By Iran Review
By Hassan Ahmadian
Israeli commandoes attacked a flotilla taking humanitarian aid to Gaza Strip in May 2010, killing nine Turk activists on board of a flotilla ship. The attack triggered a political crisis which strained Ankara’s ties with Tel Aviv. Turkey then called for immediate removal of Gaza siege, Israel’s apology to Turkey and payment of remuneration to families of the victims. Following publication of Palmer’s report which worked within framework of a UN committee set up to investigate the case, Turkey reduced political relations with Israel and expelled its ambassador. Ankara also threatened Tel Aviv with trade embargo and added that Turkish warships will escort ships that will carry further humanitarian aid to Gaza. Such a policy has had no precedence since Israel came into being. Although it made Palestinians and other Muslims happy and put tremendous regional pressure on Israel, it also gave rise to questions about the main causes behind Turkey’s decision to adopt that policy. Has Israel’s attack on the flotilla and not apologizing to Ankara been enough motives for Turkey to adopt that policy? If so, why it has been adopted after the lapse of 16 months?
Turkey’s Prime Minister Erdogan said in an interview with Fahmi Huwaidi that there have been two reasons behind the surprising development. Firstly, Israel had gotten used to get away with what it did and saw itself above the law. Secondly, the Israeli regime had turned into a spoiled mischievous child by those around it. Therefore, in addition to embarking on state terrorism against Palestinians, its behavior in other areas was quite rash and irresponsible. He noted that Israel could no more get away with its rash conduct. Regardless of Erdogan’s argument, he did not give a direct and clear answer to those questions. Both points he referred to were quite common through six decades of Israel’s history. Neither Israel’s irresponsible behavior, nor its arrogance in dealing with regional countries was new.
It seems the main reasons behind Turkey’s sudden U-turn against Israel should be sought in recent developments of the Middle East, especially in Egypt. A review of Egypt’s developments following collapse of Mubarak’s regime will show us that despite conservative nature of the ruling military council, Egypt has been practically distancing from its past strategic alliance with Israel. Developments such as resumption of the Palestinian reconciliation which Mubarak declined to follow as a means of putting pressure on Hamas, limited reopening of Rafah border crossing with Gaza Strip, and finally, a recent attack on Israel’s embassy in Cairo which aimed at closing down the facility signaled the beginning of a new chapter in Israel’s relations with Egypt. The new period was apparently marked with Egyptian people’s resistance against Israel. They believe that humiliating Israel is a trial for the past Egyptian regime and are powerfully resisting against extremist actions of Tel Aviv. Of course, the Egyptian uprising was first and foremost aimed at eradicating dictatorship and corruption and reducing economic and political pressures on the country, but this did not mean inattention to such important foreign policy matters such as relations with Israel. Those matters were, in fact, priorities that received belated attention.
The military council ruling Egypt in the period before a civilian government is elected, is not willing to get involved in such sensitive foreign policy cases as relations with Israel due to complicated situation inside the country. However, when Israel’s troops killed five Egyptian border guards, the council issued a strongly-worded statement. It condemned Israel’s military incursion into the Egyptian territory and added that Egypt would recall its ambassador from Israel, though that threat was never realized. Israel’s reluctance to apologize was a major mistake which was based on calculations which could have been normal before the fall of Mubarak. In an unprecedented development since conclusion of Camp David Accord, Egyptians attacked Israel’s embassy in Cairo asking the government to shut it down.
Before those developments, even limited publicity and political confrontations between Ankara and Tel Aviv had earned Turkey a lot of credit in the Arab world while causing humiliation for Arab regimes at the cost of increasing popularity of Turkey among the Arab masses. Changes in Egypt’s relations with Israel easily overshadowed Turkey’s policy. Egypt’s cultural influence among Arabs is so high that it attracts much more attention in the Arab world than regional policies of Turkey. In addition, the faceoff between Egypt and Israel in the past months has been more important than Ankara’s measures with regard to Israel. As a result, to keep up with the pace of developments in Egypt, Turkey intensified confrontation with Israel in a well-calculated manner. While raising tension with Israel, Turkey gave the green light to deployment of a missile shield on its soil by North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). This was aimed at proving to Israel that Ankara’s faceoff with Tel Aviv has not damaged its relations with the West. On the other hand, Turkey wanted the West to know that its change of policy simply targeted Israel and had no bearing on Turkey’s relations with the West.
In fact, Egypt and other Arab nations in the region are the main targets of Turkey’s change of policy toward Israel. It is quite clear that Turkey is getting ready for a period in which a post-Mubarak Egypt will reclaim its historical role as a regional leader in the Arab Middle East. The two countries are now engaged in heated rivalry over Israel. Before that, a different form of rivalry had been started between Turkey and Saudi Arabia over such issues as offering solutions to the situation in Syria and, to a lesser extent, with regard to Israel. Erdogan’s recent visit to Egypt was a preplanned measure which showed that Turkey is getting ready to face Egypt’s new regional role. Turkish officials are trying to keep the rivalry between their country and Egypt, as two Middle Eastern powers, at a low level. Therefore, Erdogan was accompanied with a high-ranking delegation of 200 businesspeople and economic officials. There were two obvious goals behind the visit. Firstly, Ankara was planning to prevent escalation of rivalry between two countries by strengthening economic relations. Secondly, Turkey is doing its best to keep its role in very important political cases of the Middle East and Arab countries along with Egypt. Erdogan’s trip was, in fact, a message of friendship from Turkey to a powerful Middle Eastern rival country which is just awakening from a long slumber.
It seems that Saudi Arabia will be on Egypt’s side in this regional rivalry. By relying on its financial might and Egypt’s need to cash, Saudi Arabia seems to be able to influence the country’s regional priorities. Iran’s role as a regional power in the Middle East could be quite important in this sensitive period of time and can greatly determine intensity of that rivalry. If Iran could work with Egypt to reduce impact of Saudi Arabia’s financial capacity and nationalistic tendencies of new rulers on Egypt’s forthcoming policies while combining Turkey’s approach to Middle Eastern developments with that of new Egypt, it would be able to make Israel the axis of convergence between three countries’ regional policies. In fact, as a result of its longstanding opposition to Israel, the Islamic Republic of Iran is potentially able of playing an axial role in strengthening relations between these three regional powers with opposition to Israel at the center of convergence. By activating this potential capacity, Iran will be able to change future political groupings and balance of power in the Middle East region.
Hassan Ahmadian, PhD Candidate
Department of Regional Studies, University of Tehran