BEYOND THE BOSPHORUS: Turkey's rekindling of ties with Israel is not sign Erdogan is softening

BEYOND THE BOSPHORUS: Turkey's rekindling of ties with Israel is not sign Erdogan is softening
It would be a mistake to read Erdogan’s positive rhetoric as a ‘New Year, New You’ moment.
By Suna Erdem in London April 19, 2016

In the halcyon days of the early 2000s, when Turkey’s new government was not almost universally reviled, the American Jewish Congress gave then prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan its “Profile in Courage” award for his efforts to bring peace to the Middle East and protect Turkey’s Jewish citizens.

Two years ago, the lobby group asked for it back. The American Jewish Congress President said that Erdogan was “arguably the most virulent anti-Israeli leader in the world”. In the interim decade, Turkey’s normally cooperative relations with Israel had deteriorated badly, most decidedly after a deadly Israeli naval raid in 2010 on a Turkish ship, Mavi Marmara, which was trying to break through Israel’s blockade of Gaza – but also in a wave of populist anti-Israeli rhetoric that Erdogan employed to endear him at home and in the Arab street.

That was before Turkey botched its trade ties with Russia. We will never quite know how much thought was given to the decision in November to blast a Russian jet out of Turkey’s airspace, but the satisfaction of punishing Moscow for ignoring warnings on Syria was short-lived. With its dependence on Russia for gas, exports and sun-seeking tourists, Turkey has been paying in hard cash for the decision to annoy Vladimir Putin, one of the most peevish leaders in the world.

So, today, Israel is suddenly flavour of the month again. Efforts have actually been ongoing for some years to revitalize ties between the two countries, but it’s no coincidence that less than a month after the Russian Su-24 was downed, Turkish officials began to speak about intensified negotiations to buy natural gas from Israel. When an Islamic State suicide bomber killed three Israeli tourists in the centre of Istanbul in March, Israelis said the Turks were more than helpful. Israel was allowed to land an army plane in Turkey to bring home Israeli casualties, Erdogan expressed his condolences several times and his AK Party, unusually, expelled an official who sent hostile tweets about the Israeli wounded.

Turkish and Israeli officials met early in April to discuss an end to the five-year diplomatic rift. Turkey – whose international standing is much lower than when it first broke off relations – appears to be the more conciliatory of the two sides. The two countries are now said to be close to a deal on building a floating port off Gaza, and Israel’s Leviathon Partners is in talks to build a 500km pipeline to export gas to Turkey, which would help reduce Ankara’s dependency on Moscow. While Russian tourism has halved, Israelis are returning to Turkey and Turkish food exporters are also finding customers in Israel for food products that should have been destined for Russia.

Turkey’s state statistics institute shows that, military consignments aside, Turkey’s exports to Israel have remained steady during the diplomatic crisis, while those to Russia were falling even before the jet debacle. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov reportedly told his Israeli counterpart that Moscow was unhappy with renewed Turkish-Israeli closeness.

Turkey’s new warming to Israel is in tandem with talks with Greece over the possibility of resolving the decades-long division of Cyprus. Ankara is also improving its relations with Saudi Arabia after they soured over the late Saudi King’s dislike of the Muslim Brotherhood, shedding – at least officially – its distaste for Egypt’s leadership and increasing dialogue with Iran, a country firmly positioned on the other side of the Shi’ite-Sunni divide that has grown in the region recently.

What’s happening, then? Is Turkey suddenly deciding after all that the splendid isolation until recently praised by its leaders is not such a great place to be?

Not alone

If you listened to Erdogan’s opening speech to the Istanbul summit of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (IOC), you would think so.

“We must unify not divide, we must promote alliances, not confrontation, strengthen dialogue, not hostility,” he said. He spoke out against the recent rise in sectarianism – a sectarianism that some would argue he has in the past helped stir. “My religion isn’t Sunni or Shi’ite, my religion is Islam.”

He also gave a nod to the rule of law: “It is inevitable that people who lose their faith in justice will be open to the exploitation of terrorist organisations.”

But while Turkey could do with a dose of cuddly warmth on the international stage, it would be a mistake to read Erdogan’s positive rhetoric as a ‘New Year, New You’ moment. This is, after all, a man who has won prizes for his oratory and has often laced his strings of fiery outbursts with speeches apparently full of peace and love.

And you only have to take a random look at the media to see that the Erdogan hostility and paranoia machine is still in full flow. He is taking yet another comedian to court – this time German comic Jan Boermermann for insulting him. Parliament – controlled by his AK Party – is about to approve the lifting of MP’s immunities, allegedly to make them accountable for common crimes but really so that pro-Kurdish deputies, whose election deprived AK of a super-majority in parliament back in June, can be thrown in jail. The fact that the spineless opposition Republican People’s Party and the hawkish Nationalist Action Party are supporting the motion shows, incidentally, that AK is not the only barrier in Turkey to human rights.

And there’s little point in Turkey trying to mend fences abroad when the domestic scene is so glum.  

In its 2015 progress report for Turkey, the European Parliament issued a blistering critique of the country’s rights record, accusing it of backsliding on democracy and the rule of law.

The brutal fighting in Turkey’s Kurdish regions continues unabated and we are now seeing the reemergence of the much criticized village guards. These are local Kurds armed and backed by the state to effectively spy on and fight other Kurds – it’s a system that has proved ineffective in combating terror, but effective in creating strife and division. Even when decommissioned, the guards would run riot, using state arms to continue blood feuds, grab land from neighbours and terrorise people they didn’t like.

With initiatives such as this back in the game, Erdogan’s words can be as honeyed as he likes. Without any effort to make peace at home, they’re worth nothing.

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