Until now, even after the Islamic-oriented Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power, relations between Israel and Turkey remained close, making the latter the only Muslim nation in the region in such a position. This time, the two countries are at loggerheads over Turkey’s decision to exclude Israel from multinational air force exercises. Codenamed Anatolian Eagle, these exercises have taken place on an annual basis since 2000. This year, they were scheduled for 12-23 October and Israel was supposed to participate.
In order to ease tensions, Turkey’s Foreign Ministry urged Israel to avoid making it a political issue. However, when asked about it, Turkey’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, spoke to CNN urging Israel to change its policy vis-à-vis the Gaza Strip if it wants to improve Turkish-Israeli relations.
Since then, media reports have suggested that the cancellation of the planned military exercise with Israel stems from Israel’s refusal to let Erdogan to visit Gaza a few months ago, a move viewed as insulting.
Israel’s reaction was deliberately unreadable. One of its deputy prime ministers told reporters that Ankara should “come to its senses,” adding that “Turkey is an important Muslim state sharing strategic ties with Israel. I hope the Turks come to their senses and realise that the relationship between the two states is in their interest no less than ours.”
In Aleppo (Syria), Foreign Minister Davutoglu reacted by telling journalists that “we have decided to cancel the international phase of Anatolian Eagle. We must all act with common sense. Israel must respect sacred values. When it shows this sensitivity, then an atmosphere of peace can be established. We want to have good relations with our neighbours. We are a state that has deep roots in this region and we are open to dialogue with everyone. Hence, the tragedy in Gaza must end; East Jerusalem, Haram al-Sharif and the al-Aqsa mosque must be respected. If these sensitivities are taken into consideration the peace process would resume in the region.”
On condition of anonymity, a top Turkish military officer also said the cancellation of the exercises was the latest episode in tensions that have been rising since the Davos incident. But the latest crisis lies in Israel’s failure to deliver Heron surveillance drones, needed to combat terrorism, a view that put the Turkish armed forces on the safe side.
Oktay Ekşi, president of the Press Council, in an article in Hürriyet, challenged a statement by a government representative, Cemil Çiçek, claiming that the cancellation was not politically motivated. Instead, for him the decision lies in Turkey’s redefinition of its strategic alliances in the region, most notably with Syria. As part of this, Turkey and Syria abolished reciprocal visa requirements.
Among diplomats, this is the heart of the matter. Turkey itself repositioning itself as a supply hub for the West and a champion for Muslim countries rich in natural resources.
The deal with Armenia, which boosts Turkey in its march towards the European family, will also speed up work on the Nabucco gas pipeline, a project favoured by the United States, which is none too happy about Europe’s energy dependence on Russia.
Supplies from northern Iraq, i.e. Kurdistan, can eventually bolster Nabucco, which explains Erdogan’s overtures to Turkey’s Kurds. In turn, this meets Kurdistan’s desire for a sea outlet through Turkey.
All this is driving Ankara to redefine its strategic alliances in the region, and giving Jerusalem more than one headache since it has invested substantially in Kurdistan.
Last but not least, some nasty tongues, burnt by their support for Sunni regimes, are now reviewing their positions vis-à-vis Shia Iran, culturally more liberal than Sunni Islam.