Befriending a Turkish Foreign Minister; the role of personal diplomacy

TURKEY AND ISRAEL CAN -AND WILL- COOPERATE

Israel and Turkey can find ways to work together, despite the hostile ideological Islamist basis of the ruling AKP party.

During my years as Israel’s Ambassador to Turkey, I forged a personal, warm relationship with key AKP ideologue,Ahmet Davutoglu who would go on to become the Turkish foreign minister and prime minister. This relationship helped Israel and Turkey navigate through challenges and crises, and still maintain cooperation.

When Turkey’s AKP (Justice and Development Party) first rose to power in 2002, the working assumption in the Israeli diplomatic community was that a very difficult period in bilateral relations had begun.

The AKP party is guided by a Muslim Brotherhood philosophy, placing it in the same ideological camp as Hamas.

THE CONTEXT OF OUR FRIENDSHIP

Fifteen years ago, Davutoglu, a professor of political science, was an influential Islamist ideologue, and a close aide to Recep Tayyitp Erdogan, Turkey’s current President, who was elected Prime Minister in 2003.

Davutoglu had outlined his Islamist neo-Ottoman vision for Turkey in a book.

After coming to power, AKP party leaders worked hard to overturn the century-old secular reforms carried out by the modern Turkish Republic’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who served as the Republic’s first president in the 1920s and early 1930s.

Ataturk oversaw the transition of Turkey away from an Islamic Ottoman empire and towards secular statehood, a phase that that saw Turkey bind itself to the West.

Turkey once enjoyed a role as an Islamic religious center, headed by a Sultan, which also exercised political-military control over the Middle East and central Asia. Turkey was the last Islamic, historical caliphate. Ataturk disbanded that caliphate.

He also abandoned the Arabic letters used in the Ottoman Empire to write Turkish words, in favor of Latin letters. He placed a ban on highly religious Muslims from entering the military, government, and diplomatic service.

The AKP Party, a Turkish Muslim Brotherhood variant, rose up in rejection of Ataturk’s doctrine, and raised the banner of returning Turkey to its historical size and role.

The AKP Party sought to maintain ties with Europe, while regaining political, religious and economic control of central Asia. Most importantly, AKP sought to have Turkey once again lead the Middle East.

These ideas were pioneered by Davutoglu. It was important that I meet him.

MEETING DAYUTOGLU – A STUDY IN PERSONAL DIPLOMACY

I became Israel’s Ambassador to Turkey in 2003, and set myself the objective of trying to establish a channel of direct communication with him. At first, I did not succeed in gaining a private audience.

Yet as time went by, the Turkish establishment began to see me as a contact person that Turkey could benefit from, in its bid to reach Europe and the US.

My European, diplomatic contact network was extensive. Davutoglu finally agreed to meet me.

We met at a hotel in a suburb of Ankara, and I decided that this would be a one-time opportunity to break the ice. There are no second opportunities for first impressions.

So before our meeting, I studied Davutoglu’s book closely, reading it from start to finish. On the day of our meeting, he entered the room and sat in the corner, waiting, tense. He appeared to believe that the meeting with Israel’s ambassador would mainly produce a photo op, and a few polite remarks. I had different ideas.

I informed Davutoglu that I had read his book, and had some questions. His eyes lit up. I proceeded to challenge some of the central ideas in his book, saying that, in my humble opinion, his chances of realizing these ideological goals for Turkey were slim, before asking him how he planned to act on his ideas.

I did not think I could change his mind about his strategic objectives. Rather, my goal here was to create a dialogue, an open channel, based on personal – intellectual interest. In diplomacy, 99% of success is based on personal warmth. Flattery is not the way to diplomatic success.

A 15-minute conversation ensued, and a warm relationship began.

I told him at the time that I could not understand how Europe, which is predominantly a Christian continent that harbors a fear of Muslims, will accept Turkey as a full member, with its 80 million Muslims.

The future Turkish prime minister informed me that Turkey was going for an all or nothing approach with Europe. Turkey’s location on the front between NATO and the East, and its major cooperation with the Western coalition in Iraq, earned it many rights, he said.

Challenging him from another direction, I argued that from a religious perspective, Arab Sunni states will never recognize Turkey as a 21st century caliphate. Egypt won’t let Turkey lead the Middle East, despite the fact that Ankara has considerable military and political power. Davutoglu responded by saying that Egypt was not as stable as Turkey.

We went back and forth, discussing his theories. I wanted to understand Davutoglu’s close links with Hamas, the Islamist terrorist organization that went on to rise to power in Gaza, and fight three conflicts against Israel since 2007.

ISRAEL – THE ANCHOR FOR TURKEY IN A SEA OF WESTERN STATES

After breaking the ice, my goal was to convince Davutoglu that if Turkey wanted to be seen as a serious international player, it had to be able work with the State of Israel, acting as a liaison for it, passing messages to those that Israel had no direct links with.

