Bible Commentator


Rabbi Moshe Reiss


Turkey, America and Israel: Two of America’s closest allies were Israel and Turkey. So why did Turkey vote against the U.S. using its territory to invade Iraq?

Turkish American Relations:

The Grand National Assembly's failure to allow American troops to use Turkish territory to conduct military operations on Iraq was a watershed event in Turkish-American relations. It did not occur in isolation, though, but rather was the result of diplomatic and political errors and miscalculations on both sides.

Turkey and the United States have for more than half a century enjoyed a special relationship. Turkish troops fought alongside Americans in the Korean War. As one of only two North Atlantic Treaty Organization members to border the Soviet Union, Turkey truly was a frontline state throughout the Cold War. In the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the Turkish government reaffirmed its alliance. Within a month, the Turkish Grand National Assembly voted 319-101 to send troops to Afghanistan to assist the United States in its Global War on Terror.

Three years later, U.S.-Turkish ties are in disarray. In December 2004, Mehmet Elkatm??, head of the Turkish Parliament Human Rights Commission, accused the United States of "conducting genocide in Iraq." Faruk Anbarc?o?lu, a Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalk?nma Partisi, AKP) deputy, suggested the dissolution of the Grand National Assembly's Turkish-American Inter-Parliamentary Friendship Group

An opinion article entitled "The Sick Man of Europe—Again" examining Turkish anti-Americanism sent shockwaves through Turkish intelligentsia, both because of its sharp tone and because of its publication in The Wall Street Journal, a conservative daily generally supportive of both the George W. Bush administration and U.S.-Turkish relations. (Feb. 16, 2005).

When on March 1, 2003 the majority of Grand National Assembly (Parliament) those present voted in favor of the motion, the Speaker ruled that the motion failed because, considering the 19 abstentions, the majority did not vote in favor of the U.S. deployment.

One reason was according to a number of Iraqi Kurdish businessmen and politicians, that the Kurdistan Democratic Party leader Masud Barzani encouraged—sometimes financially—AKP deputies from southeastern Turkey to vote against the war so as to undercut the possibility of Turkish forces entering his territory

American Diplomacy has not helped. Secretary of State Colin Powell's failure to visit Turkey in late 2002 and early 2003—while he found time to fly to Angola, Cape Verde, and Columbia—was indicative of the failure in American public diplomacy under Powell.

The Iraqi Turkmen Problem:

Three million Turkmen live in Iraq. These Turkish-speaking Iraqis were traditionally, alongside the Iraqi Jewish community, the country's business, professional elite, and during Ottoman times, political elite.

Following the 1991 uprising and the establishment of the northern Iraqi safe-haven, several Turkmen groups coalesced into the Iraqi Turkmen Front (ITF). While the ITF was initially independent of the Turkish government, by 1996, former officials like founder Muzaffar Arslan left the group, complaining of increasingly heavy-handed Turkish military and intelligence interference.

The Turkmen issue plagued U.S.-Turkish relations following the overthrow of Saddam's regime. Simply put, most Iraqi Turkmen—and especially those who were Shi‘ite— refused the ITF's representation, which they considered biased toward the Sunni community and more concerned with the Turkish constituency than the Iraqi constituency. When the [Iraqi] ‘Kurdistan Regional Government' distributed Kurdish flags to residents of multi-ethnic towns like Tuuz and Daquq, many Turkmen responded not by flying the pale blue and white ITF flag, but rather the black, green, and red banners of the various Shi'ite groups.

The disproportionate attention of the Turkish Foreign Ministry and General Staff upon the Turkmen undercut significantly Turkish influence in Iraq. If Turkey could not be a military partner to the American military in northern Iraq, then U.S. forces had little choice but to increase their partnership with the Iraqi Kurdish militias. The Iraqi Kurds embraced the U.S. soldiers. The Kurdistan Democratic Party in particular showered American soldiers with lavish feasts, and bestowed gifts like carpets and gold jewelry upon some commanding officers and political officials who, unfortunately, accepted such favors. That Kirkuk is now becoming an international flashpoint is a reflection not only of the state of U.S.-Turkish relations, but also of two years of Turkish policies which have undercut Ankara's influence in Iraq.

Turkey-Israel relations:

At first glance, Turkey and Israel could not be more different. Israel is small, predominantly Jewish and post-industrial state; Turkey is large, predominantly Muslim and industrial. But from the perspective of recent history the two nations have much in common.

