All Writings
December 13, 2010

The Psychological Underpinnings Of The Turkish-Israeli Rift

Any evaluation of Turkey and Israel's national strategic objectives reveals that the perceived policy incompatibility between the two countries is embedded not as much in their objectives of regional peace and stability, as in their assessment of three other geostrategic factors: a) the role and the objectives of other regional players, such as Iran, b) the terms under which peace and regional stability can be secured, and c) the manner in which Turkey and Israel seek to ensure their national interests and remain unchallenged by other states in the area. To better understand the Turkish and Israeli perspectives we must first to look into their national mindsets.

Turkey's rise and its national mindset:
Turkey's rise to prominence, especially in the past decade, is impressive by any account. Ankara determined to free itself from the shackles of the past and pursue domestic and foreign policy initiatives consistent with the size of its population, geostrategic location, Western orientation, and potential for development. One of the first factors behind Turkey's recent boisterous behavior is its rising position in the global arena in the post-9/11 world. Turkey has benefited greatly from its status as a member of NATO, with the largest standing military and one of the 20 largest global economies. In a relatively short period of time, Turkey has significantly expanded its trade with neighboring states. Moreover, Turkey's location as a border country to Europe, Iraq and Iran, and its status as the only other major democracy in the region besides Israel, have allowed it to pursue an ambitious and independent foreign policy with considerable success.

Since 2002, Turkey has resolved to carve its own sphere of influence, even at the risk of defying the United States, which explains Turkey's refusal to transport American troops and supplies destined for Iraq at the beginning of the war in 2003, its cozying up to non-state actors such as Hamas and Hezbollah and its public condemnation of Israel's incursion into Gaza. Moreover, Turkey opposed the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolution imposing a fourth set of sanctions against Iran, while aggressively pursuing political and trade relations with Tehran.

The voice of the ruling AKP government has resonated particularly well on the Arab street, a factor which plays into a new brand of Turkish populism and a new national objective–that of leader of the Sunni Arab world. The "Zero Problems with Neighbors" Policy, a visionary doctrine developed by Turkey's current Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, has been systematically implemented with vigor and considerable skill. Ankara has converted enemies into friends such as Syria, settled its differences with Iraq, and forged a closer alliance with Lebanon. Moreover, Turkey has reached out to the majority of Arab states, as well as the Balkans and Caucuses-all while trying to enhance its E.U. membership prospects.

Such ambitious foreign policy initiatives were bound to have some setbacks. Ankara has failed to settle a century-old conflict with Armenia, found no solution to the situation in Cyprus, failed to realistically address the Kurdish issue and strained its relations with its critical ally, the United States. Many Israelis believe that none of these shortcomings, however, have been more pronounced than the deterioration of Turkey's relations with Israel. The doctrine of "Zero Problems with Neighbors" was forsaken in the case of Israel, with whom Turkey has had an important strategic relationship over a period of more than six decades.

Israel's national mindset and how it views itself:
Israel too has gone through significant developments, though national security has remained central in its strategic calculations. Israel has achieved a near miracle in its six decades of existence, as it has become one of the most developed nations in the world with a growing economy, unsurpassed technological advancement and entrepreneurial spirit. Its reputation as a leader in the high-tech sector has led many to call Israel the "Silicon Valley of the Middle East." Moreover, Israel's perceived invincibility stems from its military power, which is among the strongest and most expertly trained in the world. Israel reportedly possesses the fourth largest stockpile of nuclear weapons estimated to be between 150-200 warheads.

Turkey, a predominantly Muslim state, was an extremely important ally for Israel, with the Israel-Turkey relationship considered by Israelis to be second in importance only to its ties with the United States. This explains why Israelis felt so deeply troubled with the turn of events with Turkey, which, from the Israeli perspective, has unabashedly embraced Israel's mortal enemies, especially Iran and its surrogates, Hamas and Hezbollah. From the Israeli perspective, the country's experience with the Arab states, and especially Hamas, is far more complex than Ankara is willing to recognize. They argue that the withdrawal from Lebanon and Gaza, and the subsequent rocket attacks and wars that followed, prove that the concept of land-for-peace is no longer valid. With this mindset, Israel has become extraordinarily sensitive about its relations to the outside world, specifically with countries such as Turkey, whom Israel could count on in the past as a reliable ally. More importantly, Israelis are growing increasingly convinced that Turkey has made a calculated strategic shift to gain influence in the region at Israel's expense. They argue that Turkey may have given up on E.U. membership in favor of casting its lot with the East to become a dominant regional power, while viewing Israel as an impediment to its regional ambitions. Israel insists that Turkey must come to grips with the real threat to the region emanating from Iran and that the recent improvement in Ankara-Tehran relations will be short-lived.

Turkey and Israel-A mutuality of misperceptions:
Perhaps taken by their formidable successes, Israel and Turkey have failed to live up to the responsibility of their strategic alliance, which covers by its very nature the entire Middle East. As such, it is not enough to have trade relations and military cooperation without a genuine understanding of each other's national concerns and aspirations.

