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Turkey: Middle East Crisis Puts Great Strain On Turkish Leadership

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

Israel's security crackdown on Palestinian territories is forcing Turkey into a delicate situation. Ankara has strongly criticized Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's action while at the same time rejecting the possibility of severing military ties with Jerusalem. Analysts believe that, despite the strain put on Ankara by the current crisis, relations with Israel is likely to remain a priority for Turkish policymakers.

Prague, 5 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Torn between its friendly ties with Israel and its stated willingness to improve relations with neighboring Iran and Arab countries, and compelled to compromise between its security and domestic agendas, the Turkish government is looking at the dramatic developments in the Middle East with increasing uneasiness.

On the one hand, Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit's coalition cabinet has significantly toughened its stance toward Israel over the past few days, up to the point of suggesting that it may revise some aspects of its relations with Jerusalem in the future. But, on the other hand, it has so far resisted demands made by Islamic opposition parties to cut off military ties with Israel. Ankara's delicate position has prompted regional experts to liken the Turkish cabinet to a tightrope walker.

A strongly worded statement released earlier this week (1 April) by the office of Turkish Foreign Minister Ismail Cem lambasted Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, describing his action against Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and his people as a "violation of human rights."

Stressing that Arafat is "the president of a state Turkey officially recognizes," Cem said, "No one has the right to act with such disrespect toward a head of state and the nation he represents."

Raising the protest even further, Prime Minister Ecevit yesterday accused Israel of carrying out "genocide" against the Palestinians and blamed Sharon for what he called "step-by-step" destruction of the Palestinian lands.

He subsequently sought to downplay the charge, saying in a statement released today his accusations of genocide "simply reflected Turkey's growing anxiety over violence in the Middle East."

Yet, despite such forthright criticism of Israel and apparent support for the Palestinian cause, Ankara does not seem to have a clear-cut policy regarding the current Mideast situation.

Dov Waxman is a Middle East analyst at the Washington, D.C.-based School for Advanced International Studies (SAIS) of Johns Hopkins University. He told RFE/RL that Turkey's leaders are caught between two fires, and thus are sometimes driven into making conflicting remarks.

"The Turkish public opinion is obviously very supportive of the Palestinians in this conflict and, therefore, is uncomfortable with open relations with Israel. But at the same time, the Turkish military, particularly, are probably the keenest supporters of maintaining those relations [with Israel], and no Turkish government is really in a position to contradict their wishes."

Thousands of left-wing militants, unionists, students, and rights activists have taken to the streets of Istanbul and Ankara this week to denounce Sharon's assault on the West Bank and protest military ties between Turkey and Jerusalem.

In parliament, opposition deputies have demanded that Ankara cancel a controversial defense industry project signed last month between the two countries.

Under the $668 million contract, Israel's defense contractor Israel Military Industries (IMI) is to modernize 170 Turkish M-60 tanks. Part of a major renovation project that aims to overhaul some 900 aging tanks, the deal has been strongly criticized for its lack of openness, with opponents alleging that the Turkish government selected IMI without calling a tender.

Both Ecevit and Defense Minister Sabahattin Cakmakoglu have dismissed calls to cancel or freeze the deal, saying it was "too late" to consider such an option. Yet, Turkish leaders have taken steps apparently aimed at appeasing domestic opposition.

Earlier this week (2 April), Ecevit hinted that Ankara might "review its [defense] ties with Israel in the future." The next day, both the Defense and Foreign ministries denied Turkey had plans to hold military exercises with Israel.

Turkish media had earlier reported Israel was scheduled to join Turkey and the United States for joint air forces maneuvers in southern Anatolia later this month (22 April). These reports prompted Temel, a deputy from the moderate Islamic Felicity (Saadet) Party, to press for the exercise to be canceled, lest Israeli pilots "who dropped bombs on the Palestinians" reach Turkey's soil.

It is unclear whether Israel in fact ever intended to participate in the military exercises, as Cakmakoglu claims, or whether its role was cancelled to avoid further embarrassment.

Since 1996, Israel and NATO member Turkey have been linked by a number of defense agreements and have held several joint military exercises, most often with the participation of U.S. forces. Israel defense firms have already modernized dozens of Turkey's fighter jets and are considering supplying Ankara with a wide range of high-tech weapons.

