The Arab world was outraged when Ankara signed a strategic military pact with Israel in February 1996. This was just a month after Turkey joined the EU Customs Federation, which was the fruit of intense efforts on the part of Israeli politicians, most notably Shimon Peres who had personally appealed to EU parliamentary members to approve Turkey’s membership.
When asked to explain those intimate ties, Turkish officials would immediately respond, “Our relationship with Israel is not directed against a third party.” To this former President Suleyman Demirel added an argument that would become iconic in the history of official Turkish rhetoric on the Arab-Israeli conflict: “The relationship can be used for the sake of the Palestinian cause.”
When a party said to have Islamist roots and an Islamist frame-of-reference made its appearance in the Turkish political arena at the turn of the millennium, its founders were keen to reassure Western governments that “there would be no change in Turkey’s foreign policy if the Justice and Development Party (JDP) comes to power.” One of those founders, Recep Tayyip Erdogan (RTE), took pains to drop in on the Israeli ambassador in Ankara and then to meet with a number of Western ambassadors in order to drive home that his party would not work against the US and Israel.
Twelve years ago the JDP leader told this writer, “Turkey has had close relations with Israel for many years. The agreements that we have with it can continue as long as they are founded on mutual interest. However, our country has important interests with other parties. It would be unacceptable to sacrifice these for the sake of Israel. We must stress that the continuation of agreements does not signify approval of what the current Israeli government is doing. That policy is wrong and we do not support it.” He added: “Our country occupies an important place in the Middle East. We need to maintain that position. We in the JDP see ourselves as the translators of the feelings of the Palestinian people and we convey these to Israel from time to time. It is impossible to mistake our clear and declared positions on recent developments in the Middle East. These will not change if we come to power.
At least in this regard he proved true to his word. Within a year he was mediating between Damascus and Tel Aviv. Not even the Israeli attack against the Mavi Marmara in late May 2010 would alter the essence of the Ankara-Tel Aviv relationship. In fact, in spite of the tragic deaths of nine Turkish citizens on the flagship of the humanitarian relief convoy to Gaza, that relationship remained as deep as ever. Even at the height of the crisis surrounding the withdrawal of the Turkish ambassador to Tel Aviv, President Abdullah Gul told The New York Times in April 2011 that his country was prepared to do its utmost to facilitate constructive negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians.
At a time when public opinion in the Arab and Islamic world was seething against Israeli attempts to assert its hegemony over the Levant, the JDP government was supervising the installation of missile shield radar systems near Malatya followed by Patriot missile platforms along the southern border in Gaziantep, Urfa and Hatay. The chief aim of these systems is to protect Israel.
Echoing Demirel, RTE stressed that all that radar and missilery was not directed at a third party. But then why were they installed there in the first place? This was precisely the question raised by the Turkish opposition parties that referred to the JDP as Israel’s partner and the tool for carrying out US designs.
In light of the foregoing, as the region once again cries out against Israeli brutality in the occupied Palestinian territories, it is difficult to see JDP rhetoric as anything but self-serving posturing aimed at the more gullible segments of Turkish public opinion. Indeed, Selahattin Demirta, the Kurdish political leader who is fielding himself for the presidential elections scheduled for August, remarked sarcastically that Erdogan’s statements regarding developments in Gaza could not be taken seriously.
Commenting at greater length on the issue, Zaman newspaper columnist Ali Bulaç asked, “What help can Turkey offer to Palestine?” His answer: “None. What can Turkey do to pressure Israel? His answer: “Nothing. He explains that Turkish-Israeli trade relations are extremely close in spite of the apparent tensions between the two countries. Israel reaps huge profits from the fact that most Turkish companies are forced to use its seaports, apart from a few that can use Lebanese ports. “With Erdogan’s blessings, Israel gets oil from northern Iraqi Kurdistan via [Turkey in] oil tankers. After taking the oil it needs, it sells the rest to third parties. This means that there is an undeclared tripartite regional alliance between Anatolia, Israel and Iraqi Kurdistan, which has as one of its purposes separating the Kurds from the central government in Baghdad.
In brief, the JDP government blows a lot of hot air into Israel’s face while sustaining the highest levels of strategic and commercial relations. Meanwhile, the Palestinians continue to suffer.
Resuming the question as to what takes place behind the scenes between Ankara and Tel Aviv, former Galata Saray football star Hakan Sukur asked whether Turkey supplied Israel with the fuel for the Israeli fighter planes that are bombarding Gaza at present. Sukur who served as a JDP member of parliament but resigned from the ruling party in December, was referring to reports claiming that petroleum originating from Iraqi Kurdistan and being stored in Turkish ports was being sold to Israel. If that is true, how long has this been going on, Sukur asked? Is this consistent with the Turkish government’s position regarding the Palestinian cause?
Some of the accounts may be exaggerated, but there is no denying close communications and cooperation between Ankara and Tel Aviv. As the Milliyet pointed out last Thursday, the Israeli embassy in Ankara held talks with the Turkish foreign ministry in which Israel offered to coordinate with Turkey over delivering humanitarian aid to Gaza. In statements to the press, the embassy claimed that in spite of the hundreds of rockets being fired into Israel by Palestinian “terrorist groups”, the crossings into Gaza were still open.
At the same time, in one of the increasingly rare occasions in which the government tolerates demonstrations, groups of protestors were allowed to assemble in front of the Israeli embassy and chant, “The killers are the Israelis”, “Criminal Israel is a terrorist state”, “We are all Palestinians” and “Israel, get out of Palestine”. The JDP leader is running for president, after all.