From the Turkish perspective, Israel hardly reached out to Ankara in a comprehensive way on Iran, not in just intelligence sharing, but also in taking into account that Turkey has a vested interest in engagement-especially in oil import-rather than confrontation with its Iranian neighbor. While proclaiming its strategic alliance with Turkey, Israel made little effort to allay Turkish concerns about the stalled Arab-Israeli peace process and paid little heed to Ankara's desire to play a constructive role to advance regional stability. Israel also insulted Ankara when the Turkish Ambassador to Israel was summoned to explain a Turkish TV series depicting Israeli soldiers as killers of Palestinian children. The Ambassador was intentionally seated on a lower sofa than his Israeli host, Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, for TV audiences to witness while only the Israeli flag was displayed on the table-an episode which was deeply humiliating for Ankara. Furthermore, Turkey feels that Israel has deliberately misled it, especially in regard to the Israeli-Syrian negotiations under Turkish mediation, by failing to share with Turkey the plans to launch Operation Cast Lead. The flotilla incident, in which eight Turks and one American citizen were killed, was reckless and failed to consider Turkish sensitivity or genuine humanitarian concerns.

Conversely, the Israelis feel that Turkey's closeness to Iran represents a major point of departure as Turkey has placed itself in the column of Israel's enemies. Israelis are convinced that Turkey made Israel the target of its verbal attacks, especially by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose political onslaughts were designed to arouse Turkey's popularity in the Arab street. In particular, Israel became extraordinarily alarmed when it was revealed that Turkey's National Security Council amended Turkey's policy paper outlining foreign and domestic policy for the next five years to define Israel as a central threat to Turkey, while the paper ironically removed Iran, Russia, Syria and Iraq as threats. Israeli officials insist that Israel's Operation Cast Lead and the flotilla incident provide only excuses for-and are not the real causes behind-the deteriorating relationship. The Israelis argue that one needs to go no further than to read Turkish Foreign Minister Davutoglu's book Strategic Depth, in which he lays out Turkey's indispensability as a regional and global player. As the Israelis see it, Turkey has abandoned the healthy dose of moral equivalence needed to balance the execution of such a divergent and ambitious foreign policy.

The suggestion that Turkey made a strategic shift to the East at Israel's expense is not a likely scenario because Ankara knows that without Israel's full cooperation, regional peace and stability will remain elusive at best. Moreover, Turkey needs not abandon its bilateral relations with Israel to become a leading regional player. In fact, the opposite is true. The Arab states have long since come around to accept Israel's reality, they understand that Arab-Israeli peace is the only real option and Turkey can play a significant role in advancing it, which can only further enhance its regional leadership.

Turkey and Israel have made many mistakes and assumed a zero-sum posture that will serve neither side's national interests. To get out from the corners in which they have painted themselves, both countries must clearly demonstrate that their professed desire to restore friendly relations is translated into action while providing a mutually face-saving way out. Mr. Erdogan will not be able to fully retreat from his demands that Israel apologize for the flotilla incident and offer compensation for the bereaved families. If he did, he would be subject to intense criticism and ridicule by the opposition parties in the Turkish national election next year. That said, he is in a position to exhibit leadership by settling for what Israel can deliver. Similarly, Mr. Netanyahu cannot issue an unqualified apology, not only because this would be tantamount to an admission of guilt, but also because he too is under political pressure to show resolve in the face of the perceived changing dynamic of Israeli-Turkish relations.

To move forward, both sides must agree to deal constructively with the UN panel of inquiry into the flotilla incident by providing all the necessary information and avoid, under any circumstances, acrimonious charges and counter-charges once the finding is made public. In the interim, Turkey and Israel must commit themselves to initiate a constructive dialogue to reduce tension through a combination of private and official channels, albeit quietly. To begin the process of reconciliation, Israel should agree to pay compensation as a humanitarian gesture to the families of those who were killed on the Mavi Marmara and apologize only for operational mistakes. This would likely satisfy the Turkish demand without an admission of wrong-doing and it could also go a long way toward ameliorating the tense relations between the two countries. Turkey, in return, should allow its officials in major Western capitals to talk informally to their Israeli counterparts. Such dialogues held in a calm atmosphere will have a marked impact on removing the growing misperception about each others intentions.

Israel needs to be disabused of the notion that the Islamist tendency' of the AK Party is the only driving force behind Turkey's policy and Turkey needs to understand that Israel has serious and legitimate security concerns that cannot be dismissed. In addition, since the United States is an ally of both Israel and Turkey and has a vested interest in improved relations between them, an active role by the Obama administration to discuss their differences could be extremely beneficial. Turkey and Israel can readily justify their willingness to American mediation because; a) their close alliances with the US and b) doing so could improve their respective bilateral relations with the US which have been strained-albeit for different reasons-in the past several months.

Ankara and Jerusalem must realize that their bilateral relations in the past were dictated by the geostrategic conditions in the Middle East, which have not fundamentally changed despite the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The emergence of Iran as a regional power potentially equipped with nuclear weapons is a threat not only to Israel, but to Turkey's long-term strategic interests as well. It would be an illusion for either Turkey or Israel to think that they can reach their national objectives of peace and continued prosperity without the help and full cooperation of the other.

*A version of this article was published in the Jerusalem Post on December 3rd, and can be accessed at