Israel-Turkey relations, or the race to be a regional power

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We are publishing below an article by the ICC's section in Turkey on recent developments in imperialist tensions in the Middle East.

The ruling class has had its hands full lately as imperialist conflict in the Eastern Mediterranean continues to intensify. The five-point strategy package announced after the publication of the UN's Palmer Commission report into the Mavi Marmara incident[1], the renewal of relations with Israel, and the tension over Cyprus' oil exploration in the Mediterranean, are set to dominate coming talks between Turkey and Israel. Our aim here is to analyse the background to these imperialist tensions and their implications for the working class.

The relations between Turkey and Israel go back to the formation of Israel and have had their ups and downs ever since. A similar version of the recent Turkey-Israel crisis took place in 1980 with the occupation of Eastern Jerusalem. Afterwards, with a series of military agreements and secret protocols, the relationship improved throughout the 1990s. For Turkey, the most important partner of its foreign policy US-oriented was Israel and it is evident today that this creates certain problems for Turkey, and an uncertainty about what will come next. Nevertheless, if we read between the lines of the political messages, it seems that the situation will continue to be determined by the attitude adopted by the dominant partner in the relationship – the USA – and it is unlikely that the relations between the three countries will change fundamentally.

When we look at the history of the relations between Israel and Turkey, we see that Israel lived many of its "firsts" with Turkey. For example Turkey was the first country with a Muslim majority to recognize Israel. Again Turkey is the first country with a Muslim majority where an Israeli president, Simon Peres in 2007, spoke in its parliament. In reality, the fate of this relationship seems pretty much sealed. This relationship determined by the multi-national monopolies or their national governments is extremely significant for the bourgeoisie in the Middle East.

The latest crisis was provoked by the leaking to the press of the UN report about the Gaza flotilla, and the absence from the report of any mention of sanctions against Israel, which forced the AKP government's hand and obliged it to make a move. On September 2nd, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu announced a strategy package of sanctions. The leaking of the UN report and its results being far from what the AKP government wanted could have reversed the political influence the Turkish government built in the region. This political influence gained especially thanks to Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's public rebukes against Israel, had rewarded the AKP with prestige both in Turkey and in the Arab world. The package of sanctions announced did not actually add any new dimension to Turkey-Israel relations. No military agreements or sharing of information was in question anyway since 2009. We can conclude that the sanction package of the AKP was merely a manoeuvre made to avoid the loss of prestige.

One of the five points in the package which declares “Turkey, as the state with the longest shore in the Eastern Mediterranean, will take every precaution it deems necessary for the safety of maritime navigation in the eastern Mediterranean” aims to demonstrate that Turkey, with its military presence in the Mediterranean, is a regional power and a rival for Israel. Turkey claims to be the fastest developing economy in the region, and wants a political presence to match. In this sense too, the only power which can rival Turkey is Israel. This is the main concern underlying all the conflicts. The fact that the Turkish bourgeoisie, in its eagerness to become the regional power, shows sympathy towards Gaza, takes steps which increase its presence in the Arab world and signs more economic agreements with the Arabs compared to the past are all results of its imperialist aims.

This constitutes one of the main points of tension in the Turkey-Israel relations.

The tension over oil exploration in the Eastern Mediterranean added a new dimension to the Turkey-Israel crisis. It was announced by the Turkish Minister of Energy and Natural Resources Taner Yildiz himself that Israel is behind the efforts of Southern Cyprus to search for oil in the Mediterranean. The Minister connected the issue to Israel further by claiming it is a taunt and a provocation. Soon after, Turkey declared with a hastily signed agreement with the Northern Cypriot Turkish Republic that it too was to look for oil in the Eastern Mediterranean. This tension over oil exploration is another product of the race to be the regional power mentioned above and course has heated the situation in the Eastern Mediterranean even further.

Another situation aside from this race to become the regional power is the war which began with the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. In these projects, Turkey is a strategic partner for the United States. For the Americans, Turkey is the ideal country in this project. Of the US' two strategic partners sin the region, Turkey is a better choice then Israel for the Americans, especially in the Arab world where the Palestinian question and the occupation of Gaza makes Israel undesirable. Israel's aggressive stance and bloody actions ever since its formation makes it easy for Israel to be seen as the country of evil in the Middle East.  For the US, which wants to dominate the region, being the strategic partner of a country with such a bad record is an embarrassment. Given Israel's position, it seems the US has preferred Turkey, and this would appear to offer Turkey the material possibility of gaining the regional power status to which it aspires.

Turkey's increasing influence in the Arab world in recent years has resulted in the creation of economical and political relations between the political tradition of the AKP and the Arabs. AKP's moderate Islamic or the secular Islamic model, is followed with interest in the Arab world. This rise, starting with the clash between Erdogan and Israel's Shimon Peres at the Davos summit, accelerated with the Mavi Marmara affair and led to demonstrations that reached a peak during the last crisis with Israel. Following the Davos summit, there were demonstrations in Gaza, Egypt, Syria and other Arab countries in which posters of Tayyip Erdogan appeared prominently. The interest shown in Erdogan in his recent trips to Egypt, Tunisia and Libya is again a result of the same policy. For the first time, a Turkish prime minister was greeted with the chant “Saviour of Islam, Saint of Allah”. The fact that such an effect has been created in the Middle East and North Africa makes partnership with Turkey an important issue for the US. Again, the fact that the Ikhwan movement (Muslim Brotherhood) which comes from the same political tradition as the AKP has formed a party called “Freedom and Justice Party” and became the largest partner of power in Egypt sheds light on the background of the mentioned partnership. The construction of the moderate or secular Islamic model in Turkey and its export to other countries in the region is a definite possibility for the project of the US in the region.

With the moderate Islamic model, the new political vision of the AKP and Turkey increase the chances of Turkey being a more effective regional power in the Arab world compared to Israel. However, the US does not want this crisis with its two regional historical partners to deepen further. The statements made in the UN meetings are generally reflective of this situation. It seems that the Turkey-Israel crisis will go back to its normal stance without deepening further with a different intermediary coming in between.

While all this is going on, Turkey is trying play up nationalism at home in order to justify the imperialist conflict. They are making propaganda using Islam to claim to be the friends of the Palestinian people. Through anti-Semitism, they are trying to create further divisions in the working class of the region by adding religious divisions to nationalist ones. Looking at the history of the Turkey-Israel relations would suffice to see what sort of a friendship the Turkish state feels towards Palestine. Turkey is only and exclusively a friend to its own interests. And its actions serve to create illusions in the working class and the masses and acts as an obstacle to the international struggle of the proletariat. The leftist servants of the bourgeoisie support this anti-Zionist atmosphere either openly or discreetly. As in all imperialist conflicts, in the current period also nationalism is an argument of the Turkish bourgeoisie too. Against it the working class has a single weapon: international unity and struggle.


[1]    Israel's attack on a ship carrying aid to Gaza, which resulted in the death of nine Turkish nationals.



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