Since Turkey's PM Erdogan stormed out of the World Economic Forum in Davos after a heated diatribe against Israel's military operation in Gaza (Jan 2009), there have been exuberant displays of solidarity and admiration for his confrontational antics: the Muslim world, desperate for a hero, has hailed him as its Knight in Shining Armor (Aljazeera). It is natural for Erdogan's Turkey to have such popularity in Muslim countries; deprived as they are of any sense of common purpose, and lacking in modern hero-figures who transcend national borders and ethnic divides. This recent chain of spats between Turkey and Israel, however, is not indicative of a shift in the geopolitical dispositions of the Near Eastern countries. The idea of Turkey's participation – perhaps in a leadership role – in the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict cannot find purchase with the other Countries and factions involved in this tortuous process. Indeed, it is unlikely that this is the Turkish government's primary motivation to begin with. On the contrary, this could be seen as no more than posturing on the part of the Turkish government to appease certain domestic lobbies, and curry favor with Arab and Muslim countries; possibly as a counterweight to perceived over-reliance on European and American markets and alliances.
The location of Anatolia as a crossroads between East and West, in possession of the sole access to the Black Sea, has long placed her in the crossfire of opposing forces. The same strategic importance that led the Crusaders to spend much time crusading against their Orthodox Christian allies in the Byzantine Empire – by means of coups d'etat, palace intrigue and assassinations, direct military intervention – caused all sides in the Second World War to woo Turkey with promises of regaining pride of place in the Near East in the post-War period. Turkey deftly played all sides – German, British and Soviet – and maintained its neutrality through the War, not aligning itself with any power until several years later.
The end of the Second World War was followed by the Greek Civil War, and a shift in US policy towards the Soviets – marked by the adoption of the Truman Doctrine. Turkey was provided with hundreds of millions of dollars to shore up the anti-Communist stance of the Turkish administration, the military and economic aid rendered by the United States continued well into the Cold War, with Turkey becoming a member of NATO in 1952.
It should come as no surprise then that Turkey was the first Muslim-majority country to lend diplomatic recognition to Israel. 1948 was a turbulent year in the Middle East. The British had been forced out of Palestine, Israel proclaimed independence and was promptly set-upon by every country on its borders. The Israelis fought them to a standstill and even managed to expand into Palestinian territory. The Soviet Union stepped in to rearm the beleaguered Arab states. Having opted-in to the Western Bloc, Turkey pursued her strategic interests in containing and curtailing Soviet influence in her backyard. Recognizing that Israel was there to stay, supported by the same countries that supported Turkey's government and opposed by countries aligned with the Soviet juggernaut poised along Turkey's Northern and Eastern borders, embassies were exchanged between Turkey and Israel in 1949 and ushered in an age – by necessity – of economic, military and diplomatic cooperation between the two countries.
Turkey, of course, gained more from her alignment with the United States than just a regional ally and a military alliance. The Nixon administration granted its tacit endorsement to the Turkish invasion and subsequent division and occupation of Cyprus in 1974. The Kurdish separatist insurgency was suppressed first for the cause of anti-Marxism-Leninism and then as a target for the ongoing War on Terror, with frequent cross-border operations undertaken by the Turkish military in Iraq, as late as 1999. Turkey was allowed to get away with certain flagrant abuses of human rights and other nations' sovereignty in pursuit of these goals, and at least one of the factors in making Turkey such an indispensable ally of the United States and Europe is her cozy relationship with Israel, unique among Muslim countries.
Recently, however, due to anti-expansion and anti-Muslim sentiments in European Union countries, Turkey's application to join the Union, of several institutions of which Turkey is already a signatory and participant, has been stalled on demographic, socio-religious, geographic and political grounds.
Almost 51% of Turkey's population self-identified as Muslims in 2006, up from 43% in 2005 (Pew Global Report) and previous years. The Islam-branding of the ruling AK Party has placed expectations on the administration to stand up for perceived “Muslim interests.” In retrospect, the likelihood of the Aid Flotilla incident should have been evident considering the Turkish Prime Minister's rhetoric at Davos almost two years ago. The severe Israeli reaction to the Flotilla, and the grim Turkish response are well within keeping of the requirements of their respective electorates. The Israeli public would have accepted no other outcome from the Likud government, and the AKP was expected to put into action the words spoken at Davos and since: stalling the Aid Flotilla or not protesting the Israeli raid on the ships would not sit well with the electoral power-base of the AKP.
Will this diplomatic spat signal the end of Turkey's alliance with Israel and NATO? Do the Premiership of Erdogan and primacy of the AKP in Turkish politics represent a paradigm-shift in her foreign policy imperatives and national interests? Does Turkey seek to take upon herself a leadership role in the Muslim community at large, at odds with its European interests? The answer to all of these questions ranges between “absolutely not” and “probably not.” The Turkish government has deftly handled the various problems in Gaza and used these to embellish its image in Muslim countries while fulfilling some of its campaign slogans. This PR windfall in Muslim countries should yield sizable dividends for the Turkish economy, as well as send a clear message that Turkey retains its ability to play all sides for maximum advantage (incidentally, a new gas pipeline is to run from Russia through Turkey to Europe). Indeed Turkey has a well-established legacy of tactfully preserving, propagating and perpetuating her national interests, come what may.
The United States has a clear understanding of the implications of estrangement or even divergence from Turkey. So much so that President Obama chose Ankara as the destination of his first visit to another State. Turkey's is the successful Muslim secular democratic experiment the West looks to as a solution to the present alienation of the Muslims.
“The United States and Turkey can help the Palestinians and Israelis make this journey ['toward a secure and lasting peace' in the Israel-Palestinian conflict]. Like the United States, Turkey has been a friend and partner in Israel’s quest for security.”
Barrack Obama, to the Turkish Parliament, April 6, 2009
In the same speech, he reaffirmed US support for Turkey's EU application, the fight against the PKK, Turkey's role in salvaging Iraq. The message is clear: Turkey is important to the West and knows it. The recent posturing raises the stakes for appeasing and retaining Turkey's full support for the many thorny issues in the Middle East, while opening up new opportunities for regional relationships (with Iran for example). It was this perceived imperative that has prompted Turkey to embarrass Israel. The defunct Uranium trading deal reached recently with Iran is another extension of the same policy: Turkey is reaching out to her estranged neighbors, re-building bridges to the East while retaining and buttressing those to the West. Caught in the tug-of-war as she is, Turkey seems to have settled, as often before in the past, for making the most of it.