Alan Friedman, the chairman of FBC Media, is a veteran of the Financial Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the International Herald Tribune.

Jan 26 2010, 11:38 am

The Turkey-Israel Drama

It is rare in the annals of international affairs that the relationship between two nations  comes undone during the course of a panel discussion, but that’s precisely what happened last year at Davos, when the sometimes-dyspeptic Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the often-prolix president of Israel, Shimon Peres, slashed and burned their way through a discussion of Hamas’s attacks on Israel and the resulting Israeli attack on the Gaza Strip which had ended just days before. The arguing ended when Erdogan accused the panel moderator, Washington Post columnist and associate editor David Ignatius, of granting Peres more time to speak than any other member of the panel, and stormed off the stage. (In fact, Ignatius handled an unforgivably difficult job very well, and I don’t say this simply out of professional courtesy.) Also on the panel were the secretary-general of the League of Arab States, Amr Moussa – who is no wilting flower – and the hapless secretary-general of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, who, it could be assumed, regretted not missing the panel almost immediately after it started.

Some background on the unraveling of Turkish-Israeli relations helps put the cataclysmic panel discussion into context. (Even in the rare air of Davos, who would imagine that a panel discussion could ever be described as “cataclysmic”?) Turkey had been Israel’s closest Muslim friend for years. But under Erdogan’s Muslim-oriented Justice and Development Party, the country had struck up warm new friendships with Turkey’s traditional Muslim rivals – and Israel’s resolute enemies – Syria and Iran. In addition to that strain, the deeply personal anger between two world leaders seen onstage at Davos created its own momentum, accelerating what is turning into a full-blown disintegration of this previously-robust alliance  – a disintegration that’s still playing out today, with ramifications for the entire Middle East, as well as for America’s intensifying confrontation with Iran.

Erdogan had come ready for a fight. The folder he carried onto the stage – a folder that reportedly carried the seal of his Muslim party, and not that of the more secular-leaning Turkish foreign ministry – contained anti-Israel polemics downloaded from the Internet. Peres, too, was ready for battle, and after a twelve-minute speech by Erdogan, Peres responded at length, and boisterously. Erdogan was playing to type – his party has made Israel a special target of attack – but Peres was forced into a role he dislikes, that of reflexive defender of his tribe. In the recent past, Peres was famous for positing the idea that a new, modern, detribalized Middle East was in the making. But in Davos, he felt forced to play what he described to me after the event as an archaic role.

The roughest moment came when Erdogan accused Peres of being a killer. “Peres, you are older than me," Erdogan said. "Your voice comes out in a very high tone. And the high tone of your voice has to do with a guilty conscience. My voice, however, will not come out in the same tone.” He went on, “When it comes to killing, you know well how to kill." Peres pointed a finger at Erdogan and told him that Turkey would have responded in the same manner had rockets been fired at Istanbul. But Erdogan was not listening; he was leaving. As he departed, he said, “And so Davos is over for me from now on.”

At the risk of reading too much into a sentence fragment spoken in red-faced anger, this last statement by Erdogan reflects something more than transitory pique at his perceived mistreatment by Ignatius, or at Peres’s defense of the Gaza attack. Erdogan’s promise to turn his back on Davos is of a piece with Turkey’s recent, Islamically-inspired turn away from the West and toward the East. According to Soner Cagaptay, the director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, only one-third of Turks in a recent poll identified themselves as Westerners. In part, of course, this  reflects a perceived rejection by Europe, which has lost its Christianity except when the conversation turns to the question of whether Turkey should be admitted to the European Union, at which point otherwise secular Europeans suddenly discerned the menacing shadows of Ottoman horsemen at the city gates. This turn eastward has also been prompted by feelings of Muslim solidarity, though those feelings, Cagaptay said, are being manipulated by Erdogan’s party. “There is a singular obsession with Israel,” he said. “You won’t see this government making comments about Chechens being killed by Russians or the killing in Sudan. Only Israel gets this sort of attention now.”

Expressions of anti-Semitism, which had been suppressed by the Turkish government in recent years, found their way, earlier this month, into a nationally broadcast drama called Valley of the Wolves, in an episode in which Israelis are portrayed as baby-snatchers. In response, the Israeli deputy minister of foreign affairs, a deeply undiplomatic man named Danny Ayalon, intentionally humiliated Turkey’s ambassador in Israel.

This bad feeling between Turkey and Israel has implications for U.S. policymakers.  It’s always problematic when two of America’s allies don’t get along. Already, Turkey won’t participate in joint military exercises that involve Israel, meaning that, in essence, Turkey won’t help NATO if NATO helps Israel.

But in a recent conversation, David Ignatius suggested that Turkey will not allow relations with Israel to collapse entirely. “Turkey still wants to be part of the larger world of the West, and so engagement with Israel, and with the peace process, is extremely valuable to Turkey.”

