At a Washington, DC, press conference held by Members of Congress in support of Israel, Turkey received its taste of changing attitudes on Capitol Hill after sponsoring a flotilla to breach Israel’s blockade of the terrorist organization Hamas-run Gaza strip.
Congressmen warned that Turkey’s break from its traditionally warm relations with Israel in exchange for cozying up with the United States’ public enemy number one – Iran – could result in a chill in its relations with the American government, according to The Jerusalem Post.
At the same time, Turkey pulled out all the stops in its diplomatic and media attacks on Israel, recalling their ambassador, reducing their diplomatic representation, freezing the implementation of past Turco-Israeli economic agreements, and placing an embargo on Israeli weapons – all of which took a serious toll on Turkey’s most reliable partner in the Middle East. Turkey-Israel relations, warm and cozy until the Islamist AK Party came to power in 2002, are now in their terminal stage.
While Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan stirred the anti-Israeli sentiment since the 2002 election, and especially after the landslide victory in 2007, things really came to a head in January 2009. At the Davos Economic Forum , Erdogan attacked the 87-year-old president of Israel, Shimon Peres, calling him a “murderer” because of Israel’s anti-terrorist operation in Gaza. Erdogan then demonstratively stormed from the podium.
Erdogan, of course, ignored the fact that Shimon Peres has always been a life-long dove who pushes for a peace settlement with Palestinians and a two-state solution, and also that the Israeli presidency is a ceremonial position. Erdogan’s attack, crass and unprofessional, nevertheless gained him a lot of voter support, with throngs of fans coming to the airport to greet him.
The launch of the “peace flotilla” was Turkey’s deliberate move to send already bad relations with Israel into a death spin. Erdogan masterfully used the opportunity granted by Israeli marine commando’s inept attempt to take control of the MAVI MARMARA, to staunchly put Turkey into the camp of Hamas supporters – and Israel’s opponents. Having Ankara in the same camp as Iran and Syria will radically change the geopolitics of the Middle East.
Turkey used to be a staunch member of NATO, a stalwart friend of the Israelis, a nation that aspired to join the European Union. But under Erdogan and his AK Party, its direction is quite different.
Erdogan is buying Iran time to develop its nuclear program by negotiating the Iran-Turkey-Brazil enriched uranium deal, rejected even by Russia and China, and by voting against UN Security Council sanctions that even Moscow and Beijing supported.
It does not have to be that way, U.S. Congressmen are saying to Erdogan. There is nothing wrong with Turkey wanting to develop ties with its Islamic neighbors, especially as Iran becomes a dominant voice in the region. But if ties with Israel are worth sacrificing for Turkey, this sends an unmistakable message to Washington. The Ayatollah Khomeini-authored call of “Death to Israel” is heard in the street of Istanbul. It also has the second half: “Death to America.” And the United States and its moderate Arab allies will not sit idly if the Turks and Iranians are planning to divide up the Middle East.
What the Turks did not predict, though, was the U.S. Congress backlash they’d received on Capitol Hill. Congressmen are promising Turkey that they would pass legislation blaming the Ottoman Empire for the Armenian massacres in 1915-1923 and calling it a “genocide” – something all prior U.S. Administrations have opposed due to the warm relations and a strong alliance with Turkey. Is this the result Mr. Erdogan intended? The U.S. Congress won’t be alone: parliaments around the world, including France and Russia, have already recognized the genocide.
Given that congressmen like Rep. Mike Pence (R-IN), Peter King (R-NY), Elliott Engel (D-NY), and other self-described friends of Turkey are concerned about the Turkish AKP government policy, and that Jewish and Armenian organizations may start working together on the genocide issue – it may be time for Turks to take a pause and think its policy through. While the relations between Turkey and the West is long and illustrious, the consequences for harming that relationship can also be difficult, if not tragic, for both sides.
Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies and International Energy Security in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation.