A vendor in Istanbul sells Israeli flags, for burning, and Palestinian flags, for waving, before a protest against Israel’s Gaza offensive last year.(Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images)

The first instinct of those seeking to explain the rapid deterioration of Turkish-Israeli relations is to find someone to blame. One popular target is the Turkish prime minister, Tayyip Erdogan, the leader of the AKP, Turkey’s increasingly assertive Islamic governing party, who has publicly denounced Israel’s conduct in Gaza and memorably dressed down Shimon Peres in Davos. Those who would rather cast blame in Israel’s direction can find an easy target in Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, who recently attempted to humiliate Turkey’s ambassador to Israel, Ahmet Oguz Celikkol, by subjecting the diplomat to a series of sophomoric staged embarrassments, including forcing him to sit on a low sofa.

Indelicate language and behavior are not in short supply between two countries, which only a short time ago were seen as close strategic allies. Yet the larger—if no less discomfiting—truth is that the tensions in the Turkish-Israeli relationship are the product of more basic tensions in Turkish internal and external politics that are unlikely to be resolved anytime soon. The earthquake-prone plains of Anatolia are in motion again, and the tremors are being felt throughout the region—not just in Israel.

The rise of Islamic politics in Turkey suggests that we are in the midst of the denouement of the very important social experiment that began in 1923, when the modern Turkish state was founded on the remnants of the collapsed Ottoman Empire. The revered founder of the new state, Kemal Ataturk—whose somber portrait graces every public building —sought to modernize Turkey and to unify its many ethnicities by imposing an official policy of state secularism, a true separation of church and state. The guardian was to be the army, the nation’s unifying force and the power behind the throne in Turkey ever since. Under the “Kemalist” policy, the elite segments of society, which included military officers, judges, the higher bureaucracy, university leadership, top industrialists and bankers, and even the media, saw the secular state as the golden key to modernization. Military inventions overthrew civilian governments deemed too accommodating to religion and to ethnic separatism as recently as 1980 and, in more indirect form, 1997.

The threat of a military coup remains the monster in the closet of Turkish politics. This threat is present today because the AKP is an overtly religious party, and because its electoral position is relatively weak. The party received the votes of only a third of the electorate, and it governs because the opposition, ranging from extreme nationalists to European-style liberals, is hopelessly fragmented. The assertiveness of Erdogan and the AKP are less a display of strength than a response to the uncertainty of the party’s position. It is against this background that Turkey’s newly troubled relations with Israel can best be understood.


Since ancient times, Constantinople, now called Istanbul, has sat at the junction of Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, and that geography hasn’t changed. Turkey’s strategic location was a primary focus of Western interest during World War I, World War II, and throughout the Cold War, and the country remains an invaluable U.S. ally in the effort to contain Russian and Iranian influence in the Middle East, Central Asia, and the Caucasus. America’s deep involvement in Iraq and deepening involvement in Afghanistan leaves it vulnerable to the north of these areas, which Turkey can dominate militarily and economically. Turkey is well aware of the how badly the United States needs and relies on its support in an important part of the world, and the United States is pleased that Turkey helps us out—even if it chooses to do so by expanding Turkish rather than American influence.

It is also important to remember that unlike Syria or Jordan, states created by Western cartographers in the aftermath of World War II, Turkey is the self-conscious heir to the Ottoman Empire, which once ruled a great swath of the world, from Vienna to Baghdad. Turkey’s sense of history is manifest in dreams of ancient grandeur, and also in the highly disciplined traditions of its state bureaucracy, military, police, and educational system. One young Turkish official to whom I suggested that the endless embarrassment of the Armenian slaughter be dealt with by blaming the Ottomans and then moving on replied with genuine dismay: “Oh, we couldn’t do that: they are our grandfathers, and we cannot shame their memory.”

Old-fashioned considerations of national security haven’t gone away, either. Turkey and Israel have the two most powerful armies in the Middle East, and military powers seek to maintain ample buffer zones between themselves. That means Turkey will continue to be involved in brokering peace between its Syrian neighbor and Israel, not out of friendship, but in its own national interest. The only other major military power in the area, Egypt, settled the buffer question with Israel years ago. Now it is Turkey’s turn.

Yet it is also true that Turkey needs Israel much less than it used to. One of the foundations of Turkish-Israeli cooperation has long been a common interest in countering terrorism: the Palestinians for the Israelis, the Kurds for the Turks. However the security services in each country have begun to diverge rather markedly in their approach to what was once seen as a common problem. Generations of Turkish soldiers and police shaped their political outlooks in the anti-terror operations against Kurdish separatist terrorist groups, primarily the PKK; 30,000 people have died, the economic and international costs have been high, and yet the “Kurdish problem” persists. A new attitude has been emerging lately—mostly under AKP leadership—that seeks to give the Kurds long-withheld cultural recognition (use of their language in schools, a Kurdish-language TV station, restoration of Kurdish names to local villages) with the intent of undermining the appeal of separatism. As that approach takes hold in security circles, and as U.S. diplomats and soldiers continue to act as a buffer between Turkey and the Iraqi Kurds, the Turks have less need for Israeli intelligence connections to the Kurds or for Israel’s counterterrorism expertise.

