Monday, June 7, 2010

Never the Same? -- A Reading of Turkey After the Mavi Marmara

Protests in Istanbul continued on Saturday, drawing crowds in the thousands. AP Photo from Hurriyet Daily News

Upon the return of Turkish Ambassador Oguz Celikkol to Ankara, President Gul declared that Turkey's relations with Israel "will never be the same."

Departing for Ireland the day Israeli commandos raided the Mavi Marmara in international waters, I left Istanbul's Taksim Square with the images of enraged protestors fully in my mind. From Ireland, reports of continued mass protests drawing crowds of up to 10,000 and feiry statements of Turkish government officials flooded Irish radio and the BBC.

Ireland, too, was not without protest: the Irish-flagged Rachel Corrie, part of the same flotilla, had lagged behind the other vessels and the Irish government was insisting that it be allowed to reach Gaza without incident. Protests occurred in Dublin and Belfast, as they did in other places across the world. Though Ireland was much less at the center of the raid than Turkey, it was clear that the Israeli raid would affect not only Turkey-Israel relations, but how Israel was perceived throughout the world.

I won't take the time here to regurgitate the news surrounding the raid and the deaths of nine Turkish citizens, one of them also a dual citizen of my own country, other than to focus on the Turkish response and Turkey's demand that a UN-backed investigatory commission be authorized to investigate the incident (which Israel rejects) -- an insistence all the more justified in Turkish minds following the release of autopsy reports revealing that the nine victims had been peppered with bullets and some shot at a very close range.

Soon after the raid, the Turkish government condemned the Israeli action as tantamount to murder, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu describing the actions in front of the UN Security Council as "piracy" and "banditry." The response elicted from Prime Minister Erdogan, who flew back from a trip to Chile, was just as strong. Erdogan issued aggresive statements throughout the week, comparing the incident to Sept. 11, iterating the commandment not to kill in multiple languages before the glare of video cameras, and characterizing Hamas as an organization comprised of "resistance fighters."

Meanwhile, Israel moved quickly to portray the Turkish citizens killed as Islamic exremists and terrorists bent on waging global jihad against Israel, linking the still murky Turkish humanitarian aid organization at the center of the incident with global terrorist organizations, including al-Qa'ida (for more on the humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH), see Yigal Schleifer's article in the Christian Science Monitor).

The difference in narratives striking, tempers waged throughout the week as the bodies of those killed were returned to Turkey amidst more protests and calls for Turkey to cut off all relations with Israel. The Turkish government recalled its ambassador, cancelled joint military exercises scheduled with Israel, and suspended work on energy projects. The Turkish parliament issued a strong resolution calling on the government to reconsider military and eocnomic ties with Israel.

Calls for an even stonger reaction resided throughout the Turkish public and were not limited to supporters of the AKP or stronger Islamist parties (see this poll), or even to particularly religious people for that matter. Criticism from Turkish opposition parties often urged the government to take stronger action, and newly-elected CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu, while urging calm, has criticized the government for being "two-faced": "They’re saying ‘one minute’ in front of cameras, and ‘yes please’ behind closed doors."

Over the weekend, Erdogan and Kilicdaroglu engaged in mutual finger-pointing, both accusing the other of being under the undue influence of Israel. Referring to recent statements made by Fetullah Gulen and Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc that revealed a rift in the party over how to deal with Gaza, Kilicdaroglu declared that the "Tel Aviv advocate" is within the AKP. Tucked away in Pennsylvania, Gulen gave an interview to the Wall Street Journal in which he criticized the IHH's failure to reach an agreement with Israel. In the interview, Gulen seemed to warn the Turkish government to be careful in its posturing vis-á-vis Israel for fear of damaging relations with the United States. Hurriyet Daily News columnist Mehmet Ali Birand picked up on this message in his column today:

Gülen explicitly warns Turkey.

He opposes entering such a process with the National View. For, the IHH is according to him a radical Islamic movement and he believes turning this humane help attempt into an Islamic help movement would harm Turkey very much.

Gülen with his approach does not oppose the AKP. He just criticizes IHH’s attitude. He warns that such steps might go as far as cutting off relations between Turkey, the United States and Israel. He draws attention to how dangerous the situation is. It seems as if he says, “These guys are about to cause trouble for the country, stop them.”
According to Birand, AKP Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc might well have heeded Gulen's call when he said on Friday, "The hoca points in the right direction."

In an interview with KanalTurk on Sunday, Arinc expressed that more tension with Israel should be avoided, seeming to call on the IHH and other organizations to the right to back off. Whether Gulen and Arinc's statements are made for fear of weakening ties with the United States and Israel and/or are motivated by concern that Islamist parties to the right of the AKP might get a boost out of the incident in the same way they did after Israel's incursion into Gaza at the end of 2008 is unclear (see Jan. 14, 2009 post), but the question should be on the radar of those observing the AKP's Israel policy in coming weeks.