Israel is a country of Jews expelled from eastern and central Europe, Russia and countries in the Middle East. The Turks are descended from Ottoman Muslims expelled from southeastern Europe and Russia as well as native Anatolians. In both nations, religion – though not necessarily its practice – is central to national identity. Moreover, religion plays an important role in party politics in both countries.

Both countries are made of immigrants. Among these immigrants were Turks but also Albanian, Bosnian, Croatian, Hungarian Muslims, Tatars, Circassians, and Georgians. Once in Anatolia, having been persecuted due to their religion, the surviving Ottoman Turkish Muslims unified around a common Turkish-Islamic identity.

In both countries, religion's role in shaping national identity has been tempered by secularism. Israel's first premier David Ben-Gurion's vision was to create a Western secular Jewish identity that would bind Jews together. In this regard, practicing Judaism was not a prerequisite. For instance, Ben-Gurion viewed the Bible as a cultural and historical work, not as a religious codex. Yet the fact that Israel was envisioned as a state to which Jews would be welcome based on their religious identity ultimately placed limitations on secularism.

In Turkey, after Ataturk established a secular state in the 1920s, while Islam remained a major vehicle for Turkish identity, religious practice per se became less important in daily life for many.

Both countries have internal divisions. Israel's founders were mostly of European origin. Relatively higher levels of literacy and socioeconomic development – and the fact that the Ashkenazi Jews came to the country in large numbers ahead of the Sephardi Jews (of Arab origin) – kept the Ashkenazim Israel's elite well into the 1980s.

Turkey too, had a similar dichotomy. From the beginning, Turks and other Muslims from the more prosperous parts of the Ottoman Empire in Europe – who had traditionally dominated the Ottoman state – enjoyed a head start over Anatolian Muslims. The founding cadres of the republic, including Ataturk himself, born in Salonika, hailed mostly from Europe and Russia. And they formed Turkey's ruling elite well into the 1960s.

Recent Election:

Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Justice and Reconciliation Party (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi, AKP) swept to victory in Turkey's parliamentary elections on November 3, 2002. More than two years later, the Islamic-oriented party finds itself more popular than ever. The AKP came to power on the strength of its image as fresh and honest amid a sea of corrupt establishment parties.

AKP's victory marked the first time that any party had won an absolute majority in Turkey's parliament since 1983 when Turgut Özal's Motherland Party (Anavatan Partisi) took 211 seats of the then 400-seat parliament, and only the second time that Islamists took the reins of government. Never before had an Islamist government won such a substantial block in parliament, though. They won 35% of the popular vote but technical reasons and  the peculiar party voting structure resulted in their overwhelming parliamentary margin.

Where goes the AKP? Is Erdogan's party a threat to Turkish secularism, or the product of it? Does the AKP represent an Islamist Trojan horse, or the benign Islamic equivalent of Europe's numerous Christian Democrat political parties? Ergogan stated Secularism is the protector of all beliefs and religions. We are the guarantors of this secularism, and our management will clearly prove that.

Israel-Turkish relations:

Bilateral trade between the countries was estimated at $1.2 billion in 2002, and Turkey has bought $3 billion of Israeli weapons since 1996. Turkey is also a top foreign vacation destination, visited by some 300,000 Israelis a year.

Ankara began freezing Israeli firms out of future contracts for military hardware such as helicopters and unmanned aerial vehicles beginning in 2003. The officially supplied explanation is that this is necessary to bolster domestic industries. It is also probably intended to attract European firms as well, as part of an effort to curry Europe's favor. In addition, Ankara briefly recalled its ambassador for "consultations" in May 2004. Israel's deputy prime minister was also snubbed last month when he attempted to meet with Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan.

A maelstrom of controversy erupted in June 2004 over reports that Israel has been in league with Kurdish groups in northern Iraq and training Kurdish militias, reports that the Israeli leadership has repeatedly denied. If the recent reports are accurate, the Israeli government may be nurturing relations with the Kurds in order to pursue its geopolitical security interests and counter a number of potential threats to its regional power.

The two countries are jointly stronger militarily than any regional rival or potentially rival regional alliance. It is a relationship between two "status quo powers," pooling resources to ward off common threats and concerned mainly with preventing forcible disruptions of the prevailing geopolitical conditions in the region. Neither Israel nor Turkey has any active territorial claims beyond their existing frontiers or any aspirations to topple incumbent regional regimes. But they both face common "revisionist" adversaries - Syria, Iraq, and Iran -  which do harbor territorial ambitions or aspire either to control or replace regimes in the region not to their liking.

On May 2, 2005 Tayyip Erdegan visited Israel and signed military agreements as in the past. These ties are based on a renewal of a strategic partnership developed at the end of the Cold War and rooted in a common strategic agenda.

