07/07/2010, 00.00
TURKEY – ISRAEL
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Erdogan’s ways and contradictions

by NAT da Polis
Turkey’s prime minister is having to manage a major crisis with Israel, something of great concern to the United States and Syria. At the same time, his government is unable to find a political solution to Turkey’s Kurdish question.
Istanbul (AsiaNews) – The Obama administration is behind the secret meeting between Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and Israeli Trade Minister Benjamin Ben Eliezer. The Americans are eager to end the rift between Ankara and Jerusalem, which began in the spring and climaxed in the 31 May incident that saw the death of eight Turks on board of the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara after it was stormed by Israeli Special Forces sent in to stop it from reaching Gaza. In Israel, the meeting has also caused a rift between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, who represent the extreme right in the Israeli cabinet.

In the end, it was Mr Davutoglu who rocked the Turkish-Israeli relationship.  On his way back from a visit to Kyrgyzstan, an energy-rich, Turkic-speaking Muslim nation in Central Asia, he threatened to bar Israeli planes from Turkish airspace and cut off diplomatic relations. For Davutoglu, relations between the two countries can get back to normal only if Israel apologises for killing Turkish citizens, accepts an international commission of inquiry, and pays compensation.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who has become pro-Turkey since current Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan came to power, is very concerned about the situation. “If the relationship between Turkey and Israel is not renewed, it will be very difficult for Turkey to play a role in negotiations” and revive the Middle East peace process. This, “without a doubt [would] affect the stability in the region,” the Syrian leader said, who put the blame for the situation created by the 31 May incident squarely on Israel.

Al-Hayat, a pan-Arab newspaper, and Milliyet, a Turkish newspaper, reported that on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Toronto, US President Obama asked Prime Minister Erdogan to drop his demand for an international commission into the flotilla incident, because it could have negative repercussions for Turkey itself.

In Ankara’s diplomatic circles, Obama’s words are seen as especially important. The current US administration is well known for its pro-Turkish stance, best illustrated by the president’s visit a year ago to Ankara. His address to the Turkish parliament gave a boost to the current Turkish leadership and acknowledged Turkey’s role in the Muslim world, ending the rift caused by Ankara’s decision not to allow the United States to use its bases on Turkish soil against Iraq under the previous Bush administration. What’s more, Obama is known for his less than enthusiastic relations with the current Israeli government, which he views as inflexible if not outright extremist, and a danger to US regional interests. For Israel, Turkey’s enhanced role and renewed place in the Muslim world are irritants.

In Turkey though, the Kurdish question remains THE major issue in Turkish politics, a sore point at least since the founding of the modern Turkish state. In recent months, Turkish media have had their fill of stories about violence, deaths and funerals caused by the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), the main Kurdish nationalist movement. There is not a day that goes by without reports about clashes between the Turkish military and the PKK or terrorist attacks in Turkish cities. For a number of media observers, the current situation is a throwback to the nineties, when the Kurdish insurgency was at its height. Many are wondering how things got out of hand, especially since just a year ago, the Justice and Development (AKP) government, which elected 70 MPs in Kurdish areas of south-eastern Turkey, had announced a new, more open approach to solve the Kurdish question. Since then, the Kurdish language has been allowed on the airwaves, Kurdish name places have been re-introduced and even controls have been eased.

However, Turkey’s old establishment, centred around the main opposition parties (the Republican People’s Party, or CHP, and the Nationalist Movement Party, or MHP), have reacted negatively to the government’s more liberal policies. At the same time, most Kurds and the PKK have regarded the government’s actions as inadequate. In fact, Kurds want their identity to be recognised in the constitution. They also want autonomy in southeast Turkey as well as a general amnesty for their fighters, including the release of PKK chief Abdullah Öcalan. Even so, some media have reported that the latter’s role has been questioned by elements in the current government, who accuse him of opportunism if not outright complicity with groups in the old establishment.

In the end, Turkey’s Supreme Court intervened as it does from time to time to dissolve the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP), quickly replaced by the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), which has 20 members of parliament.

In liberal circles, Erdogan has been rapped for not doing enough, bowing to pressures from the CHP and the MHP. However, undeniably he has pushed Turkish society further down the path of democratisation, to the point that the Turkish Industrialists' and Businessmen's Association (TUSIAD) has called on the government to change the constitution to recognise Turkey as a nation founded by Kurds and Turks and to grant a autonomy to southeast region. Just five years ago, this would have been unimaginable. Even Erdogan told MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli, who called for the return of martial law in Kurdish areas, that the process of democratisation would not stop.

For some Turkish analysts like Asli Aydintasbas, Turkey’s activism and greater geopolitical role is not going down well in Israel, concerned that a pro-active Turkey is changing the region’s balance of power, especially in relation to the current government.

Many in Turkey believe that Israel is involved in PKK attacks, including conspiracy theorists like Erdogan and his allies. However, for Asli Aydintasbas, there is no evidence that Israel is behind the PKK.  

Nevertheless, there is evidence that the PKK is getting aid from the Party of Free Life of Kurdistan (PJAK), an Iranian-Kurdish nationalist party, whose activists are trained by Israel.

This is enough to fuel the belief in Turkey that Israel is involved with the Kurds, and that there is a connection between attacks in Turkey and the 31 May flotilla affair, especially after Turkey expressed its support for Hamas. AKP Deputy Chairman Hüseyin Çelik is among the believers; for him, the PKK bombing in Iskenderun and Mavi Marmara incident are linked.

According to some analysts, Turkey’s Islamists and nationalists would push for an end to relations with Israel because of the latter’s involvement with the Kurds. They also note that Israel has been involved with Kurds in Iraq and Iran for a decade.

Turkey is also entering a new, more intense political phase. The Supreme Court has begun deliberations to determine whether the constitution can be amended through a popular vote, possibly shelving the Kemalist state, this a year before the next parliamentary elections.

Ultimately, as Russian Orientalist Vasily Vladimirovich Bartold put it, a great deal of knowledge is needed to understand Turkey because of the country’s great capacity to shift and move irrespective of who is in power.

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