Turkish Reforms, A Wake-Up Call for Israel

Mehmet Celebi
By Mehmet Celebi
- On September 12, more than 20 million Turks voted a resounding “Yes,” and thus endorsed a constitutional amendment package that could open wider the door to democratization in the Middle East.

Turkey’s  landslide referendum outcome —which will enhance civil liberties and individual rights—was watched closely by hundreds of millions of Muslims around the world, and serves as yet another opportunity for the country to show leadership in the region. As a prominent Arab scholar told me recently “If Turkey fails, what alternative is there for the Muslim and Arab world?”

Of all Turkey’s neighbors, Israel should take the most heed. More than three months after Israel’s deadly attack on the Turkish flotilla, tension between the two countries is still unsettled. Yet one thing is clear: Turkey has the upper hand.

The nuclear deal that Turkey, much to the dismay of the West, recently signed with Iran, co-brokered by Brazil; its ongoing role as broker for talks between Pakistan and Afghanistan; its intervention in convincing all sides to select a consensus President and subsequently Prime Minister of Lebanon; and its success in persuading Iraqi Sunnis to participate, rather than boycott, the elections —all are clear indications of Turkey’s burgeoning role as a trusted diplomatic player on the world stage. It has lifted visa restrictions and signed “free-trade zone agreements” with other countries in the Middle East, and launched strategic dialogues with a number of Arab governments. Enjoying an 80% approval rating among Arabs, Turkey can now lay claim to being an honest broker in the Middle East.

Even the EU, where Turkey’s 40-year membership bid has been vacillating, has recognized Turkey’s key global role recently. Alexander Stubb, the Finnish Foreign Minister, recently underlined Turkey’s growing influence by calling its foreign policy reach “one of the top five countries in the world today.”

Nothing was clearer during my recent visit to Jordan and Israel with prominent Chicago-based Muslim, Christian, and Jewish leaders. I was especially struck by Jordan’s intense support of Turkey—from remarks by government officials of the highest level, including former Prime Minister and current Deputy President of the Jordanian Senate Fayez al-Tarawneh, to the general attitudes of the public. Their tone signals how far Turkey has come in its relations with its Arab neighbors and suggests the influence it can wield to help resolve the Middle East conflict.

Arab leaders and intellectuals I met unmistakably welcomed Turkey’s rise in the region as a counter-balance to more than 30 years of Iranian efforts at hegemony. In particular, these officials genuinely believe Turkey is not seeking to dominate the region, but rather bring peace that will help boost its rapidly growing economy. In Jerusalem, the negative feelings that many Israelis had toward Turkey couldn’t have been a bigger contrast.

Turkey’s annual trade with Arab countries is now over $30 billion dollars, 12 times its trade with Israel, who still relies heavily on the West. Turkey, in contrast, imports almost a fifth of its natural gas from Iran. In deepening ties to Middle Eastern governments other than Israel, Turkey continues to follow where its economic interests lead.

Meanwhile, Israel’s recent actions at home and abroad—largely boosted by increasingly aggressive and combative political leadership—are concerning many Israelis, friends of Israel, and surrounding nations. It is becoming paranoid, intolerant, and undemocratic, increasingly espousing a mindset of “us versus the whole world.”

Declining Turkish-Israeli relations began after Israel’s 2006 war in Lebanon and worsened after Israel’s 2009 war in Gaza, when Syrian-Israeli peace talks mediated by Turkey were abruptly halted by the Israeli attack that killed 1,400 Palestinians. Now, Israel’s overzealous reaction to the flotilla may have cemented this divide, overshadowing the work of more than a millennium of tolerance and harmonious co-existence.

Many Jewish-American and Israeli friends are also concerned. They feel helpless, powerless, and overwhelmed by the serial-blunders the Israeli government has been committing. The recent erroneous leak to the media about a supposed “last minute cancellation of a meeting” between Turkish President Abdullah Gül and Israeli President Shimon Peres at the Clinton Global Initiative 2010, while not true, is nothing but a further detriment to the already fragile relations and has the bad odor of a systematic effort to torpedo Turkish-Israeli relations for good.

This shift is a strategic lapse for Israel, since its relations with Turkey have historically boosted Israel’s claim that its fight is not with Islam but with the Arabs, as Turkey is a non-Arab Muslim country. By alienating Turkey, Israel is risking one of the few friends in the region that it has ever had.

“Turkey’s enmity is as intense as its friendship is valuable,” Prime Minister Erdogan recently warned. “Even the loss of Turkey’s friendship is a cost.” Right now, that’s a cost Israel can’t afford—and Turkey knows it. But, does Israel and its friends?

Mehmet Celebi is a member of the Dean’s International Council at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy Studies.  He is also a founding member of the Interfaith and Global Peace Initiative, a U.S.-Jordanian initiative lead by religious, community, business, and media leaders; and a Fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU).
Last modified onSaturday, 06 May 2017 10:07