|It makes sense that Israel is now exploring the possibility that it can reach a rapprochement with Turkey after more than two years of tensions between the two countries. Turkey, a member of NATO, was in the past also a strategic ally of Israel. It could become again a potentially critical partner for Israel in the Middle East in the future. Turkey’s strategic weight should not be underestimated. Its total population today numbers nearly 80 million people, slightly less than the populations of Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Saudi Arabia combined. In short, when Turkish-Israeli relations are close, it means that Israel’s relations with the greater Middle East are being normalized through a country that represents a critical mass in the region.
The immediate circumstances of the attempt to restore Israeli-Turkish ties are tied to the recent Turkish elections (held on June 12) and the victory of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. It was assumed that Erdogan would no longer need his antagonism toward Israel to increase support for his AKP party in Turkish public opinion. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu congratulated Erdogan on his election victory. For its part, Turkish government pressured the IHH, the Islamist Turkish organization that organized the May 2010 flotilla to the Gaza Strip, to cancel the participation of its ship, the Mavi Maramara, in this year’s flotilla. The Erdogan government also sought Israeli help in getting the United Nations to tone down its criticism of Turkish behavior during the previous flotilla. The new U.N. report, prepared by a committee under former New Zealand Prime Minister Geoffrey Palmer, is to be published in a few weeks.
What is the prognosis for this rapprochement? To a large extent, the future of Israeli-Turkish relations will depend on whether Erdogan’s government adopts a pragmatic approach to foreign policy or reverts to an ideological approach based on the political currents in his AKP party. Last year, U.S. State Department cables, revealed by WikiLeaks, revealed tremendous concern about Turkey’s “new, highly activist foreign policy.” An American diplomat wrote that at an AKP meeting there was a widespread belief that Turkey should re-establish its influence in areas that were once under Islamic rule, including aspirations “to take back Andalusia and avenge the defeat at the siege of Vienna in 1683.” The AKP’s idelology as it emerges from this cable actually sounds strikingly similar to that of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The American cable concluded that Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu was acting under “neo-Ottoman fantasies.” Davutoglu is known to have called for the establishment of three Turkish spheres of influence, in the Caucasus, the Balkans and the Middle East. In the last few years, Turkey seemed to be exploiting Egypt’s weakness as a leader in the Arab world, and sought to fill that vacuum itself.
Another feature of the AKP’s foreign policy in the Middle East appeared in 2006, when Turkey began to host regular conferences of the Muslim Brotherhood with Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi, the spiritual head of the movement, along with representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood from Sudan, Lebanon, Tunisia, and especially from Hamas. In fact, most Arab countries, including Qaradawi’s host and ally, Qatar, would not permit such conferences to take place on their own soil. Sometimes Erdogan would host a delegation from the Muslim Brotherhood in his office while at other times he would send a close adviser to the conferences. By April this year, Turkey was hosting the Syrian opposition in Istanbul, including leaders of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. The meeting was financed by a Turkish businessmen’s association with strong ties to the AKP, which also helped finance the first flotilla in 2010. Another conference with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood was held in Anatolia this May.
With the decline of the Arab regimes in the last half-year, the Turkish government could exploit the ties it has with Muslim Brotherhood branches throughout the Arab world in order to build up its regional influence. Alternatively, it could seek to bolster more pragmatic forces and abandon some of its earlier aspirations to take a leadership position among the Arab states.
A Turkish analyst writing for the Brookings Institution in Washington noted that recently Erdogan was in Iraq, where he visited the Shiite holy places in Najaf and was the first Sunni leader to visit Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. It is difficult to imagine that a Turkish leader motivated by this ideology inspired the Muslim Brotherhood, which traditionally had serious reservations about Shia Islam. The analyst implies that Erdogan’s visit to Iraq has implications for Turkish-Israeli relations. It is still premature to establish whether Erdogan can surmount his ideological proclivities in the case of Israel, although effective diplomacy involves a constant effort of probing new opportunities that circumstances sometimes create.