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Turkey's Israel problem
 

One of the most important and least noticed casualties of Israel’s three-week offensive in Gaza was its alliance with the secular Muslim nation of Turkey. As in 2006 during the bombardment of Lebanon, Turkish public reaction to Israel’s operation in Gaza was extremely negative. But this time the Turkish government was a much more vociferous critic of its military partner, and Prime Minister Erdogan went so far as to raise the possibility of Israel’s expulsion from the United Nations. Erdogan was reportedly livid that Israeli had launched the Gaza strikes without informing him, which was particularly humiliating for the Turkish leader since the strikes effectively sabotaged Erdogan’s efforts to mediate between Israel and Syria. At the World Economic Forum in Davos last month, Erdogan delivered a brief, angry rebuke to Israeli President Shimon Peres and dramatically walked off the stage, winning plaudits in Turkey, Gaza, and Iran.

The episode summed up the growing frustration in Turkey’s AKP (Justice and Development Party) government with Israeli policy and showed the strain that the conflict in Gaza had put on Israel’s only alliance with a Muslim country. More than that, though, it reflected growing Turkish disillusionment with all of its Western allies over the last decade. The greatest danger to Turkey and the West now comes from failing to recognize how Western policies have alienated the Turks and misinterpreting their disillusionment as simple rejection.

The disillusionment is real and deep. Surveys of “anti-American” sentiment reveal that Turkey is now the nation with the worst opinion of the United States, even though it is one of our most strategically important allies. According to the Pew Global Attitudes Project, 75 percent of Turks have a very unfavorable view of the United States. The reasons for this are not hard to fathom. The U.S. invasion of Iraq was deeply unpopular in Turkey from the beginning, as it was in most other allied countries. But the war poses unique dangers to Turkey’s security and territorial integrity, given the potential encouragement to Kurdish separatism that the example of the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq offers. As the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) rebellion has resumed inside Turkey, using bases in northern Iraq and prompting Turkish cross-border raids, Washington’s slow response to Ankara’s concerns about the PKK in Iraq has infuriated the Turkish public.

Turkish public opinion has likewise turned strongly against the West over the question of Turkey’s proposed membership in the European Union. Resistance from France and Germany has indefinitely delayed Turkey’s admission into the E.U., marking one of the more significant setbacks for Erdogan’s government, which came to power on a platform calling for entry into the E.U.  Ironically, the Turkish popular backlash against Israel’s strikes in Gaza now gives Israel an incentive to want to keep Turkey out of the E.U., where public opinion already runs quite heavily against Israel.

There are some prospects for improving U.S.-Turkish ties, but this may hinge on President Obama breaking one of his campaign pledges, namely his support for the House resolution recognizing the Armenian genocide of 1915. President Obama has the opportunity to undo some of the damage to America’s image in Turkey if he follows through on his promise to end the war in Iraq, and he may be able to use Turkey as a mediator in negotiations with Iran. But this would be much more difficult if the resolution passed the House with his support.  The resolution is a purely symbolic and historically valid recognition of the genocide, but the issue remains highly charged within Turkey. In 2008, Turkey threatened to cut off supply routes to U.S. forces in Iraq if the resolution passed, and it is likely that the same threat would be made again this year.  Unfortunately, the Obama administration will first need to repair the substantive policy breaches with Turkey before it can address that historic injustice as it should.

As for the crisis in Turkish-Israeli relations, Israel’s elections earlier this week seem likely to only make matters worse. While it remains unclear which party will ultimately run the next government, the conservative Likud Party and ultra-nationalist Our Home party both made big gains, a trend that threatens the Middle East peace negotiations that Erdogan has been trying to facilitate. While strong military and institutional ties will keep the Israel-Turkey alliance from completely fracturing, the diverging directions of the two electorates are sure to chill relations between their governments and create many more occasions for diplomatic disputes.

 

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