Official reactions in Turkey to Israeli action in the West Bank underline the contradictory nature of Ankara’s position in Middle East affairs. The last few weeks have seen a number of demonstrations throughout the major cities in Turkey, and even government officials have spoken out, not only Islamists. Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit’s comments about genocide by Israel in early April caused an outcry, especially as the two countries have growing economic relations, with an estimated $1bn in bilateral trade last year. Turkey’s economic recovery could further be harmed by events in Iraq, which in early April announced that it would cut its oil supplies for one month, pushing up the price.
Turkey has long felt sympathy for the plight of fellow Muslims in the West Bank, but as Israel’s chief ally in the region and with continued economic and military ties between them, Ankara’s ability to criticise Israeli domestic policy remains limited.
But thousands of protesters who have taken to streets around the country during the past week view it otherwise. Led by unions, civic groups and students, protesters shouted "Damn Israel" and "Murderer Israel", while also calling on the Turkish government for a severance of all economic and diplomatic ties with Israel. Murat Yildirim, a graduate student who participated in the protests in Konya, said, "It is an outrage that we have these connections with Israel. We should be standing along our Muslim brothers, but how can we do that when our government signs contracts with Sharon?"
Signs of strain in Israeli-Turkish relations echoed from the streets to Turkey’s Parliament. Foreign Minister Ismael Cem, who served as a mediator between Palestine and Israel, remarked, "It is not realistic to expect a (Palestinian) administration, which was humiliated and invaded, the leader of which has been isolated, to control terrorist factions." National Defence Minister Cakmakoglu stated, "We do not find it right that Israel is acting by using excessive force". The pro-Islamic Saadet (SP) or Felicity Party leader Recai Kutan said on April 1st that Turkey should support Palestine and freeze all diplomatic ties with terrorist Israel, while the other pro-Islamic opposition party, the Justice and Development Party, likened Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to Hitler.
But it was Prime Minister Ecevit’s comments that revealed the extent of Turkey’s complicated relationship with Israel and the problems between a government focused on economic reform and a public sympathetic to Palestine. His accusations on April 4th in Parliament, which blamed Israel for committing genocide against Palestinians and Sharon of a "step-by-step" destruction of Palestine, angered the powerful Jewish lobby in America, a group that has historically supported Turkey’s position in Washington, and have pushed for increased international aid to Turkey. In response to his critics, Ecevit claims he meant only to reflect the sentiments of the region and emphasized, "We have been the most sincere friend of the Jewish people for centuries."
Largely based on economic and political ties that bind Israel and Turkey, Ecevit’s retreat reveals the difficulties in the government’s policies towards Israel. The relationship began as a strategic one by Turkey to force Syria to cease support for PKK separatists. This partnership was responsible for the 1998 expulsion of PKK Kurdish rebel chief Abdullah Ocalan from Damascus, where he had been exiled for nearly 20 years. Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, played a central role in his capture by Turkish special forces in Kenya in 1999.
As part of ongoing military sales between the two countries, Turkey signed a controversial deal in late March which awarded Israel’s state owned Israeli Military Industries a $670m contract to modernise 170 M-60 tanks. Defence Minister Sabahattin Cakmakoglu remarked that though he understands criticisms of the deal’s timing, the decision is strictly a commercial issue.
Economically, Israel remains one of the top eight countries with highest commercial potential for Turkey and has been asked to attend a special promotion meeting at the 4th Convention of World Turkish Businessmen in Istanbul on April 25th to 27th. Turkey, which signed a Free Trade Agreement with Israel in 1996, ironically under Turkeys first Islamic government, houses 55 Israeli company branches which have a capital of over $64m. Bilateral trade was over $1bn last year, and negotiations are also underway for Turkey to sell Israel over $50m of water annually. Turkey imported some $619m-worth of goods last year from Israel and hopes that exports will continue to grow especially if plans for a trade relationship based on the qualified industrial zone principle materialises, allowing Turkey freer access to US markets.
The balance between Turkey’s need for economic recovery and desire for a strong military and the public’s pro-Palestinian sympathies create a public relations nightmare for the government. Although Turkey has been busy reestablishing stronger diplomatic ties with Syria, Iran and Iraq and has quietly asked Israel not to participate in military exercises with the US in Konya starting on April 22nd, analysts conclude these subtle shifts away from Israel are attempts to establish empathy with an unsatisfied media and public.
While Turkey has been navigating the Palestinian issue, Saddam Hussein announced suspension of oil sales on April 8th in protest of the Israeli offensive. Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Yilmaz urged Iraq to rethink this policy because "our regional provinces whose economies depended on border trade, entered a difficult period." Because of UN economic sanctions imposed after the 1991 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, Iraq is mandated use the proceeds from oil sales for food and humanitarian supplies. Turkish trucks did regularly cross Kurdish-held northern Iraq to bring back diesel helping revive the regional economy. Because of Turkey’s estimated $80bn financial loss under the sanctions and its support of the US during the Gulf War, the West has ignored the illegal border crossings.
Talks in Washington point to the possibility of a US-led attack against Hussein, which may also have adverse effects on the Turkish economy. The Gulf War, which devastated the economy of southeastern Turkey, fueled the PKK separatists as nearly half a million Kurdish refugees crossed the Iraqi border. However, a US-led initiative aimed at toppling Saddam and the consequent lifting of UN sanctions could be beneficial to Turkey. Alan Makovsky, Senior Professional Staff Member on the International Relations Committee in the US House of Representatives, stated, "If Turkey can successfully lead ISAF (in Afghanistan) and negotiate a reasonable arrangement for supporting a US war on Saddam Hussein, it will have enhances its status as a regional power and as an influential ally of the US, while helping to assure its interests in a post-Saddam order."