ANKARA, Turkey — Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas was recently received in Ankara with full honors accorded a head of state.
In his first foreign travel since the United Nations overwhelmingly voted for recognizing Palestine as a “non-member observer state,” Abu Mazen, as he is also known, was welcomed at the Turkish presidential palace on Dec. 11 with a 21-gun salute.
In its reception of President Abbas, Turkey sent another signal that it has no interest in repairing its relationship with Israel.
The trend is rather in the opposite direction, playing to the Arab Street, including the Turkish leadership’s continuing bold and feverish statements over Israeli policies.
Turkish President Abdullah Gul was critical of Israel’s decision to build new settlements in East Jerusalem, and warned that Israel should understand that it’s becoming a “burden” on the international community. Israel is “playing with fire,” he said. “We condemn the decision of building new settlements.”
Kemal Kilicdaroglu, Turkey’s main opposition party leader, or the CHP, on the other hand, accused the Erdogan government of engaging in secret talks with Israel, and claimed that the newly built NATO radar station in Kurecik, Malatya is there to protect Israel.
The meeting between the Israeli prime minister’s envoy, Yosef Chiechanover, and the Turkish prime minister’s envoy, Feridun Sinirlioglu, in Geneva sometime before the operation “Pillar of Defense” encouraged this speculation, and the criticism of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
“If [Erdogan] is sincere in his stand against Israel, he should stop [cooperating with NATO] at Kurecik,” Kilicdaroglu said on Dec.4. “They built that radar system there for Israel’s security.”
But Turkey has done nothing of the sort, and Erdogan has squandered the Israel relationship for the cheers of the Arab street.
After having achieved a historic level of Turkish-Israel cooperation, and the potential to play a role as an honest broker between Israel and the Palestinians, Erdogan has now driven the relationship over a cliff.
His rhetoric has been consistently shrill, criticizing the US support to Israel, tagging Israel a “terrorist state”, and accusing Israel of “ethnic cleansing.”
The bottom line: Israel is a loser in Turkish politics. Kilicdaroglu knows this, and this explains the absurdist claim that Erdogan and the AKP are actually collaborating with Israel.
How did it come to this? The May 2010 Mavi Marmara incident, where Israeli soldiers killed nine Turks off the coast of Gaza, might have signaled the beginning of the end, but it need not have been. There was bad blood for sure, but Turkish and Israeli envoys had reportedly agreed on a package deal last year, crafting the sentence that would be accepted as apology by the Turkish government. Israel would say, “If during the operation there have been tactical mistakes, we are sorry for that.”
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor told Al-Monitor that paying compensation was not an issue. "Israel also agreed to pay compensation," he said. "But not directly to the families of the dead, but to a fund that Turkish government establishes and that it manages the distribution of the money to the families of those killed."
Despite this agreement in principle, Erdogan instead demanded lifting the Gaza blockade, and now he is demanding that a Palestinian state — along with Israel — should be established based on 1967 borders, his own implied preconditions for relations with Israel.
“The conditions are not the old conditions. A historic change is taking place in our region. If Israel wants peace, it should rightly understand what this means,” the Turkish prime minister said. “The whole world is expecting Israel to act in a constructive and accommodating manner. The recent two votes are very important.”
From the Israeli perspective though, the bilateral relations with Turkey should not be conditioned over the Palestinian issue.
“I know Erdogan is saying Israel is the losing side from the freezing of the relations,” said Palmor. “It’s true we’ve a lot to lose, but so does Turkey. There used to be an intimate relationship between two armies, and of course intelligence services. This intimacy is now lost and it’s not going to be easy to repair that.”
The issue that separates Israel and Turkey is not only Erdogan’s regional, sectarian Islamist rhetoric. There is an overall confusion and conflict within the country as to how to handle its Middle East policy especially at a time when tectonic shifts are taking place in the region.
The dilemma in Turkey is that while Erdogan pushes Turkey to become an active actor in the Middle East, Turks hardly debate publicly what this really means for them.
Beyond non-controversial issues, such as increasing trade ties with the Arab countries, as well as abolishing visas, there is also the ideological aspects of the AKP policies, and the neo-Ottoman worldview of Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu.
Many critics avoid speaking out of turn in the present political climate.
Like Kilicdaroglu, most politicians fear losing votes over saying anything that may somehow slightly sound positive about Israel.
Today’s fact is that Erdogan’s government has made the Palestinian cause to become a “national” issue for Turkey on the basis of “Islamic solidarity”, “universal values” and “human rights” whereas the Gaza blockade constituted no threat to Turkey’s national interests.
In this context, Turkey’s approach to Israel for the continuation of bilateral relations not only has no precedent in the world diplomatic arena, but also begs scrutiny as to whether it helps to re-energize the peace process between Palestinians and Israelis.
Turkey has sacrificed diplomacy for ideology. It was a non-entity in the Israel-Gaza conflict and cease-fire.
In making itself a partisan rather than a regional leader, Turkey undercuts its natural strategic asset as a broker for diplomacy among Israel and the Arab countries, and degrades its relations with the US and Europe in the process.
Tulin Daloglu is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse. She has written extensively for various Turkish and American publications, including The New York Times, International Herald Tribune, The Middle East Times, Foreign Policy, The Daily Star (Lebanon) and the SAIS Turkey Analyst Report.