A similar divergence of interests is visible in the Israeli-Turkish arms trade. While the Turks are still good customers for Israel’s defense industries, they can now get whatever they want directly from the United States, which is very anxious to please Turkey. As soon as the Americans say no, the Russians would gladly rush in to fill the gap. No longer a beggar nation, the Turks can afford to pay cash and buy the best weapons in the world from a host of willing suppliers. Here, too, Israel’s influence with Turkey would be on the decline no matter whether Erdogan’s AKP or its opponents were in power.

Internal Politics and Islam

Much is made of the rise to power of the AKP and the views of its leaders, Prime Minister Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul, by analysts attempting to explain the change in Turkey’s relations with Israel. Erdogan and Gul wear western suits (and ties) but their wives cover their heads—no mere fashion statement in Turkey where the law still prohibits women from covering their heads at public or private universities. But 99 percent of Turkey’s population is Muslim, and while the urban elites tend to be secular and culturally European, the villages—and, importantly, the rising middle class—are more religious and traditional. The AKP represents not only the religious sectors of the population but also the large, newly prosperous middle class that has emerged from the towns but retains a traditional commitment to Islam. The Turks are a proud and stubborn people who live with large unresolved contradictions: the ongoing struggle with the Kurds, the delicate new opening to the Armenians, the unresolved occupation of northern Cyprus, and the struggle between the Islamic parties and the military/judicial elite. On most of these issues, the AKP are actually the good guys.

The AKP’s domestic nightmare is the army emerging from its barracks again and taking over—the same army which has been Israel’s partner and friend over the past few decades. One way for the AKP to counter-balance the potentially formidable opposition is to build populist support around the identification with other Muslims and Muslim countries at a time when the international rise of political Islam captures media attention everywhere, not least in the country that sees itself as the heir to the last great regional Islamic caliphate. Turkish public opinion sympathizes with its co-religionists, who are seen as victims of violent persecution in Gaza or Iraq. Invitations to the more outrageous Islamist leaders like Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Sudan’s Oman al-Bashir are popular as a way of taunting political rivals at home as well as asserting independence from the West.

Erdogan, who has been known to lose his temper in public on a variety of issues—not just Gaza—serves his domestic political needs by playing the Islamic card internationally. The result of the ongoing struggle between the military and Turkey’s leading Islamic political party is by no means clear. The AKP seeks to undermine the military by alleging subversive plots, like the Ergenekon conspiracy—in which hundreds of current and former military officers as well as members of the media and judiciary have been charged with attempting to overthrow the government, and also by intimidating the secular media.

Europe and Modernization

Turkey’s major cities are forests of construction cranes. Business is good; the new commercial class is feeling its oats; migration to the cities has created large—and tradition-oriented—suburban slums. The mix is striking: drive past bus stops in downtown Istanbul and you will see women covered from head to toe in black standing next to teenaged girls with tight jeans and bare midriffs, while young men wearing Western suits and talking on cell phones zip past in their Mercedes and BMWs. Turkey now thinks in terms of markets for goods and investment and economic stability. The core of the old Ottoman empire—the Balkans, the Caucasus, the Arab world—are Turkey’s most logical and accessible customers for goods and investment, and they’re the targets of a foreign policy that is deeply connected with the country’s economic future. Turkey’s airports and its national airline are modern, clean, and efficient. Its police officers are sent in significant numbers to the United States to get doctorates in criminal justice, and the old “Midnight Express” image of the Turkish cop is a painful and outdated memory.

What is perhaps most striking about the modern face that Turkey presents to the world is that it has been achieved without the expected integration into the European Union. Turkey first applied for full membership in the E.U. in 1987 and concluded a broad free-trade agreement a decade later; the goal of joining Europe has been a crucial catalyst in modernizing and liberalizing Turkey’s economics and politics. “We have to do this because the Europeans insist on it as a condition of membership” has been a wonderful excuse for moving forward on a wide range of issues. But it has become clear to Turks that the Europeans will find ever more excuses to drag their feet and endlessly delay Turkey’s admission. The specter of opening the door to 70 million Muslims terrifies Christian Europe, and the Turks have wised up to Europe’s game.

Pride and utility dictate that Turkey turn its attention back to its own region, where it can play a central role and where Islam is a plus. While there’s old brush to be cleared away—the Arab revolt against the Ottomans, a 500-year history of paying tribute to Constantinople, border disputes with neighbors, the Armenian thing—these are things that neighbors can work on together, especially if everyone is making money. A close public alliance with Israel doesn’t help with any of that.

The hope that a moderate Islamic party in democratic Turkey would become a model for the Middle East and indeed for the Muslim world is still a necessary bet. But supporters of Israel will have to swallow the reality that the energy of international Islam will constrain the ability of any Islamic party to be seen as close to the Jewish state. Israel maintains ambiguous ties to other Muslim countries, ranging from its cold peace with Egypt to its publicly cold but privately close ties to Jordan. Turkish-Israeli relations will not return to their earlier status, but if a new relationship based on mutual respect and common interest is to be built, there will have to be a recognition that Israel may now need Turkey more than Turkey needs Israel.

Norman Samuels is a university professor at Rutgers University in Newark, where he studies the impact of counterterrorism measures on society and the role of intelligence and security agencies in our political system.

Further Reading

The Ergenekon Case [Middle East Quarterly]
Turkish-Israeli Relations [The Washington Institute]
Is Turkey Leaving the West? [Foreign Affairs]
Talking to Turkey [The National Interest]
Video: Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan at Davos [YouTube]
Video: President Shimon Peres at Davos [YouTube, Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3]