Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s remarks on Zionism at the UN Alliance of Civilizations conference in Vienna on Wednesday may actually hasten efforts to repair ties between Turkey and Israel. If it is not a slip of the tongue or a mistake by a speechwriter, Erdoğan might have deliberately fired at the soft underbelly of the conservative Israeli government, which is very sensitive about the Zionism issue. I believe this will put the urgency of the healing process between the former allies back on the agenda more forcefully than ever before. Both sides have already tested each other recently with a series of positive gestures and goodwill overtures, laying the groundwork for the normalization. The apology Ankara has asked for may come from Israel before Turkey locks itself into election campaign mode, starting with local elections, followed by presidential and parliamentary elections — all one right after another.
Unlike many who predict that the Zionism controversy will drive a further wedge between Turkey and Israel against the background of a flurry of criticism from the US, the UN, Israel and others, I think this incident will actually push the Israeli establishment to a quick realization that maintaining the status quo with the hope of preventing ties from getting worse is no longer working. While the Israeli government is betting on “the day after” scenario where rapprochement will pick up speed right after a compromise deal is struck with Turkey — “today” is getting worse and “tomorrow” will be slipping into the worst — dashing the hopes of many who believe the two countries have a vested interest to cooperate in responding to challenges in the tumultuous Middle East.
For years, the Israelis have worked hard to remove the stain of identification of Zionism with racism at the UN, where the General Assembly voted for resolution 3,379 by a vote of 72 to 35 (with 32 abstentions), which said Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination in 1974. That was the lowest point of Israeli-UN relations. It was only in 1991 that Israel was able to make the revocation of this resolution a condition of its participation in the Madrid Peace Conference, organized jointly by the US and the Soviet Union. However, equating Zionism with racism has continued to echo in regional and international organizations, including the UN, since then. In fact, one of the reasons why Israel was deeply alarmed over the Goldstone Report, which examined the December 2008-January 2009 Israeli offensive into Gaza was that it might have pushed Israeli relations with the world body to the 1974 level.
I think the Turkish government has seen the soft spot of the Israeli government, and that is why Erdoğan deliberately pushed the button at the Vienna conference. The message was clear: Ankara may introduce a new discussion on Zionism on the regional and global scale, thereby hurting the image of Israelis for which they have worked decades to build. Let’s not forget, Ankara was emboldened by its successful campaign to secure non-member observer state status for Palestine at the UN in November 2012, despite opposition by Israel, the US and others. The resolution was adopted by a vote of 138 in favor to nine against with 41 abstentions by the 193-member assembly. The campaign was actually started in Ankara by Ahmet Davutoğlu, with his Egyptian and Palestinian colleagues flanking him, in a reception held at the Ankara Palas earlier in November. When the status was granted, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas made his first visit to Turkey in December to celebrate the successful outcome with Erdoğan in a dinner hosted at the Swissôtel. The Turkish prime minister personally phoned many of his counterparts ahead of the vote to increase the number of endorsements for Palestine.
I believe there is a hidden message embedded here to the US administration as well. As Barack Obama is gearing up for another round of Middle East peace talks, starting with his upcoming visit to Tel Aviv and Ramallah this month, Ankara is signaling that it may complicate Obama’s efforts if Israel remains unmoved on fulfilling conditions asked by the Turkish government over the flotilla incident during which Israeli commandos killed eight Turkish civilians and one American of Turkish origin in international waters. Davutoğlu’s brush-off of a reporter’s question during a joint news briefing with Secretary of State John Kerry on Friday, when he said, “If Israel is expected to hear positive comments from Turkey, I believe they need to revise their attitudes not only toward us but also toward the settlements in the West Bank and the people of the region,” is an indication that we will see a continuation of Israeli criticism by Turkish officials in the coming weeks and months, unless a deal is made between Ankara and Tel Aviv.
Judging from the first reaction of the US even before the wheels of Kerry’s plane touched the ground in the Turkish capital, it seems Erdoğan’s message had reached the right audience. A senior unnamed State Department official reportedly said, “It [the remark] complicates our ability to do all of the things that we want to do together.”
“We want to see a normalization, not just for the sake of the two countries, but for the sake of the region and, frankly, for the symbolism,” he said. “Not that long ago you had these two countries demonstrating that a majority Muslim country could have very positive and strong relations with the Jewish state.” These comments by the US official underline the risks and challenges Washington sees in the Middle East peace process without Turkey onboard. In other words, Turkey may not find a role on the table when the talks start because of its estranged ties with the Jewish state, but it may very well be a spoiler if it was shut out completely.
Kerry, a veteran politician who knows the region and Turkey very well, must have sensed this danger. In a meeting with Erdoğan, he underlined that the US is keen to be much more active in the Middle East peace process. “While we are embarking on a new initiative,” he said, “remarks like yours weaken our hands. Your troubled relations with Israel make this process difficult to move. The normalization of Turkish-Israeli ties will strengthen our initiatives for the Middle East.” In case we forget, this is not the first time actually the Zionism controversy has erupted between Washington and Ankara. When Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government allowed the “International Jerusalem Meeting” in November 2007 in İstanbul, which resulted in Israeli-bashing declarations with a special emphasis on the denigration of Zionism only 10 days before the Annapolis Middle East peace conference led by then-President George W. Bush in Washington, this had prompted Rose Wilson, the US ambassador at the time, to call on Turkish officials to convey American protests and objections. Wilson had to ask for explanations from Davutoğlu, then-chief foreign policy advisor to Erdoğan, as well as Ertuğrul Apakan, who was the undersecretary at the Turkish Foreign Ministry.
There are other issues involved here as well. The frustration of Ankara with Washington is not limited to the estranged relations of Turkey with Israel. There is a significant dosage of pessimism injected now into what Obama called a “model partnership” between the two countries because of the recalcitrant attitude by the US into further engagement in the two-year-old Syrian crisis. Ankara feels Obama is not really interested at this stage in hastening the departure of the Bashar al-Assad regime by refusing to arm the opposition and preventing others from doing so. As the crisis lingers on, Turkey as a frontline country in the crisis is paying a huge price. On top of that, there is also a growing rift between the two allies over Turkey’s cozying up to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq at the expense of the central government in Baghdad. The showering of criticisms from Washington on the shortcomings of Turkish democracy, especially on the issue of freedom of expression, have also raised tensions between the two.
Erdoğan, a risk taker who has not shied away from confrontation in his political life, knows how to play brinkmanship. Here I think he has raised the stakes against both the US and Israel, hoping to settle for less. As he needs something to sell to his domestic constituency — especially the conservative base that branched out from the smaller religious party which was based on the ideology called the National View — he is being very assertive by pushing the limits. At the same time, the Turkish prime minister has proved himself to be very pragmatic when it suits his government’s interests, enabling him to make compromises and concessions when needed. As Obama has made it clear that it will realign US policies with the Benjamin Netanyahu government during his second-term presidency, shying away from a confrontation with the pro-Israel lobby at home to address domestic challenges in the US, it will be interesting to see what path Erdoğan will eventually decide to pursue. Turkey’s future relations with the US may ride on his choices.