By Shai Baitel, Middle East expert in political and international affairs – HuffingtonPost
There is no way that Western leaders were not troubled by the news coming out of Turkey that Ankara not only intends to triple trade volumes with Iran in the next five years, but also that Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had made a deal with Turkish Prime Minister Recept Tayyip Erdogan to donate $25 million to his ruling Justice and Development Party to support his next election campaign.
This comes on the heels of Erdogan’s constitutional reform referendum victory in which a majority of Turks voted for his suggested strengthening of government power at the expense of the judiciary and the army, traditionally strong defenders of Turkey’s secular constitution.
These developments are likely to cause consternation. After all, didn’t the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) — of which Turkey is a non-permanent member — enact a new round of sanctions on Iran in an attempt to stop its drive to achieve nuclear weapons capability? While, admittedly, Erdogan promised to adhere to the UNSC sanction, he also made clear he would not go along with unilateral U.S. or European Union (EU) sanction measures. Instead of joining to isolate Iran, Turkey deepens its relations with Tehran. And its Arab neighbors.
And one can be forgiven for being confused. Is this the Turkey, the NATO member, the EU membership candidate, the country that strives to improve its human rights record? Or has Turkey changed its goals? In short: Turkey is at crossroads and it is not clear which path the country will take. Turkey is stronger than ever and there is sense of urge to be regarded as a power like the Ottoman Empire was in its day, ruling the region, demanding respect and wielding influence far beyond her borders. There are many facets to this trend and naming a few illustrates the problem of Turkey’s schizophrenia.
Turkey is seriously upset at a perceived slight by the EU, which seems to waver on its intention to make the country a member state. Negotiations have been dragging on and the political atmosphere is less and less favorable. Turkey implemented far-reaching reforms to meet EU rules and regulations but now feels it might have to look for friends and economic opportunities elsewhere. Ankara does not need to look far. Warming relations and increased influence with the neighbors Syria and Iran are most obvious indicators of Turkey’s new political and economic prowess. Is it justified to think of Turkey as drifting away from the West and even becoming part of the axis of evil just yet? The jury is still out.
Moreover, there is a growing influence of Islam in many spheres of Turkish society, a trend that might eventually endanger Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s vision of a secular society. In effect, Turkey’s society is split between those who, like Erdogan, encourage and welcome this trend, and those who want to preserve its secular character.
Turkey’s now fraught relationship with Israel is no less contradictory and Turkey’s posturing reflects this awakening of her growing self-confidence and sense of importance. And the it stands for Turkey’s incompatible, diverging goals. Turkey scores points in the region with repeated broadcasts of television series that depict Israel and Israelis negatively. Israel’s outrage over one such TV series was one element of what would become the next crisis with Israel, which, inevitably, increased Turkey’s standing in the Muslim/Arab world. Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon had summoned the Turkish Ambassador to Israel, Ahmet Oguz Celikkol, to complain about a Turkish TV series that had portrayed Israeli soldiers as baby killers. In a symbolic humiliation, the Ambassador was seated on a lower sofa, at a table only adorned with an Israeli flag, with the Turkish flag missing. The Ambassador had been summoned The Turkish Ambassador was recalled to Turkey in protest but eventually returned.
Popular anti-Israel sentiments in Turkey and the wider Middle East where also whipped up when, at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January 2009, Erdogan stormed off a stage after a heated debate on the Gaza War with Israel’s President Shimon Peres. Not surprisingly, the Turkish Islamic newspaper Vakit, welcomed Erdogan’s outburst as an “Ottoman slap in the face of Israel.”
The Turkish-Israeli relations reached its nadir, however, when in May 2010, Israel naval commandos stormed a flotilla of ships carrying aid and activists to the Gaza Strip, killing nine passengers in a botched raid after being attacked.
It is odd, then, that Turkey styles herself as a needed, important, and relevant player in the Middle East peace process. Turkey as a mediator between Syrian and Israel? There was a time when a case could be made for this but Turkey’s lashing out at Israel begs the question how such an offer of mediation can be seriously considered, let alone be accepted. While Israel was looking for every possible way to calm the storm, an opportunity for a clearing off the air on the highest level presented itself at the 2010 United Nations General Assembly in New York. A meeting between Peres, and Turkey’s President Abdullah Gul was canceled — by Turkey. After demanding an unequivocal apology by Israel over the flotilla dead, regardless of who, in the end, was responsible for the escalation.
Let’s get this straight: One pal teases another, punches him, kicks him at every possible occasion. The taunted one sits tights and endures but eventually rises in self-defense. Then the teaser demands an apology. What does Turkey hope to achieve? We know Turkey’s ‘means’ but everyone is puzzled as to what the ‘end’ might be. It is one thing if Turkey is changing. The unanswered question is if Turkey wants to maintain a mutually beneficial relationship with the West and stay committed to its democratic friends and allies.
The EU and the United States are holding their breath to find out. Right now it appears that Turkey is sending mixed signals as her government, after bashing Israel, is basking in the spotlight and taking advantage of the warm embrace by its own Muslim supporters and by the Arab/Muslim world. Somebody should tell Turkey that she can’t have it both ways. The aspirations of being an EU member and being Iran’s best friend just don’t go well together. Turkey needs a shrink.