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Turkey and the West: allies or rivals?

By David Martin Abrahams
Jan 17, 2010

The complex relationship between Turkey and Europe has been occupying statesmen, politicians and commentators for several years already. In the last months, we identify an ever growing breach between Turkey and Israel, a problematic trend that last week, after the public insulting of the Turkish ambassador in Israel, seems to turn into an avalanche. Substantial as it is, Turkey is a country filled with contradictions. The importance of Turkey to international relationship in general, and especially to the Middle East, is invaluable; but one cannot understand Turkey before comprehending the main factors that shake the Turkish boat.

Since the establishment of the modern Turkish state as a secular entity on the ruins of the religious Ottoman Empire, and especially in the last decade, Turkey is torn between East and West. Thus, state secularism and the Western-oriented political & military elite did not succeed in reducing the Islamic sentiment of the lion's share of the population. This has led to the election of the pro-Islamic "Justice and Development Party" headed by PM Erdogan. On the other hand, the sincere efforts of Turkey to join the EU have been encountering fierce opposition of many European politicians, on the pretexts of human rights violations and cultural gaps, covered with a veil of racism.

Turkey is a key state in the regional state system of the Middle East. Due to its sheer size, its geographic location between Europe and Asia, and its unique blend of democracy and Islam, Turkey can – and does – communicate both with European democracies and Middle Eastern totalitarian regimes. Indeed, the growing internal tensions have pushed Turkey to adopt pro-Islamic policies, warming its relationship with Iran and Syria.

The harsh resentment towards Israel was triggered after the last operation in Gaza one year ago, deteriorating ever since. Nevertheless, the Israeli responses, culminating in the "ambassador incident", are missing the point: first, criticism on Israeli policy towards the Palestinians –as harsh as it may be – should be heard when it comes from a friendly state like Turkey. Second, this criticism must be analyzed in its right context: the Turkish public opinion is in general pro-Islamic, thus pro-Palestinian, and PM Erdogan – as all politicians in democratic states – must always nurture his electorate. Moreover, some commentators point at Erdogan's disappointment from Israeli PM Olmert, who launched the Gaza operation just a few days after intensive Turkish efforts to mediate between Israel and Syria, took place. Finally, Turkey is still interested in joining the EU, and it understands that a successful mediation in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict might be an excellent entry ticket.

Turkey is a moderate, pragmatic state with strong checks and balances system (though it leans heavily on military power). Its ability to communicate with bitter enemies such as Iran and Israel makes it an important regional player. Therefore, Israel should continue to treat Turkey as a friend, not a foe. Both countries can turn the current crisis from crescendo to catharsis: that is, to fence the points of disagreement regarding the Palestinian issue and to discuss them in a discreet way; and at the same time, to focus on the mutual interests in the fields of homeland security, military cooperation, commerce and tourism.