Under AKP rule Turkey did not cancel its contract to upgrade M-60 tanks, despite campaign promises to do so but did not negotiate new ones.

Abdullah Gul, the foreign minister of the AKP government, visited Israel in January 2005 – after several postponements – refuting rumors of a crisis in bilateral relations. Justice Minister Cemil Cicek paid an important, symbolic visit in March 2005 when he attended the opening of the new Yad Vashem museum in Jerusalem.

Turkey selected an Israeli consortium for the Heron Unmanned Air Vehicles project, estimated to be worth $200 million. In addition, military exercises continued as planned, and have been held in January 2005.

Those visits helped mend fences after a chilly period marked by Erdogan's harsh criticism of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's security policies toward the Palestinians in the spring of 2004.

Prime Minister Erdogan's visit to Jerusalem in May 2005 makes clear that business is as usual. Erdogan's visit reflects a Turkish understanding that the Middle East is still an unruly neighborhood, where Turkey needs friends such as Israel. The visit also reflects a Turkish assessment that attempts to improve relations with Iran have been only partially successful and that Teheran's nuclear program constitutes a security threat to Ankara.

European Union:

Erdogan has taken a slower, steadier path, careful not to rock the establishment too quickly while at the same time floating an occasional trial balloon for social reforms to advance the Islamist agenda. While Erbakan sought to eschew the EU, Erdogan has embraced it. This has strengthened the AKP's position within Turkish society not only because many Turks believe their future lies with Europe, but also because the EU's pressure for reforms in Turkey has eroded the power of the army, the traditional nemesis of political Islam in Turkey.

On the surface, Turkey is doing well. After years of devaluation, its currency is stable. Inflation is under control. As host of the June 2004 NATO summit, Turkey shone diplomatically. Earlier that same month, the Organization of Islamic Conference elected a Turkish professor as its new head. Turkish diplomats say their chance for joining the European Union has never been better.

The prospect of EU membership also spurred reassessment of Turkish foreign policy. Turkey's secular foreign policy elite is European at heart. Almost all Turkish diplomats are educated either in Europe, or at European schools in Turkey. They share Atatürk's European Weltanschauung and feel relieved to move beyond Turkey's traditional tensions with Europe and to reinforce a pro-European stance. The new pro-EU orientation of Turkish foreign policy became more pronounced after the December 2002 Copenhagen summit, when Brussels—again after U.S. lobbying—agreed to open accession negotiations with Turkey as soon as Ankara satisfied the Copenhagen criteria.

The Iraqi war exacerbated the process, reviving dormant political forces and anti-Americanism. Months before the start of the 2003 Iraq war, Turkish statements mirrored Franco-German rhetoric in its insistence that the war "lacked international legitimacy."

One potential U.S.-Turkey problem is Iraq. The dream of independence or close to it via a single Kurdish state, may come true for the Kurds of Iraq -- making Kirkuk an official part of Northern Kurdistan -- is a bad dream for the Turkish government. From Ankara's perspective the creation of a Kurdish state in their northern neighbor with Kirkuk as its capital would serve as a magnet for Turkey's own Kurdish population which may be between 6-10 million persons. (The number of Kurds in any of the countries is very difficult to know since they are fearful of census takers.)

While Turkey relations with Iraq may be at the mercy of forces beyond its control, its military power is anchoring its strategy to the political process in Baghdad and, as part of that, a peaceful solution to the Kirkuk question. However public pressures resulting from Ankara's manipulation of the Iraqi Turkoman question and the limited but existent deployment of Turkish troops on Iraqi soil could create a dynamic of their own, possibly precipitating military intervention over Kirkuk. Turkey interest to obtaining membership in the EU may mellow their concern about the Kurds. In addition they may consider as positive the potential use of the oil in Kirkuk.

Until recently EU membership seemed likely in a decade. With the recent EU constitutional crisis Turkish membership has certainly been postponed if not scratched.  The new Pope understanding of the EU as a Christian club will not help.

Is this likely to make Turkey more friendly to the U.S. Zeynel Erdem, a leading Turkish businessman, said in the last several weeks “Don't count on the European Union, Look to the U.S.; they're our real friends."

When Samuel Huntington visited Turkey in late 2004 he suggested that Turkey forget about the EU and concentrate on being part of the Middle East. While the U.S. has been favorable to Turkey joining the EU if that fails the U.S. would not be unfavorable to a stable, militarily sound and democratic Turkey becoming a better partner in the Middle East.