Following the Turkish downgrading of ties with Israel over the last year, some Israelis may try to find opportunity in the diplomatic crisis, rather than try to patch up a decaying relationship. This week, Turkey refused to allow Israeli participation in a NATO training exercise. The United States and Italy abruptly protested and pulled out themselves.
Turkey’s leaders have needed a reason to accommodate their constituents’ animosity toward Israel, whether or not Israel’s policies are justified. The second Gaza War in the last three years, Operation Cast Lead, gave Turkey an opening that it could hit Israel politically, score domestic points with voters, and put the onus on Israel to try and improve the relationship between the two countries.
It also adds to Turkey’s prestige in the Middle East to pressure the Israelis directly while Turkey also mends its ties with Syria. It reasserts Turkey in the coveted position of power-broker and mediator, that the Netanyahu government had undermined by not continuing the Turkish-moderated peace negotiations with Syria started hastily by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. The fact, that Olmert initiated those talks with little public support and in an effort to improve his public image after the Second Lebanon War, or that the idea of ceding the Golan is unpopular in general among Israelis, is irrelevant to Turkey.
When Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan walked off a stage he shared with Israeli President Shimon Peres after an impromptu argument at the World Economic Forum about the war in Gaza, many took it as a sign of things to come
But Turkey is still vulnerable politically on certain other points, notably its ultra-sensitivity to acknowledgement of the Armenian Genocide and its efforts to join the European Union. Turkey may be taking steps to compensate for these failings. Turkey just signed a deal with Armenia to regularize its diplomatic relationship. Additionally, Turks have started turning toward the east away from the West in the face of such immense resistance to its joining the European Union.
The willingness to use Israel as a political pincushion and thumb a nose at the West (notably the US), despite whatever Turkey’s Foreign Ministry says, is definitely a significant shift away from defensive ties with Israel.
Recognizing the Armenian Genocide if the Relationship Withers
How far they will be able to go with this seems dubious. If Turkey becomes hostile to Israel, Israel would represent a formidable regional opponent that has established ties with NATO and even the Iraqi Kurdish leadership (the son of Iraq’s President, himself Kurdish, attended the AIPAC policy conference in May). Israel would also finally have a reason to openly acknowledge the Armenian genocide, something Israeli politicians have tried in the past, and definitely something ties with Turkey have prevented Prime Ministers from speaking out about.
It would inflame Turkey and again represent a major embarrassment for the leadership, despite whatever ties it makes with modern Armenia. Many Jews, cognizant of the Holocaust and wanting to confront genocides, have been frustrated by this lack of recognition in both Israel and among organized Jewish leadership worried about a tailspin in Israeli-Turkish relations.
If Turkey continues to downgrade the relationship with Israel, especially at the same time it improves ties with Syria, the country will eventually face a diplomatic crisis of its own.
Would continuing to ignore the Armenian issue undermine Jewish leaders fighting Iranian nuclear proliferation and genocide in Darfur by reminding people of the evils of the Nazi Holocaust?
The Israeli state, if it feels the need, will back any program or outspoken critic that equates the Armenian genocide with the Holocaust. Any apprehension Jewish activists may have about it because their words may be connected to problems between Israel and Turkey, may fade away.
An Abrupt End to Ties is Unlikely . . .
. . . but a gradual one is. I have no doubt the reason acknowledging the Armenian genocide has never happened by the government in Jerusalem is political, but so would be its inevitable recognition by the Israeli government. I would also worry about Azerbaijan becoming a bridge for diplomatic ties between Turkey and the regime in Tehran. However, this seems an appropriate time to consider the benefits of Jewish leaders acknowledging the crimes committed during World War I against Armenians and other Middle Eastern Christians.
Ties run deep. The military relationship has historically been strong, though there is a decline in military sales by Israeli companies to Turkish buyers. Israel and Turkey established ties as early as the 1950s, specifically against mutual enemies in the region and the Soviet Union. The Mossad might have helped catch Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan in the 1990s.
There is a lot Turkey would lose out on if it decided to continue this break from Israel. Turkey’s military is not thought to be on the same page with the political leadership (though that idea might undergo changes in light of this week’s events). Turkey will also not take its relationship with Syria and Iran, one weak regime and the other a pariah, too far.
I don’t hope the relationship ends, but I’d like to end the hesitation by Israeli leadership on the Armenian genocide for the sake of Turkey. It is too important to ignore.