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Turkey's Cooling Ties with U.S., Israel

Interviewee: Steven A. Cook, Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
July 13, 2010

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Turkey's relationships with longtime ally the United States and former strategic partner Israel have cooled markedly. The government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is particularly incensed about Israel's raid on a Turkish boat trying to break the blockade of Gaza. Last week, Turkey threatened to cut off ties to Israel (WashPost) if Israel didn't apologize for the raid. In part, this "is the natural evolution of Turkish foreign policy" given the end of the Cold War, Turkey's perception that it no longer needs to rely on Washington for protection against Russia, and an emerging sense of its own economic power, says CFR Middle East expert Steven A. Cook. As for Israel, Cook says, "the real turning point in the relationship came with Israel's incursion into Gaza" in 2008, which angered Erdogan, who sympathizes with Hamas and felt betrayed by the Israelis, who didn't warn him the attack was coming. Cook adds that many Turks fear that Erdogan is trying to emulate Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in cracking down on critics.

What's behind Turkey's coolness toward the United States and its anger toward Israel? How much is politics? How much are there genuine differing state interests?

What we are seeing is the natural evolution of Turkish foreign policy. We are now almost two decades after the end of the Cold War, which was the tie that bound Washington and Ankara. Without that glue, Turkey was bound to explore and exploit opportunities in countries to the east and south and even exploit opportunities for developing relations with Moscow. The Turks also perceive a whole range of economic interests since they are rising as a trading state with an export-oriented economy. From the perspective of the Turks, this is good economic policy. There's even a kind of political economy aspect to it. If you look at the opening to Syria and the waiving of visa requirements so that Syrians and Turks can come and go as they please, this is a way in which the Turks are trying to deal with the historic problem of the Kurds and Kurdish nationalism.

Explain that.

The Turks believe that if there is economic development in that part of Turkey closest to Syria and closest to Iraq, it will mitigate impulses for Kurdish nationalism.

What about Turkey's difficulties getting into the European Union? Is that a factor in the cooling of relations with the United States and the West?

I don't think that that is the reason for the divergence of Turkish foreign policy, but I do believe it is a contributing factor. Turkey remains integrated with the West; it has a customs union agreement with Europe, and the bulk of its trade is to the West rather than the East. But the recognition that the Europeans are increasingly unwilling to seriously consider Turkey's full membership in the EU has contributed to the notion that Turkey needs a broader foreign policy, rather than one just focused on the West. But it's important to remember that nothing that the [ruling] Justice and Development Party (AKP) has done indicates that Turkey is looking to undo the thick institutional ties that it has with Europe and NATO.

What about the plunge in relations with Israel?

The recognition that the Europeans are increasingly unwilling to seriously consider Turkey's full membership in the EU has contributed to the notion that Turkey needs a broader foreign policy, rather than one just focused on the West.

Trouble has been brewing for some time. Although, when the AKP came to power in 2002, it had been committed to a good relationship with Israel. Erdogan visited Israel, signed the book at the Holocaust Memorial at Yad Vashem, signed seventeen agreements, and developed a good working relationship with then-Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon. At the same time, Justice and Development was vocal in criticizing the Israelis for their policies in the West Bank--and the Gaza Strip in particular. There were also warning signs of problems when the Hamas leadership made a visit to Ankara in 2006. But the real turning point in the relationship came with Israel's incursion into Gaza in December 2008 and January 2009. It came on the heels of vigorous Turkish efforts to play an honest broker between the Israelis and the Syrians. Just three or four days before the Gaza offensive was launched, then-Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert was in Ankara while Erdogan was trying to broker an agreement where the Israelis and the Syrians would move from indirect talks under Turkish auspices to direct peace negotiations. Olmert left Ankara without informing Erdogan of the impending invasion of Gaza, and this had a tremendous negative impact on Erdogan.

That became very public a month later at the Davos Conference.

Erdogan and Israeli President Shimon Peres had some sharp public words, prompting Erdogan to leave the conference abruptly. Beyond Gaza, the Turks have sought to extend their influence and exercise power in a leadership role in the Middle East. Where it was once a tepid observer of events, it has sought to extend its influence by improving relations with countries in the Arab world, necessitating a cooling of relations with Israel. Israeli-Turkish security cooperation in the region was really just a moment in the late 1990s, and although there continue to be significant commercial ties, the relationship has cooled, and it's unlikely to return to the levels it once was.

I didn't realize the close ties were that recent.

Relations were only upgraded to the ambassadorial level in 1993, and it was 1996 when they announced a military security cooperation.

Turkey is one of the first countries that President Barack Obama visited early in his administration. You would have thought he'd be high on the list of popular leaders.

The president is personally popular in Turkey, but his personal popularity has not translated into the way in which Turks view the United States and American foreign policy. Yes, the president went to Turkey on his first foreign trip after the NATO summit in Prague in April 2009. He gave a terrific speech to the Turkish Grand National Assembly, visited Ataturk's mausoleum, visited with students in Istanbul. All of those things reflected that Turkey was a priority for the Obama administration.

