Tuesday, October 13, 2009

TURKEY TURNS


Ankara must decide



Who would have thought - Turkey and Armenia agreeing to normalize political relations. Armenia's president planning to attend a football match in Turkey. And George Papandreou, the new Greek prime minister, making Turkey the destination of his first trip abroad.

These are encouraging examples of how age-old animosities are being relegated to the dustbin of history.

Too bad, then, that Ankara appears to be simultaneously doing everything it can to junk its relationship with the Jewish state.

On Sunday, in an unprecedented slap in the face, Turkey cancelled joint military exercises that were to have included pilots from Israel and NATO. At first, the Turkish Foreign Ministry lamely denied politics was involved. Then Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu admitted on CNN that only when the "situation in Gaza" is improved could "a new atmosphere in Turkish-Israeli relations" be established.

Analysts in Jerusalem suspect the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is using the unfortunate civilian deaths during Operation Cast Lead as a pretext for distancing Turkey from Israel - diplomatically, strategically and economically.

ORDINARY Israelis find it hard to believe that faced with similar provocations - its population pounded by 8,000 rockets, murderous cross-border incursions, the kidnapping of one of its soldiers, the refusal of the enemy to abide by a cease-fire - the Turkish military would have refrained from taking action to stop the rocket fire and reestablish its deterrence out of fear that in defending its own citizens the lives of enemy civilians would be jeopardized.

Indeed, it is debatable whether more Palestinians died at the hands of Israel in the Gaza conflict than Muslim Kurds died in Ankara's repeated bombardments of northern Iraq (though Turkey insists that the only Kurdish loses were to livestock).

Political scientist Efraim Inbar is convinced that Erdogan's Islamic AKP party places greater value on Turkey's ties with the Muslim world than on its political and cultural links to the West. Or does Turkey expect to jettison its relationship with Israel, cozy up to Iran and Hamas, and yet maintain strong ties with Washington and Brussels?

ISRAEL'S relationship with Turkey has always had its ups and downs. Turkey voted against the 1947 UN Partition Resolution to create two states - Jewish and Arab - in Palestine, but it quickly established diplomatic relations with Israel. In the 1970s, weathering an economic crisis, it began building bridges to the Arab world. By the 1980s, thousands of Turks were working throughout the Middle East. The Iran-Iraq War cemented ties between Turkey and the Arabs when Saudi Arabia began supplying oil to Ankara.

Even during periods when the Turkish military was in power, relations with Israel were sometimes sacrificed to persuade the masses that the government had Islamic bona fides. In 1975, Turkey recognized the PLO though the group was then publicly committed to Israel's destruction. In 1979, Turkey refused to participate in the Eurovision Song Contest because it was being held in Jerusalem. Following the Knesset's passage, in 1980, of the Basic Law affirming united Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, Ankara closed its consulate in our capital. Turkey even condemned Israel's 1981 raid on Saddam Hussein's nuclear reactor.

Now, with the AKP in power, relations have deteriorated more systematically. In August 2008, Turkey broke ranks with the West by welcoming Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Just before the outbreak of the Gaza war, Erdogan became angry at what he felt was his shabby treatment by Ehud Olmert while Turkey was mediating between Jerusalem and Damascus - a factor in his vituperative outbursts against Israel during the conflict.

OTTOMAN Turkey sought to hold on to its empire by using pan-Islam to legitimize its rule over the Arabs. But Mustafa Kemal Ataturk founded modern Turkey as Western-oriented, secular and nationalist. Islam was disestablished. The Turkish army performed a watchdog function to protect these ideals. And Israelis knew that no matter what abuse Turkish politicians might heap on Israel, our two militaries continued to cooperate at the strategic level. Is that, too, now over?

Turkey is an irreplaceable ally. Israelis want our two countries to enjoy cordial relations despite everything that's happened. The onus is now on Ankara to make plain that it, too, wants the relationship to continue. It would thereby also be signaling that Turkey wants to be a bridge between Islam and the West - instead of yet another barrier.

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