It wasn’t very long ago that Turkish PM Erdogan went before the world’s press to announce the formation of a new regional powerbase in which his country would play a pivotal role. His two dismal choices as new best friends? Mahmoud Ahmedinejad of Iran, and Bashar al-Assad of Syria.
A short way down the line and Erdogan, (who went out of his way to antagonize and inflame relations with Israel at every possible opportunity), seems to have realized what a gross misjudgment he made in allying himself to two of the most despotic leaders on the planet, and by association being tarnished with the very dirty brush that has seen them gain pariah status across the globe.
While a significant number of more right-wing Islamist Turks seemed to support their PM’s stance over the Mavi Marmara affair and the very tough line he took against Israel – almost certainly a ruse he employed to gain brownie points in Syria, Iran, and with his “good friends” in Gaza – there were many others in a country that had long been something of a shining example to the rest of the Muslim world as a secular, democratic, and progressive society, who felt distinctly uneasy about the new company their leader was keeping, and who feared there might well be unpleasant repercussions as a consequence of the new and dangerous path he was treading.
Exactly what was truly behind Erdogan’s posturing is hard to say. He he has long been pushing for membership of the EU and his cozying up to Iran and Syria was hardly likely to endear him to his potential European partners. This ill-conceived strategic gamble has clearly backfired and quickly blown up in Erdogan’s face. The prospect of the EU admitting a new member-state that is joined at the hip with two of the world’s most corrupt and authoritarian regimes was never going to prove a vote-winner in Brussels, the tactic seeming to reveal a significant flaw in the political maneuvering of a man who has gradually been losing his way only three years after appearing to be a major player with growing international influence.
In recent months, with Iran becoming increasingly isolated by the international community as a result of its alleged development of nuclear weapons, and with the Syrian government continuing to massacre large numbers of its own people while driving many more to seek refuge in Turkey — causing a growing humanitarian crisis within Turkey’s own borders — Erdogan’s government has been noticeably short on its previously stinging anti-Israel rhetoric.
The recent news – that Israel has returned to Turkey a number of drones that had been held here for some years as a result of the breakdown in relations between the countries, and the revelation that a senior Turkish governmental official met with PM Netanyahu in Jerusalem in recent days – is just the latest in a series of events that appear to signal a slow re-establishment of normal relations between Israel and a country that, (until Erdogan decided to seek more friends in the Islamic world), had been a close trade, cultural, and military partner for Israel. It would, however, be foolish to believe that Erdogan’s deep-down opinion of Israel has radically changed.
This easing of tensions in the eastern Mediterranean is surely more down to necessity on the part of the Turks than to a sea change in the attitude of their leader. With the door to Europe slammed in its face, Syria and Iran remaining on the international blacklist, no improvement in its relationship with Greece, and problems on its eastern frontier with Syrian refugees and Kurdish separatists, Turkey is surely keen to find friends in the region. Israel would be wise to make the most of the opportunity, while exercising caution and only moving one step at a time.
Politicians, like all of us, make big mistakes, and often have to backtrack, no matter how much humble pie they might have to eat along the way. Turkey is a powerful economic and military presence in the region whose majority secular population has more in common with most Israelis than with most Arabs in the vicinity. It appears to be in the best interests of both countries – Israel is hardly overwhelmed with friends in the neighborhood – to set aside the mutual distrust that has soured their relationship and look to the future to develop ties that will prove mutually beneficial. And – who knows? – perhaps they will even diffuse some of the rising tensions that have been enveloping this corner of the world.