Israeli-Turkish Relations in Crisis

According to Mr Soner Cagaptay, Director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the Israeli-Turkish relations face a problem. Many Turks, including the nation’s secular parties, who in the 1990s used to strongly back the Turkish alliance with Israel, believe today that both Ankara and Tel Aviv have conflicting interests in Iraq. They think that what Turkey needs is a strong central government in Baghdad capable of containing Kurdish nationalism; whilst on the other hand, Tel Aviv hopes that the Kurds will be able to take a strong stance in confronting Baghdad, so that the new Iraq will turn into a fragmented and weak Arab country unable to pose a threat to anyone.

In the past, the Turks used to show little interest in the developments in Iraq, but now things are different. Ankara has noticed that the Iraqi Kurds have made great gains as a result of the last war, starting from high political positions in Baghdad, to controlling one third of the country’s area, including the oil-rich Kirkuk region, populated by an important Turkmen community.

Moreover, the existence of about 5,000 terrorists linked to the PKK Party in the north of Iraq may at any time revive the traditional Turkish wounds over the continuing confrontation with the PKK for the last twenty years.

The fear of Kurdish nationalist feelings has receded in Turkey following the arrest of Abdullah Ocalan, leader of the PKK in February 1999. In August 2003, Ankara accorded a general amnesty to all the members of this party, with the exclusion of its top leaders.

But no sooner had the Turkish people started to forget the legacy left by the violence perpetuated by the PKK, than the war in Iraq revived the fears of a Kurdish nationality.

Most of the Turks feel ill-at-ease with the achievements of the Kurds, especially now that the PKK has established its bases in the north of Iraq. In this context, the accusations spread in Turkey about the role of Israel in supporting the Kurdish cause in the north of Iraq can well be understood. In fact, Turkey’s concerns over this issue may be compared to concerns Israel would have if Turkey had co-operated with Hezbollah to set up a small Shiite state in the south of Lebanon.

Thus Israel faces a difficult situation with Ankara, for the Kurdish issue has caused Israel to lose many of its best Turkish friends, including secular military leaders who have not yet forgotten their fight with the PKK, which cost the nation more than 30,000 lives.

On the other hand, the liberal leaders of Turkey’s foreign policy have their own reasons for keeping away from Israel. They think that Turkey has a real opportunity to join the EU, and that is why they tend to coordinate with the European view concerning a number of issues such as Iran’s nuclear armament, the Great Middle East project and the Arab-Israeli conflict.

If these developments are not well dealt with they may adversely affect the feelings of the Turkish people towards Israel, and possibly badly damage Israeli-Turkish relations.