While Ignatius, a Middle East expert of long-standing, is willing to talk about the complexities of the Turkish-Israeli relationship in general, he prefers not to talk about what happened on stage at Davos. “I’ve not wanted to comment publicly on what happened during that discussion because I’m a journalist,” he said. “I don’t want to get into the story more than I have. But anyone who watched it could see the intensity of anger that had built-up on both sides. It was very difficult to contain the debate within the framework of a normal discussion.”

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Comments (5)

THE "ONE MINUTE" SYNDROM

The article fails to capture the spirit and meaning of the Turkish side of the equation, while Israeli side is fully articulated and analyzed. Consider this: only three days prior to the all-out attack including the civilians in Gaza, highest representatives of the Israeli government were attending Syria-Israel rapprochement talks in Ankara mediated by Turkey. Several rounds had been successfully completed and Turkish mediators were given all the signals that it was all-systems-go towards sealing a more comprehensive peace plan. Smiling faces, pats on shoulders, glasses raised for toasts… 72 hours later comes the very lethal, very indiscriminate, and very unexpected all out attack on Gaza by Israeli fighter jets!

Heart wrenching images on all TV channels, night after night, of dismembered bodies of dead Palestinian civilians strewn all over the very public streets proved too much for the Turkish TV viewers. Palestinian mothers crying for their dead babies…Orphaned children as young as one, two, three years old, crying over the motionless bodies of their Palestinian parents… And a cruel, dogged determination by Israeli soldiers to continue this carnage and mayhem despite persistent calls from Turkey to show restraint and spare noncombatants…

The feelings of disappointment, sadness, shock, anger, being duped, dismissed, ignored, and/or even mocked, gradually coalesce into one giant disenchantment . Still constrained, these emotions were made flammable by a screaming, lecturing, and verbose Perez, and ignited by the uneven and unfair handling of rebuttal times by the Jewish moderator (Ignatius of Washington Post) finally gave way to that “one minute” blast in Davos last year.


Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon’s recent staging of a strange and childish reprimand of the Turkish ambassador in Tel Aviv over the contents of a Turkish television show did not help matters. (Can you imagine, for a minute, what kind of world we would be living in if Hollywood films and TV shows were allowed to manipulate even steer all international diplomacy efforts?) Israel subsequently apologized, several times, but not before it contributed considerably to the anxiety felt in both Turkey and Israel for some time.

Some Israeli and American efforts in the media to characterize Turkey’s objections to Israeli policies as anti-Semitic are easily foiled when Turkey’s long history of friendliness, cohabitation, and cooperation with Jews are considered. When Jews were forced to either convert to Catholicism or leave Iberia peninsula during the infamous Spanish inquisitions and no other country in Europe would offer a refuge for fear of retaliation by Catholic Rome, the Ottoman Empire not only offered a new home but also sent the Ottoman navy ships across the Mediterranean to transport them to Turkish soil. Those Jews, called Sephardic, found freedom of religion, peace, and prosperity and celebrated their 500th anniversary of their arrival to Turkish lands in 1992. There were Jews in Bursa before that and more Jew, fleeing Hitler’s Germany and Austria, arrived after that.

The Ottoman Empire was a country of refugees flourishing under the “millet system” of religious, social, and economical freedoms. Hence the common saying: “Before there was a United States, there was a United Sates, which was called the Ottoman Empire.” (A sad footnote: Most Ashkenazi Jews, unfortunately, do not know this history when they make two mistakes: 1) Belittle and look down upon Sephardic Jews calling them racist nicknames because of the darker skins colors of the Sephardic Jews; 2) Be readily duped by the racist Armenian lobby promoting a discredited and bogus genocide thus insulting the memory of six million Jews killed at the factual and unique Holocaust.)

Those well-read in or familiar with international diplomacy know Turkey’s vision and mission and see that differences between Turkey and Israel are likely to continue as long as Israel stays the course without making any meaningful improvements in the humanitarian situation in Gaza and the freezing of settlements.

Those who wish to dismiss the above out of hand would do well to consider these: Until a short while ago, the United States criticized Turkey for engaging with Syria while the U.S. and the Europe were trying to isolate Syria. Today both recognize that Turkey’s engaging of Syria was the right course of action. Policymakers in Washington began to revise their thinking, recognizing that Turkey is a regional power now, not the rubber-stamp of the Cold War years when all U.S. policies were almost automatically approved. President Barack Obama’s April 2009 visit to Turkey, first in the region, was an unmistakable sign of the new policy and perception.

Israel, on the other hand, still seems to be a work-in-progress, as Israel still has not fully appreciated the reality that Turkey had re-entered the Middle East scene and Turkey is very much there to stay even if the ruling Justice and Development Party, or A.K.P., replaced in a future election. The incredibly swift unification and harmonization of support of the entire Turkish nation for Turkey’s consistent policy in Israel, as displayed over the unfortunate Ayalon affair, should be a heads-up for those who still doubt it.


