Istanbul Dispatch

For more than a decade, you could take several things for granted in Turkey. Islamists normally had no role in government, the army was ultimately in charge of politics, and Ankara was a staunch ally of Israel. The rise of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's popular prime minister, whose party was elected in 2002 in the biggest vote in recent Turkish history, changed the first two assumptions. Erdogan hails from an Islamic party that had pushed for the legalization of the headscarf and other blurrings of the line between mosque and state. In office, Erdogan has asserted unprecedented civilian control of government, all but pushing aside the once-powerful Turkish military.

 Now, the third assumption looks shaky as well: As Turkey becomes more democratic, it is moving away from Israel. This June, Erdogan stood before a group of parliamentarians from his ruling Justice and Development Party (A.K.) and leveled the most public criticism of the Israeli government in decades. "Recent actions of Israel have given rise to anti-Semitism in the world," Erdogan announced. Israel's policies of demolishing Palestinian houses, assassinating leaders of Palestinian militant groups, and blockading areas of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip amounted to "state terror," he warned. Israel's Foreign Ministry quickly hit back with a condemnation of Erdogan, charging, "Turkey's allegations that Israel's security measures contribute to anti-Semitism ... only reinforces those wishing to harm the Jewish people." Analysts and politicians on both sides waited for cooler heads to prevail. They're still waiting: The exchange proved only the opening salvo in a war of rhetoric that could leave Israel without its key ally in the Middle East.


Since the exchange, relations between the two nations have deteriorated further. In short order, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul recalled Turkey's ambassador to Israel--a major slap in the face for an ally. At the same time, Gul announced he was considering a full-fledged ambassador to the Palestinian Authority. And Gul warned that Turkey would not stop criticizing the Jewish state. In fact, the deteriorating relationship between Turkey and Israel so worried Washington that President Bush reportedly spoke with Erdogan about relations with Israel this summer.

But Erdogan was not swayed. To demonstrate Turkey's seriousness, he asked the Turkish military not to sign any new deals with Israeli companies, which had found Turkey a highly lucrative market for weapons. Sources say one large contract in which Israel was involved was canceled completely.

Israel has responded. This summer, Israeli national airline El Al suspended flights to Turkey after the Turkish government suddenly refused to allow El Al's armed air marshals to operate within Turkish airports; El Al's decision stranded many Israeli travelers in Turkey. Meanwhile, Israel's Foreign Ministry has condemned many of Turkey's statements and decisions.

Creating rifts is unusual for Erdogan, whose charm has won over everyone from European leaders to Kurdish rebels. He's also popular with the Turkish public. The A.K. has delivered a successful neoliberal economic agenda that has helped stabilize the country's economy, cutting inflation--which used to top 100 percent each year--to single digits. In a show of public support, Erdogan's party swept municipal elections in March.

Yet, as Turkey becomes more democratic and the military moves back into the barracks, Erdogan, like any politician, has had to pacify his core constituency. In his case, that core consists largely of conservative, religious Turks. For these supporters, the prime minister's snubs of Israel are red meat. "It's clear the honeymoon is over. But the honeymoon wasn't realistic anyway," says Ozgul Erdemli, an analyst with a leading Turkish political action committee and think tank.

What's more, as Turkey has democratized, its policy agenda has diverged from Israel's. In the 1990s, the two nations had almost identical worldviews. Isolated from the Arab world, both sought regional security partners. With all-out war raging in Turkey's Kurdish areas, Turkey needed high-tech weaponry, especially after many European nations halted arms sales to Ankara because of human rights abuses. Indeed, Turkey purchased some $3 billion in military equipment from Israel during the '90s, and Israeli defense companies grew so entrenched in the Turkish procurement system that contracts were often awarded to them without competitive tenders. Meanwhile, the two nations saw radical Islamism as a common threat, and Ankara and Jerusalem cooperated closely on intelligence, focusing on Iran and on Syria, which was alleged to be supporting the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), a leading terrorist group.

These days, Turkey's agenda has changed. Once terrified of Islamists, the country is now run by an Islamic-rooted party that wants to make the country a leader in the Muslim world. So Erdogan has boosted relations with Iran and Syria, hosting Syrian leader Bashar Al Assad and top Iranian officials and signing trade deals with Tehran and Damascus. Israel, of course, continues to view Iran and Syria as its major adversaries. "Turkish domestic politics has led to a new orientation in foreign policy," says Bulent Aras, an associate professor of political science at Fatih University in Istanbul. "It has been far more in tune with domestic societal demands than ever before." In fact, in response to Turkey's politicking, the country was elected to head the Conference of Foreign Ministers of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) in June. The OIC has become another platform for Turkish leaders to demonstrate their Islamic bona fides to the Muslim world, partly by taking public jabs at Israel.

Meanwhile, Turkey has come to an uneasy accommodation with its Kurdish minority, inking cease-fires with rebel groups and thus reducing the need for Israeli arms. Even in southern Kurdish strongholds like Diyarbakir, the government's heavy military presence has melted away. But allegations--most notably in The New Yorker--of Israeli involvement in training Kurdish militias, including remnants of the PKK, have further angered Turks, especially conservatives who have long suspected that Israel wants to create a Kurdish ministate in the heart of the region. This summer, a rash of small bombings in Istanbul and other cities linked to what seems like a revived PKK have only fueled Turkish conspiracy theories about Israel.


No one expects Turkey to cut all ties to Israel. But many expect a fundamentally changed relationship, with Turkey relying less on Israeli aid and spending more time wooing Arab leaders. This may not prove a major problem for Turkey, which can gain by positioning itself as a bridge between Europe and the Arab world, both of which contain bigger trade partners than Israel.

For Israel, the consequences may be more severe. Besides losing one of the largest markets for its arms--and its best intelligence source in the Middle East--it faces deeper regional isolation, Israeli analysts say. Syria may be strengthened by its ties to Turkey and less willing to consider dealing with the Jewish state. With Iran edging closer to developing a nuclear weapon, Israel may soon have to decide whether to strike Iranian reactors--as it did with Iraq in 1981--without the tacit support of the Turkish military, the second-most powerful army in the region. Israel has long complained about its isolation as the only true democracy in the Middle East. Who ever thought that the birth of a second real Middle Eastern democracy would leave it more isolated still?

Hassan M. Fattah writes for The New York Times.

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