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Turkey Turns Eastward

The overlooked aftermath of the flotilla incident

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An artist paints a mural of Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan in Gaza City.(Mahmud Hams/AFP/Getty Images)

Nearly two weeks later, with peace talks still tentatively on track and the future status of the Gaza blockade still up in the air, the most significant consequence of the flotillia incident is the major rifts that have occurred between Turkey and Israel and between Turkey and much of the West, most of all the United States.

Turkey has been Israel’s strongest ally in the Muslim world for awhile now. And as for the West—well, Turkey is a member of NATO. For the United States to be experiencing a serious rift with a country to which it is bound by a collective defense treaty is no small thing.

And here’s the thing: It seems very likely that this is Turkey’s plan, or at least of its prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Take the flotilla. While it is not clear just how active and explicit a hand Turkey’s government had in planning the flotilla, at the very least it tacitly encouraged the activists and has subsequently held them up as unadulterated victims; some have argued that Turkey played an even more direct role.

Turkey’s foundering on the shoals of European Union membership have pushed it eastward; and Turkey’s domestic political situation have made it be in Erdogan’s interest to play up the Palestinian cause. Given Turkey’s cultural, strategic, and even geographic centrality to maybe the world’s number-one hotspot—the greater Middle East/Central Asia region, from the Holy Land’s emotional landmine to the steppe’s natural gas fields, from Iraq to Iran to Afghanistan—the consequences of Turkey’s move away from the Western coalition and toward some sort of third-way scenario could totally shift the geopolitical situation in a way that is not likely to be to Israel’s benefit.

We should have seen this coming. It was three weeks ago, well before the flotilla, that, in defiance of Western plans for U.N. sanctions, Turkey and Brazil reached an alternate nuclear fuel swap deal with Iran. Events have almost come full circle: Yesterday, Erdogan received rave reviews from Arab leaders gathered in Istanbul for an economic summit (at which Turkey established a free trade zone with Arab neighbors Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan). Why? Because Turkey and Brazil were the only two Security Council members to vote against the sanctions that were passed earlier this week: An act that Obama administration officials are describing as a “slap in the face.” (Incidentally, the Arab League’s only member of the Security Council, Lebanon, provided the Security Council’s only abstention.)

Yet Erdogan was not interested in talking about Iran yesterday. “Are we going to remain silent over the murder of nine people?” he told the gathering. “We can’t turn a blind eye to this banditry in international waters.” (By the way, there is a really interesting Forward article on how Israeli Turks are dealing with all of this.)

The thesis that Turkey is turning toward allies in the Arab world, along with Iran, and away from Western allies such as the United States and Israel, because it was refused EU membership was articulated earlier this week by U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates. “”I personally think,” he said, “that if there is anything to the notion that Turkey is, if you will, moving eastward, it is, in my view, in no small part because it was pushed, and pushed by some in Europe refusing to give Turkey the kind of organic link to the West that Turkey sought.”

Domestically, meanwhile, Erdogan and his AKP party—the first explicitly Islamic party ever to govern the republic that was founded, several decades ago, on a resolutely secular foundation—have been using the Palestinian issue as a way to shore up their support against the Republican People’s Party. The opposition leader, in turned, has criticized Erdogan for unduly ruffling feathers.

And as for America? Turkey has already lost one of its biggest allies stateside: AIPAC.

U.S. Concerned at Turkey Shift: Gates [Reuters]
Earlier: Turkey Turns From The West

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Turkey’s lurching East has been pronounced for years now. For me, it was reading Turkish Nobel laureate, Orhan Pamuk’s Snow, which was published in English translation in 2004. It really captures the cultural drift toward Islamism in the east of the country, and the sad decline of Atuturk’s old, Western order. Like Peter the Great, Ataturk opened a window on the west. The Europeans slammed it shut, and blame America and Israel in turn.

I think Pamuk lives up by Columbia now. He was actually run out by the military, I believe, for challenging nationally-approved interpretations of the massacre of the Armenians. But I doubt he’s terribly comfortable with the ascendance of religious conservatives in Turkey.

Tablet should invite him to contribute an essay.

Shalom Freedman says:

Few people seem to grasp the major significance of the Turkish move toward alliance with Iran and Syria, and away from the U.S. and Nato. This did not begin yesterday, and those who blame Israel simply do not understand Erdogan and his policy. In 2003 the United States requested a passage into Iraq from Turkish territory and was surprised to be denied it. Turkey has since then been moving step by step away from the West. Apparently one great source accelerating the process was President Obama’s appeasing policy toward the radical Islamic world. Obama in his strong one- sided criticism of Israel on settlements and later on building in Jerusalem, in the contempt he showed toward the Israeli Prime- Minister gave the sign that Israel could be attacked with impunity. Erdogan may or may not have helped organize the Turkish group whose tactic was to create a violent incident which Israel would be blamed for,but he certainly supported the terrorists wholeheartedly. But Again this latest incident is only one in a series of actions he has taken to break his long- term alliance with Israel.
It is to be hoped that a majority of the Turkish people will not prefer Radical Islamism to alliance with the free world. It is to be hoped that the bum will be thrown out. But the chances do not seem great at the moment.

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Turkey Turns Eastward

The overlooked aftermath of the flotilla incident

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