Don't Panic Over Turkey-Israel Relations Downgrade

Discussion of Turkey's place in international affairs is almost always characterized by a few basic principles — it is temporary, delivered by a host of people who have limited in-country experience, and almost always overblown.

For example, in mainstream coverage of Turkey's rise, the country is never "expanding its foreign policy" — it is "abandoning the West." Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government isn't "mildly religious" — it is "about to join Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran." And so on. (Ignore the fact that Turkey has approved NATO radar sites in-country and that Thomas Friedman's doomsday predictions have yet to come to pass.)

So, while it is understandable that the media has responded to Israel and Turkey's recent diplomatic downgrade with phrases like "dead in the water," it's worth remembering this isn't the first time this sort of thing has happened. Turkey and Israel had a quarrel over disrespect shown to the Turkish ambassador during a TV show dispute, and there's Erdogan's famous Davos outburst in 2009. While the current situation is, of course, more severe, there's no reason to overstate it.

First of all, Israel and Turkey's military relationship has not ended – the Israeli military attaché remains in Ankara. Nor has the two countries' economic relationship, which is pretty substantial — to the tune of around $2 billion per year.

But, the argument goes that this is all just a prelude. Erdogan is threatening further sanctions, and he is so pro-Gaza that the relationship between Israel and Turkey is doomed.

True, but Erdogan has talked this game before. Davos in 2009 was a similar condemnation, yet the relationship continues. Indeed, in a State Department cable released by Wikileaks, it is said that Turkish diplomats "reserve their candid criticism for Prime Minister Erdogan and his emotional inclination to exceed his talking points."

Another State Department cable makes the same point more explicitly and explains why Erdogan takes such a hard line on Israel in public.

"While the Foreign Ministry and the Turkish General staff agree with us that a strong Turkey-Israel relationship is essential for regional stability, PM [Prime Minister] Erdogan has sought to shore up his domestic right political flank at the expense of this relationship," reads the cable. "His outburst at Davos was the first in a series of events the results of which we and his staff have sought to contain."

Note the language. Erdogan's own staff, as well as the Turkish foreign ministry, spent a great deal of time after Davos rebuilding the Israel-Turkey relationship behind the scenes. While Erdogan will continue to make symbolic attacks on the relationship (such as making Israeli passengers strip at Istanbul's Atatürk International Airport), Turkey's geopolitical and economic realities mean that this is "a propaganda war" as Amberin Zaman puts it in Haber Türk. These two countries are not about to go to war or destroy their economic relationship.

Or, to put it more bluntly — those Israeli "second secretaries" who do get to stay in Ankara for the moment are going to be working very hard with folks in the Turkish foreign ministry to keep the relationship's mechanisms moving behind the scenes until the political rhetoric moves on to something else.

Photo Credit: William F. Zeman

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William F. Zeman

Graduate of the history department of American University in Washington, DC. Currently based in Istanbul, Turkey, doing various editing and writing work.

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