What did Obama say?

There is a certain ideological bent to the way Erdogan views the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Muslim world. . . . Erdogan and others view Hamas as an organization that won a free and fair election, and that resorted to violence only because it has been repressed.

That's where the president laid out his idea of a model partnership. The underlying assumption was that the United States and Turkey shared similar interests and goals in the Middle East. But changes in the international system as a result of the end of the Cold War, Turkey's perception of economic opportunity, the snub from the European Union, and Turkey's proximity to some of these Middle East hot spots have contributed more toward Turkey's own perception of those interests. They do not see a common interest or a strategic partnership that the president laid out in his speech in Ankara. That doesn't mean that Turkey is now an enemy. What it means is that there are going to be times when the two countries cooperate and times when the two countries disagree and have to stay out of each other's way.

Give an example.

The Tehran research reactor deal, for which the Turks actually believed that they had the green light from the Obama administration to negotiate an accord with the Brazilians and Iranians. The Obama administration says that's not the case, and when it came down to it, Turkey voted no in the Security Council for a new round of sanctions against Iran.

Why is Erdogan so enamored of Hamas, and why does Turkey not have good relations with the Palestinian Authority headed by President Mahmoud Abbas?

There is a certain ideological bent to the way Erdogan views the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Muslim world. I would not suggest that the Turks are now pursuing an Islamist foreign policy or that the Turks have signed up with the radical camp. Erdogan and others within the Justice and Development Party view Hamas as an organization that won a free and fair election, and resorted to violence only because it has been repressed. [They believe] that if Hamas were given an opportunity to govern, it might govern effectively. Erdogan is making a connection--it may be a tenuous one from the perspective of Washington and others--to the Islamist movement in Turkey in which successive Islamist-oriented parties in Turkey had been repressed over the years as Hamas had been, its leaders banned from politics.

Of course the difference is that the Turkish Islamists were always able to return to the political arena under different guises and different leaderships, and never engaged in violence. Nevertheless, Erdogan believes that Hamas can be brought along to become a responsible party and ultimately negotiate a deal with the Israelis, if the Israelis and the West--the United States in particular--would only allow that to happen. This view has upset the Palestinian Authority, which is deeply opposed to Hamas, which forced the Palestinian Authority out of Gaza in 2007.

I was surprised when in early 2003 the Turkish Parliament voted against letting U.S. troops use Turkey as a launching site into Iraq. How important was that as a harbinger of what was to come?

It is an important marker, when we look back on it. First, let's be clear. Both Erdogan and Foreign Minister [now President Abdullah] Gul had said that they would get the necessary votes in the Parliament. But when the vote was taken, there just weren't enough deputies in the chamber to get the number of necessary "yes" votes. U.S. troops were not permitted to traverse Turkish territory on their way to Iraq. This meant that public opinion in Turkey was very deeply opposed to using Turkey as a launching point for the invasion of Iraq. And it speaks to Turkey becoming more democratic, even as early as 2003, and that public opinion played a greater role in the formulation of Turkish foreign policy than ever before.

This was a shock to the American system, where you had grown used to calling up the Turks and getting the Turks to basically do what we wanted them to do. And if the civilian politicians didn't want to do it, we'd always just run up to the Turkish general staff and say, "Here's what we want to do, can you make sure that it happens?" and generally it happened. Well, not only was public opinion opposed to the invasion of Iraq, particularly using Turkish territory for that purpose, but the Turkish general staff was opposed to it. There was really no place for the United States to go.

I hear rumblings of more of an authoritarian bent developing in Turkey, that a lot of newspapers and commentators are being muzzled. What's your sense of that?

There are some warning signs. First, at a very superficial level, you know, Erdogan has indicated a number of times that he's an admirer of Putin. This has led some Turkish commentators to talk about the "Putin-ization" of Turkey. There is a certain amount of fear in Turkey resulting from the case called the Ergenekon.

Explain please.

In June 2007, the Turkish police uncovered an alleged plot to destabilize Turkey, triggering a coup d'état and the return of the military to the forefront of Turkish politics, ending the rule of the Justice and Development Party. There's been a wide-ranging investigation, and in time this conspiracy has morphed into yet another conspiracy in which the government is using the cover of the Ergenekon investigation to go after political opponents--or at least that's the allegation. There are allegations coming from the government against people claiming that they are part of this plot; others are saying the government is actually using this plot to go after its political opponents.

I do think there is something there when it comes to Ergenekon; clearly some people were up to no good. But it does seem that the government has used its wiretapping ability and its investigatory ability to go after political opponents. If you have lunch with a Turkish official or go visit people in their offices, they take the batteries out of their cellphones to reduce the likelihood that they're being listened to.

There is a real fear among certain Turks that they are being watched and listened to in these periodic sweeps by the Turkish police as part of the Ergenekon investigation. There's a concern that as the drive for EU membership has bogged down, the reform process is frozen, and at worst it is being reversed.

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