Despite Ankara's criticism of Sharon's policy, analysts generally see ties with Israel as remaining a priority for Ecevit's cabinet, especially if one considers the influence exerted by the military on Turkey's decision-making process.

Waxman believes that neither Ecevit nor any other Turkish politician has enough power to challenge the strategic partnership with Israel initiated by the General Staff in the 1990s.

"[Politicians] are not really the ones who basically decide what Turkey's policy should be on this. It is basically, primarily, in the hands of the military, who are the ones who really decide Turkish policy towards Israel, and no Turkish politician is in any position to change that policy. Just look at when [Islamic Prime Minister Necmettin] Erbakan was in power in 1996. He [had] made numerous statements [saying] that he wanted to cut off Turkey's relations with Israel. But, once in power, he was forced to sign a number of agreements with Israel. That just points to the limited power that any Turkish politician has on that issue."

Unlike Israel, Turkey does not generally see Arab countries as an immediate threat to its security. But Turkish leaders nonetheless remain wary of the Arab world -- with the noticeable exception of Palestinians, for whom Waxman says they feel "some kind of historical responsibility," rooted in the former ties that existed between Palestine and the Ottoman Empire up until 1918.

Since the founding of Israel in 1948, Ankara has maintained a delicate balance in its relationship with both Jerusalem and Arab capitals, sometimes successfully using one against another.

Throughout the 1950s, Turkey developed a discreet, though important, relationship with Israel to counter Egypt, which both countries then considered as an enemy.

During the following two decades or so, secular Turkey cultivated its relations with the Arab world, joining the Organization of the Islamic Conference in 1969 in a bid to gain international support on its dispute with Greece over Cyprus and eventually downgrading its diplomatic ties with Israel.

In the early 1990s, Turkey was the first country in the Middle East to join the U.S.-led coalition to drive Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's troops out of Kuwait. Since the end of the Gulf War -- which Turkey claims cost its economy billions of dollars in lost revenues -- Ankara has been moving steadily to restore ties with Iraq and other Arab countries, while reinvigorating its relationship with Israel at the same time.

Over the last decade, Turkey used its relationship with Israel as leverage to force then-Syrian President Hafez al-Assad to expel Kurdish separatist leader Abdullah Ocalan out of Damascus.

Ankara also benefited from its ties with the Israeli lobby in the U.S. Congress to boost its own relations with Washington. Bulent Aliriza is the Turkish Project Director at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). He told our correspondent that these latest results could not have been achieved without propitious conditions in the Middle East. But he believes further violence in the West Bank and the growing prospect of Ankara's participating in possible U.S. military action against Iraq will make it increasingly difficult for Turkish leaders to uphold their current policy.

"Throughout [the last decade], Israel was committed to the Oslo process and there was no significant diplomatic cost to Turkey's relationship with Israel. Now, with the Oslo process in tatters, with a conflict between Israel and Palestine and with tensions from the entire Arab world, there are diplomatic costs to this relationship. So what Turkey needs to do is to balance that relationship -- the pluses of [its] relationship with Israel against the minuses."

Waxman of SAIS believes the ongoing crisis in the Middle East is unlikely to fundamentally affect Turkish-Israeli relations. At most, he says, "it is going to drive them underground and encourage Turkish policy makers to be more discreet in cultivating these relations."

Aliriza doubts that Turkey's leaders -- who are battling the country's worst economic crisis since World War II and depend almost exclusively on international assistance channeled through the International Monetary Fund -- have any alternative to replace their relationship with Israel. In his opinion, the only option left to Turkey is to convince the U.S. to reactivate the Middle East peace process.

"The government is in a quandary. Its best hope is that the U.S. government re-engages even more vigorously in the conflict and, somehow, the conflict begins to de-escalate. If Turkey is seen to have used its relationship with Washington to bring [the U.S.] into greater activity, that would be portrayed by the government as a success. But that's a very optimistic scenario. If that does not happen, then the government -- and certainly the military that does not want to disengage from Israel in any way -- is going to come under increasing pressure."

Addressing an emergency parliamentary session called to debate the situation in the Middle East, Foreign Minister Cem on 2 April urged Washington "to use its influence to help bring an end to occupation and terror and implement a peaceful settlement [of the conflict.]" He also suggested that an international conference be organized to try to bring Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table.

Aliriza says there is little Turkey can do beyond such attempts, adding, "I'd hate to be in Ecevit's shoes."