ANKARA (Reuters) - Born out of military interests rather than ideological affinity, Muslim Turkey’s relationship with Israel is headed for a major shift as it re-assesses its role and security needs in the Middle East.
Israel’s raid on Turkish-backed aid ships bound for Gaza show how far ties between the unusual allies have deteriorated, creating a problem for the United States which saw Ankara as a vital partner in reconciling the Muslim world with Israel.
Erdogan, Turkey’s prime minister, has called for the Jewish state to be punished for what he called “state terrorism.”
“The relationship between Turkey and Israel was the product of a very specific set of circumstances that do not exist anymore,” Ian Lesser, from the Washington-based German Marshall Fund think tank, told Reuters.
“It was clear that Turkey and Israel could not go on with that same strategic relationship. Now we have to see what is left. They can still work together, but on a more modest scale.”
Turkey, a moderate, secular state, has long been Israel’s only Muslim ally and trade partner, having recognized the Jewish state soon after its establishment in 1948.
Driven by their countries’ armies, the alliance strengthened in the 1990s, when they signed military and intelligence deals.
At the time they shared a common desire to contain Syria, Israel’s long-time Arab enemy.
Syria had also incurred Ankara’s wrath by harboring Kurdish separatist PKK rebels waging war on Turkey.
Israel provided military hardware and intelligence on PKK activities to Turkey, which nearly went to war with Syria in the late 1990s over Damascus’ hosting of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan.
For its part, Turkey allowed Israel, at war with Syria over the Golan Heights and wary of hostile Arab neighbors, to use its airspace and vast Anatolian plateaux for military training.
Far more than Syria, Iran’s militant “fundamentalism,” coupled with the rise of political Islam in the region, were seen as even more serious threats to both Turkey and Israel.
But since then a change has been under way.
The easing of PKK violence and Turkey’s dramatic improvement of ties with Damascus and Tehran since the Islamist-leaning government of Erdogan took office in 2002 means Ankara no longer views the Israeli link as vital to its survival.
Turkey’s powerful secular generals, who saw close links with Israel as an antidote to combat political Islam at home, have seen their influence wane.
Following Monday’s raid, Turkey has suspended joint military exercises, withdrew its envoy in Israel and mobilized the U.N. Security Council to censure Israel.
“(The flotilla incident) has cemented a process that has been under way for years which is the gradual lost of importance of the Turkish-Israeli relationship,” said Gareth Jenkins, an Istanbul-based security analyst.
“It has been in the death bed for years and I don’t think either of the two have much to lose if it dies,” Jenkins said.
Israel might suffer more for the loss of a Muslim friend in the Middle East and the absence of Turkish airspace for the pilots to practice in, he said.
Public opinion in Turkey, where a rising middle class of religious Muslims has led to a more overtly Islamic identity, can no longer tolerate Israel’s policies toward Palestinians.
Erdogan has become a folk hero among Muslims in Turkey and far beyond for his outspoken criticism of Israel. With an election due by July next year, Erdogan could bolster support for his Islamist-leaning AK Party.
“Allowing the convoy to go was a sign that the government was pursuing this policy of escalating tension with Israel, which fits in with its domestic agenda,” said Sinan Ulgen, of Istanbul Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies.
Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, fresh back from Washington, said relations could be normalized if Israel ends its naval blockade of 1.5 million Palestinians in Gaza.
But the fiasco will make it hard to contain public outrage, as Turks have reacted with fury, taking to the streets in demonstrations to burn Israeli flags and chan “Allahu Akbar.”
“This will really change the mood in Turkey and push things in a more militant hardline direction. The government will probably have to follow suit to some degree,” said Paul Salem, Beirut director of the Carnegie Endowment’s Middle East Program.
Nigel Inkster, transnational risk expert of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London noted the close relationship between Israel Mossad and Turkey’s intelligence agency, MIT, but saw an inexorable trend.
“As is often the case with intelligence relationships this one may survive the current debacle,” Inkster said. “But the trend under Erdogan to a shift away from Israel is clear.”
The collapse of ties between two allies will hinder U.S. policy in the Middle East.
Turkey has said it would put on hold any moves to mediate a resumption of indirect Israeli-Syrian peace talks.
And the United States and Turkey were already at odds over Iran, with Turkey and Brazil pushing a new proposed atomic fuel deal for Tehran as a diplomatic alternative to the tough U.N. sanctions that Washington wants.
“It will obviously complicate U.S. policy in the region,” Lesser said. “It won’t change the U.S. relationship with Israel nor its relationship with Turkey but it will make regional policy more difficult and will leave Washington with fewer options.”
Additional reporting by Alistair Lyon in Beirut and William Maclean in London; Editing by Angus MacSwan
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