with them. The Turkish government views its policy toward Israel as constructive: While it has expressed its objections on a number of issues, it has not suspended political relations. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's criticism of Israel, for example on the occasion where he referred to Israeli acts in Rafah as state terrorism, generated much popular support at home that far transcended the ruling party's political base.

Turkey's close relations with the Arab states and its adoption of EU policy on the Palestinian issue are certainly relevant. However, these factors are not at the root of the new Turkish approach toward Israel; rather, they are the result of Turkey's new foreign policy orientation. Israel's guarantee of a commitment to Iraqi territorial unity is surely important to Turkey. Israel would also do well to open communication channels to Turkey's new ruling elite. However, the problems between Turkey and Israel are structural and cannot be resolved through cosmetic measures. Such moves would not demonstrate comprehension of the larger picture in the new Turkish-Israeli relationship, and would be inadequate to truly repair relations between the two countries.

Among the more meaningful steps Israel could take to help ease the tension with Turkey would be to pay attention to the international community's expectations and follow a more constructive and responsible path to peace with the Palestinians and with the Arab states. No state in today's world can achieve the desired level of security at home while turning its back on the legitimate concerns of the international community. Ankara expects Israel to show political maturity and to achieve democracy, security and peace through means that are broadly acceptable internationally, which must include improving relations with all of its neighbors.

Turkey remains a trustworthy ally and friend of Israel. Once Israel begins to move toward a more consensual set of policies in the Middle East, Turkey's willingness to support legitimate Israeli concerns will be far more apparent.

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