If Turkey-Israel relations are to be normalized, and even more importantly, if the United States is to preserve good relations with Israel, efforts should be made to come to a consensus on the investigatory commission proposed by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon. Ankara has put the commission forward as essential to its normalization of relations with Tel Aviv, and while Tel Aviv, for its part, continues to resist, it is no doubt looking to gain the approval of the Obama Administration as it moves to craft its own internal investigation. For the United States, the Turkey-Israel alliance forged in 1996 is one of the few bright spots in the Middle East, and given the amount of political ill will toward nine Turkish citizens being killed by Israeli commandos in international waters, it would make sense to do everything in its power to somehow bring Turkey and Israel into some sort of compromise.

Turkey took a powerful first step despite all the feiry -- and, at times, more than unseemly -- rhetoric coming from government officials this week insomuch as it welcomed a rather vague statement coming from the UN Security Council last week without making too much fuss (the statement, falling short of a resolution, condemned "those actions" resulting in death, without assigning responsibility).

Given the gravity of animus toward Israel inside Turkey at the moment, as well as calls from other governments around the world for an independent investigation (including the UN Human Rights Council, the resolution of which the United States voted against), it would make sense for the all parties to do everything in its power to assure a comprehensive and open investigation of both the Israeli military's actions and the activities of the IHH.

For more on Turkey-Israel relations, see past posts.

UPDATE I (6/7) -- Two interesting analyses worth drawing attention to are Hugh Pope's piece in Friday's The Guardian and Steven A. Cook's assessment of Turkey-U.S. relations in Foreign Policy. Pope urges that Turkey's rift with Israel not be looked at as a turn away from the West, but rather as the response to a humanitarian crisis in Gaza. For Pope, when one objectively looks at Turkish policy in the Middle East in recent years, the country can be seen as "explicitly imitating lessons from the EU that proved how such convergence can end cycles of conflict." Cook, examining crucial foreign policy differences between Turkey and the United States, portrays the two countries as "frenemies," concluding the two countries competing strategic powers in the Middle East. See also a very insightful, albeit tragic, analysis by Alon ben Meir thanks to Jenny White at Kamil Pasha.

UPDATE II (6/8) -- Hosting the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA) in Istanbul, Turkey took the opportunity of the conference to condemn Israel in an attachment to the conference's final declaration. 21 of the 22 countries in attendance, all save Israel and including Russia, joined the statement, calling for an international investigatory commission to be setup and condeming Israel's use of force in international waters. Though not linking the statement to the flotilla incident, Russian President Vladmir Putin said the Blue Steam II natural gas project, linking Russian gas supplies to Israel and Turkey, might not extend to Israel due to lack of demand.

UPDATE III (6/9) -- For a decent summary of the military, economic, and energy ties between Turkey and Israel and potential ramifications of the flotilla affair, see Saban Kardas' analysis in the Eurasia Daily Monitor. Though trade with Israel constitutes only one percent of Turkey's total foreign trade, much of it food imports, Ha'aretz reports that some Israeli supermarkets are already boycotting Turkish goods.


Bulent Murtezaoglu said...

Hmm. I wouldn't put Birand between myself and the Turkish press/politicians. Arinc said this: Hocaefendi her zaman olduğu gibi doğruyu söylüyor. I don't know what speech Birand is quoting from, the rough translation is: The hocaefendi is speaking the truth, as he always does.

I have a question for you and I will tell you why I am asking it. I am annoyed by the way extremist is used in the US press to describe the people who demonstrated here. This sounds too much like terrist to me and I don't like what it implies for the folks here.

I have no doubt people were angry, but did they look dangerous to you? You have seen or at least seen the footage of demonstrations here, and you know what extremists tend to do. As far as I know, these people behaved, and I haven't heard of even a single window pane getting cracked even at the Israeli consulate. I have also noticed while flag burnings happened, the US flag seems to have been spared this time around. How was it in Taksim?

I have also seen that people chanting Allahuekber is reported. I know why this sounds significant to the Western ear, but I find it annoying. MHP folks chant Allahuekber here too. And, guess what? People do say it in mosques during services also. It isn't like people who ordinarily sing John Lennon songs have started chanting Allahuekber in sympathy with Hamas. This is, afterall, a Muslim population and what comes naturally isn't necessarily indicative of extremism.

Do you see where I am going with this? It is fine -- and indeed necessary -- to worry about extremism but let's make sure we do it sensibly.

Oh, and, it turns out Furkan Dogan wasn't even a dual citizen, he'd given up his Turkish citizenship and he was planning to go to college in the US. Here. I

Bulent Murtezaoglu said...

I just realized I should tell you this since we talked about the far left here. Turkish involvement with Palestinian organizations goes way back. A bunch folks went there got training and fought in the early 70's. Some of those are no longer leftists in that sense (Cengiz Candar for example). Faik Bulut gave an interview about then and now and why he wasn't on that ship. I'll give link to the first installment in the three part series. The rest are linked from there. He also mentions Gulen etc.

I don't understand (not that I ever did) who's who and doing what in those circles, but Bulut (also a Kurd) might not be an insignificant figure.