Turkey’s emergence as a center power in the Middle East is a game changer
Turkish journalist Soli Ozel says the nature of Turkish-Israeli relations are changed forever, not just because of the deadly flotilla incident.
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Because the ruling AK Party (Justice and Development Party) belongs to Turkey’s Islamist tradition, many see the turn of events that has brought Turkey to the world’s attention as the result of an ideological shift in Turkish foreign policy.
I would argue, however, that most of these incidents – including the latest deadly flotilla incident that may have changed the nature of Turkish-Israeli relations forever – stem from structural causes having to do with Turkey’s new vision of itself as a “center power” in the broader Middle East.
Turkey and Israel today have such diverging visions for the Middle East that their policy preferences and approaches are increasingly irreconcilable. There is also a sense of competition. Under the rubric of model partnership, first raised by President Obama in his first visit to a majority Muslim country after his election, Ankara believes that it can forge a new relationship with the United States as its main partner in the region, in the process inevitably eroding Israel’s most-favored and protected status.
The key to fulfilling Turkey’s vision is a Middle East order that is based on economic integration and political stability. Achieving peace between Israel and the Palestinians is the precondition for such an order, but Israel’s policies are blocking the path to that peace. Israel remains steadfastly against lifting the Gaza siege or seriously committing to a credible peace process. Turkey believes the siege must be ended and a way must be found to engage Hamas in the political process, an ambitious project to be sure.
At the same time Turkey continues to engage Iran, despite criticism that Tehran uses these efforts to buy time for further uranium enrichment. And it continues to raise the issue of Israel’s nuclear arsenal in every available forum. On this score, Turkey’s persistence seems to have paid off. The Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference in New York recently passed a resolution, with US support, calling for Israel to open its nuclear program to international scrutiny.
In light of this larger context, the unnecessarily harsh and bloody Israeli raid on the Gaza aid flotilla was widely seen in Turkey as the result of a strategic decision by the Israelis to frustrate this new activism.
Even if there is a discernible Islamist ideological undertone to Turkey’s current foreign policy when it comes to Israel, Turkey’s increasing involvement in the broader Middle East is mainly interest-driven and should be understood as such. Those who insist on an Islamist explanation of Turkey’s new foreign policy conveniently ignore the openings to non-Muslim countries in the Balkans and the Caucasus, not to mention Russia.