AKP is in the process of reintegrating Turkey into its nostalgic and vast neighborhood, ranging from the Balkans to the Caucasus, from Central Asia to the Middle East, and from Russia to North Africa. Turkey is the 17th largest economy in the world—
eyeing the 10th place by 2023, Turkey’s Centennial—a member of the G-20 and the U.N. Security Council, and a candidate for the accession to EU membership. It seems, Turkey will continue to push diplomatically for a new order in the region which is not blind to the plight of the Palestinians. Israel would benefit from recognizing these Turkey's sensitivities and interests in the region. The sooner, the better for all concerned.

Observer2010,

" 2) Be readily duped by the racist Armenian lobby promoting a discredited and bogus genocide "

This is a disgusting, ignorant, and hateful comment.

Anyways, regarding the topic, Turkey is a backward third world country that has no place in Europe, I'm glad they're integrating themselves in the middle east - where they belong.

The sea-change on which Turkey is embarked is overwhelmingly positive.

Better relations with Syria and Armenia promise to heal long-standing historical wounds inherited from Ottoman days. Its change in relations with the Kurds is rational and calming to the area. Turkey's business and diplomatic steps toward Iran help to stabilize the region by assuring Iran that Israeli planes will not fly over Turkey to attack.

Only Israel wants continued conflict among its neighbors, which serves its narrow interests. The Turks have become too smart and cognizant of their own interests for that.

NATO is a decrepit Cold War relic and anything Turkey does to hasten its breakup is positive. It should have been disbanded along with the Warsaw Pact. And Turkey has little need to join the EU -- it's future as a Middle eastern/Central Asian dynamo is quite adequate. The Europeans will invest because they get a good return without scaring their population over a new siege of Vienna. Sarkozy and his absurd VeilGuerre will do that quite nicely.

The recent Israeli humiliation of a Turkish diplomat is astonishing both in its stupidity

http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1953746,00.html

and the fact that its diplomatic corps is apparently engaged in struggle with itself over the issue

http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/1145455.html

Don't know about others, but I'm not reassured by a nation that has nuclear weapons acting irrationally.

About that movie: I haven't seem more than a few excerpted clips, but, fundamentally, many people have long since tired of Israel picturing any and all anti-Israeli expressions as anti-Semitism. As e e cummings wrote

suggest that certain ideas gestures
rhymes, . . .
having been used and reused
to the mystical moment of dullness emphatically are
Not To Be Resharpened.

Peres' defense of his nation's outrages in Gaza was hollow.

Peres pointed a finger at Erdogan and told him that Turkey would have responded in the same manner had rockets been fired at Istanbul.

Turkey has endured decades of lethal attacks from Kurdish insurgents,, and has responded by creating a framework for peace between the two peoples. To my knowledge, Turkey did not conduct indiscriminate attacks in Kurdistan or hold its population hostage.

"Turkey has endured decades of lethal attacks from Kurdish insurgents,, and has responded by creating a framework for peace between the two peoples. To my knowledge, Turkey did not conduct indiscriminate attacks in Kurdistan or hold its population hostage."

Are you joking? Turkey was responsible for many grievous violations of human rights against the Kurds, including torture, disappearances, and the killing of suspects in house raids. By the Turkish government's own account, this led to the deaths of at least 5,000 Kurdish civilians. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International both condemned Turkey for the indiscriminate killing of civilians.

What's more, people are still being prosecuted and imprisoned for expressing non-violent critical opinions on the Kurdish issue.

Israel should be condemned for their atrocities in Gaza--but honestly, Gaza seems like a tea party compared to what Turkey did in Kurdistan.

denisarvay (Replying to: Alouette)

You're comparing crimes committed over generations to one, and not the only, mass killing spree by Israel. Let's remember the 2006 massive bombing of Lebanon, for example.

Turkey never enclosed its Kurdish population in a giant prison and subjected it to massive bombing and denial of basic needs. Gaza is no "tea party" in comparison to anything on the planet, it and the apartheid conditions imposed on Palestinians on the West Bank are an ongoing outrage. I may be too generous in describing Israeli attacks as "indiscriminate" since civilian targets including people and infrastructure were clearly targeted.

The main point is that Turkey, which admittedly has committed grave human rights violations in the past, has now moved to reach a mutually acceptable relationship with the Kurds and we should notice, the Armenians.

It's as though Israel suddenly came to its senses and decided to reach a realistic relationship with the Palestinians rather than its apartheid and/or ethnic cleansing "solutions." Good luck with that. What we see is a nation moving ever rightward, ever more militaristic in its options, ever more contemptuous of people it clearly considers an inferior species.

That's not the path Turkey has chosen.

The Turks can't change history, including the massacre of Armenians. But it's moving forward, exercising both intelligence and political courage in facing up to the ugly parts of its past and making a sincere effort to live peacefully with its minorities and neighbors.