The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

The Economist is wrong on Turkey and Israel

I was slightly taken aback reading one of the leaders in this this week's Economist, on Turkey's foreign policy. The leader takes  Recep Tayyib Erdogan to task for his populist foreign policy. He deserves it, indeed, for his boisterous announcements about giving Syria an ultimatum (which has been allowed to elapse). But the leader pushes for Israeli-Turkish reconciliation for the wrong reason, with the assumption that Turkey is at fault, based on a reasoning that simply does not make sense.

And then there are relations with Israel, which have never recovered after the Israeli army’s killing of eight Turks and one Turkish-American aboard a Gaza-bound ship, theMavi Marmara, last year. The intransigent Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, is not popular with many EU governments or with the current American administration. He has been foolishly stubborn to refuse even the smallest apology over the Mavi Marmara. But if Mr Erdogan calculates that he can pander to anti-Israeli prejudice at home without paying a price abroad, he is making a mistake. Turkey stands to gain from stable Arab-Israeli relations, which it ought ideally to be well-placed to promote. And, like it or not, many in the West take Turkey’s attitude to Israel as a yardstick of its broader intentions. If Turkey wants to preserve good relations with the West, it must find some way of mending fences with Israel as well.

I very much doubt that latest assertion. As a medium power, Turkey has enough clout to maintain the distance it wants to maintain from Tel Aviv (for the right reasons, it seems to me, since its citizens were murdered). It has also plenty of good reasons to distance itself from a state engaged in a campaign of slow ethnic cleansing and which is itself increasingly isolated. What are examples of Turkey suffering from its policy on Israel, exactly? Turkey gets flak, probably rightly, for its attitude to the Armenian genocide, for its stance on the Cyprus conflict, and for its handling of the Kurdish question. But Israel? And in any case, what are the indications that the West and Turkey don't get along, or that issues such as EU membership are about Israel (after all, Sarkozy and the Greeks opposed that from 2007 at least, when relations between Ankara and Tel Aviv were good.) If "the West" wants to make Turkey pay a price for its Israel policy, then it is the West that is foolish.

I was in Istanbul recently and talked to various Turkish foreign policy experts, businesspeople as well as Syrian dissidents. Relations with Israel did not seem a big deal or issue of concern there. Relations with Syria and Iran were very much on the top of the agenda, notably whether Turkey could/should provide a safe haven or no-fly zone in northern Syria. Among Turks, opinions were very divided on this and the issue of whether Turkey should impose trade sanctions with Syria — quite reasonably, some Turkish businessmen feel that a) they stand to lose money from sanctions and b) only ordinary Syrians would suffer from trade sanctions. I would certainly join them in opposing anything like the 1990s era sanctions in Iraq.

Turkey still has to fully determine its Syria policy, even if it is moving in the direction of full-fledged opposition to the Assad regime. It has yet to formulate a grander regional policy — as a friend joked, Turkish policy for the last decade has simply been "to export plastic buckets to its neighbors." The challenge of Turkey's foreign policy seems to me not to be Israel, which is a secondary interest whichever way it goes, but figuring out whether it will be based on much more than mercantilism.