This would help Turkey influence Arab states as well. Davutoglu understood this message, and adopted the idea that ties with Israel could be highly convenient for Ankara. We met repeatedly, and began a personal friendship that continues to this day.

During my time as ambassador in Turkey, Davutoglu was a guest at my home, and our dialogue continued.

Meanwhile, the AKP party steamed ahead with its plan, overturning Ataturk’s secular state architecture, piece by piece.

Erdogan’s short-term plan was to take over quietly. He helped do this by rapidly developing eastern Turkey, traditionally the poorer, more traditional region, economically. Multi-lane highways popped up in eastern Turkey, as did schools, and madrassas (Islamic study centers).

Fetullah Gullen, an Imam with an influential political following, was once an ally of Erdogan, before he fell out with the AKP, and exiled to the US. Gullen had the idea of turning madrassas into building blocks of political support.

As our communications continued, we clashed over Hamas. Davutoglu told me that Israel permitted Hamas to take part in the 2006 Palestinian parliamentary elections, but that Israel rejected the results of those elections, which Hamas won, and did not let the Islamist movement rule. He did not see Hamas as terrorists, but rather, as fellow Muslim Brothers, who had a right to rule.

FROM PERSONAL DIPLOMACY TO GILAD SHALIT

Still, Israel could benefit from Turkey’s closeness to Hamas to send and receive messages. After the 2006 abduction of IDF soldier Gilad Shalit by Hamas, we received a message through the Turks that Shalit was alive and being held in Gaza.

This did not prevent some very public arguments over Turkey’s support for Hamas. I almost became persona non grata because of my public condemnations of Ankara’s view of the terrorist regime in Gaza, following the Shalit kidnapping.

Still, I requested a meeting with Davutoglu, and was granted a face to face with him. I informed him that Israel is asking him to urgently get in touch with Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal to see if Shalit was, indeed, still alive. “How dare you,” he retorted. “You attacked me for two weeks [in the press].”

I made it clear that I stood by my attacks. Due to the personal relationship we had established, Davutoglu later delivered a message to Israel’s then Foreign Minister, Tzipi Livni, to inform her that Schalit was alive and well.

THE MAVI MARMARA, CRISIS POINT, TRADE CONTINUES

In 2009, Davutoglu became Turkish Foreign Minister. That same year, Israel and Turkey experienced a major diplomatic crisis following the Mavi Maramara affair, in which the Israel Navy intercepted a Turkish flotilla heading for Gaza, and on-board activists assaulted Israeli commandos with weapons. Nine Turkish activists were killed.

This episode caused severe harm to bilateral relations. Turkey bore the brunt of responsibility, for letting the ship, packed with radical operatives, armed with long knives, set sail for Gaza to challenge the Israeli blockade. Israel had previously told Turkey it would allow any ship carrying goods for Gaza to dock at Ashdod port, be screened, and its cargo transferred to Gaza. There were even agreements in place with Turkey to set up industrial zones for Palestinians, at Gaza border crossings – though Hamas rejected these plans.

Despite the crisis, Turkey understood that it could not permanently wreck relations with Israel. It still recognized the strategic value of relations with Israel. Trade to the tune of billions of dollars per year continued during this crisis, meaning that Erdogan did not wish to cease economic relations.

Turkey became entangled in the Syrian war, and the Assad regime turned into an enemy of Ankara. Turkey believed it could turn ISIS against the Kurds, but found itself at war with both ISIS and the Kurds.

INTERESTS DICTATE

Ankara and Jerusalem have a common interest, that Iran, and the radical Shi’ite axis it leads, do not rule Syria. Iran’s nuclear weapons program, now on hold, is a source of great concern for Turkey.

Turkey is also interested in ferrying Israeli natural gas in pipelines that run through its territory to Europe, as part of its bid to become a new regional energy hub.

Turkey is not an enemy of Israel, though it remains ideologically unfriendly to it. Nevertheless, international relations are built on interests, and the number of common Turkish – Israeli interests is great enough to maintain cooperation.

Close military cooperation, which occurred before the AKP rise to power, won’t return any time soon, but with sufficient diplomatic skill, Israel and Turkey can learn to work together and keep common threats at bay.

Edited by: Yaakov Lappin

Co-Edited by: Benjamin Anthony

Notice: The views expressed above do not represent the views of the IDF, the Foreign Ministry or the organization Our Soldiers Speak. They are reflective solely of the views of the author. Visit www.oursoldiersspeak.org .

About the Author
Pinchas Avivi concluded his diplomatic career as Senior Deputy Director General in charge of global, strategic and multilateral affairs for the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2014. He has held key positions, including those of Deputy Director General of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for the Central Europe, Eurasia and Russia division. He was also the Ambassador of Israel to Turkey. He is a diplomatic advisor to Our Soldiers Speak (www.oursoldiersspeak.org)
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