Solid Analysis on Israel and Turkey Heritage and Political Forces

Sep 19, 2011 Published under Israel, Leadership, Middle East

While it is not rosy or pleasant to read, this article from Ethan Bronner provides an excellent analysis of the socio-political forces internally shaping both Turkish and Israeli politics and impacting geo-political realities as a result. It also sadly underlines that some politicians put their own careers ahead of the wellbeing of their nations. It is easier to score political goals by appealing to ultra-nationalism. True leaders who place their countries ahead of their political careers, and whose leadership qualities are strong enough to enable them to do this while still succeeding in galvanizing their constituents behind them, are rarer.



New York Times


Times Topics: Israel | Turkey


ISRAEL and Turkey, key American allies, are clashing. But they disagree over the source of their disagreement. Turkey says it expelled the Israeli ambassador and cut military ties because Israel oppresses Palestinians and refuses to apologize for killing activists aboard a Turkish-based flotilla last year. Israel says Turkey aims for regional leadership so it is forsaking Israel.

While both claims have merit, there is a third explanation. The two countries have gone through remarkably similar political shifts in recent decades from aggressively secular societies run by Westernized elites to populist ethno-religious states where standing up to foreigners offers rich political rewards.

Two and a half years ago, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey scolded President Shimon Peres of Israel onstage at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland — right after Israel’s war in Gaza — telling him, “When it comes to killing, you know well how to kill.” He stormed offstage to a heroic welcome at home.

A year later, Israel’s deputy foreign minister, Daniel Ayalon, invited the Turkish ambassador to his office, giving him a low seat at a table without refreshments or a Turkish flag. Before the invited guest entered, Mr. Ayalon said to Israeli television camera operators, “The important thing is that people see that he’s low and we’re high and that there is no flag here.” Mr. Ayalon’s standing only rose in his party, Yisrael Beiteinu, run by the nationalist foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman.

It was not always so. Both societies used to be very different places in rather the same way. And over time, they built a pretty warm relationship of business, military ties and tourism. The surprising thing is what similar — and mutually contemptuous — paths they have taken since.

The founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, and the founding prime minister of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, had much in common. This was not an accident. Ben-Gurion, who studied law in Istanbul, modeled himself on Ataturk, seeking to build an instantly modern society of like-minded and “ideal” citizens with few deviations in language or culture. Both saw religion as a deviation and ethnicity as a problem. Like the Kurds of Eastern Turkey, the Moroccan and Yemeni Jews on the Israeli periphery faced an official — if less brutal — disregard.

Sidelining religion and ill treating minorities can be hard to sustain in a democracy, however. The founders’ heirs were dislodged by electoral revolutions — in Israel in 1977 and in Turkey in 2002. Today a religious nationalism plays a central and growing role both in Israel, dominated by the Likud Party of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and in the Turkey of the Justice and Development Party of Mr. Erdogan. The secular elites who set the cultural and political agenda for decades have lost much of their influence.

Last year, Mr. Erdogan waved away retired Turkish ambassadors who criticized his foreign policy with the words “mons chers” (meaning “mes chers,” or my dears). Foreign Minister Lieberman similarly dismissed Israelis who found his policies too tough as “feinschmeckers,” those with overly refined tastes. In neither case was the derisive use of a European term accidental. Turks have been offended by the endless stalling of their country’s application to the European Union. Israel’s establishment, supported by a mix of Jews from the Middle East and former Soviet Union, views the elite of Old Europe, with its pro-Palestinian sentiments, with disdain.

“I often compare the Erdogan upheaval of 2002 to the elections here in 1977, which brought Likud to power,” noted Alon Liel, a former Israeli ambassador to Turkey who teaches a course on the two countries’ histories and relations at Tel Aviv University.

“In Turkey, the Kemalist elite ignored the religious leadership, the countryside and the Kurds, creating groups of very unhappy people who cohered into a new political opposition. The same happened in Israel, and Menachem Begin connected with them. Today, both Erdogan and Netanyahu rule from a support base that is more religious, more rural and less educated, where honor and nationalism are important. That makes the relationship between the two very hard.”

As non-Arabs, they had once built an alliance based on being outsiders. But it is precisely in foreign policy where they differ today, one turning east, the other west. Turkey, while a member of NATO, feels rejected by Europe and renewed in its sense of Muslim and Middle Eastern identity. Last week, Mr. Erdogan went on an Arab Spring tour — to Egypt, Tunisia and Libya — in a quest for leadership.

Israel, whose Middle Eastern ties are fraying badly, looks to “new” Europe, countries like Poland but also to Romania and Bulgaria where anti-Turkish feelings run high from Ottoman days.

Washington, in hopes of restoring the Israeli-Turkish relationship, is pushing Israel to take conciliatory steps on the Palestinian issue, partly to avoid a showdown at the United Nations this month over a Palestinian statehood resolution. It is also pressing Turkey to move away from its recent moves to improve ties with Iran and Syria. It recently persuaded Turkey to place a NATO radar station focused on Iran on its soil, a step that will benefit Israel.

And there are other mutual interests that could help reunite them. Both are engaged in battles against militants — Israel against Hamas and other Palestinian groups, Turkey against Kurdish separatists unimpressed by Mr. Erdogan’s moves toward tolerance. Both occupy land in defiance of the international community — Israel in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, Turkey in northern Cyprus. Moreover, although resource-poor, both are economic success stories, high-growth members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, exceptions in the region.

Still, they will have to overcome deep societal trends. As Efraim Inbar, a specialist on Turkish politics at Bar-Ilan University, says: “Nationalism in Turkey today is ethno-religious. The same for Likud. Neither listens too much to what outsiders say.”

A version of this news analysis appeared in print on September 18, 2011, on page SR5 of the New York edition with the headline: Israel and Turkey, Foes and Much Alike.

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