In December 2011, JewishPress.com sent me a bunch of questions regarding the relationship between Turkey and Israel. Apparently, they decided not to publish my responses (which is fine), but I think the content is especially pertinent given that Turkey is now practically involved in a war (also, see this one) in Southeastern Turkey with Syrian-backed guerrillas and Iran's Revolutionary Guard.
So, when you read my answers below, keep in mind that they were written around December 15, 2011 (I don't remember the exact date). I fixed minor spelling & grammar errors.
Disclaimer: Every statement I make below, other than specific historical events, is my subjective evaluation. I have no inside connections to anyone in the government of Turkey, the AKP, or the opposition parties to know what they are actually thinking—just in case you were wondering.
Can you give us an overview of the transition in Turkey from the birth of the nation as a Republic to the current situation? How would you characterize the current situation in Turkey?
It is impossible to understand Turkey without reference to the Ottoman Empire which was actually the second empire set up in Anatolia by nomadic Turkic tribes that migrated westward from Central Asia between the 6th and 11th centuries.
The Ottoman Empire lasted from 1299 AD to 1923 AD. After a couple of centuries of decline, the decision to enter World War I on the side of the Germans accelerated its demise. In 1920, the Treaty of Sèvres officially partitioned areas under Ottoman control among Britain, France, Italy, Armenia, Greece, also designating an area for a possible future Kurdistan.
By 1919, regional resistance movements had already been sprouting. These movements were later organized by Atatürk and his friends and Turkish War of Independence was fought. In 1922, an armistice was signed with the allied powers. On July 23, the Lausanne Treaty officially ended the Ottoman Empire, and established Turkey as her successor. On October 29, 1923, the Republic of Turkey was established.
From the start, the Republic of Turkey was run by a single person from the center. Reforms and changes were enacted from the top down, and not in response to any strong demands by the people. There were various attempts at forming political parties to oppose Atatürk's Republican People's Party. These ended in a bunch of executions. After Atatürk's passing in 1938, control was transferred to his second in command who tried to keep the country out of the second world war by pleasing all sides. He succeeded in that.
In 1950, Turkey's one party system was transformed by the electoral victory of the Democrat Party. During this decade, Turkey sought to be better integrated with Western Europe and the United States. It joined NATO and participated in the Korean War. In 1960, the democratically elected government of the Republic of Turkey was overthrown in a military coup. Three leaders of the Democrat Party were executed and many others were prosecuted for treason.
This marked the beginning of a series of coup attempts, military interventions, and successful takeovers by the military of the civilian governments. Among others, there were March 12, 1971, September 12, 1980, and February 28, 1997.
Turkey's current prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan spent time in prison, and was banned from politics for a number of years due to a poem he recited in a political rally. He is the leader of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) whose predecessor Welfare Party was disbanded for violating the principle of secularism in the constitution in 1998 following the military intervention in 1997.
The current situation in Turkey is better than it has ever been.
It is important not to confuse better with good, here. Citizens of the Republic of Turkey are freer, wealthier, and more equal in front of the law than they have ever been since 1923. The economy is more stable than at any point over the same period as well. There are encouraging signs everywhere.
However, there are also discouraging signs. Corruption and nepotism are endemic in Turkey. One could try to feel better about the situation by pointing out that things have improved over the past decade, or that things really are no worse than they are in Italy or Greece. However, using an absolute yardstick, the population as a whole needs to become much more mature and tolerant of different opinions, and intolerant of corruption and flaunting of the law in the small and the large.
While much economic growth has been due to the stable environment the AKP has been able to provide entrepreneurs, the state apparatus still casts a long shadow and the tax system is highly complicated and distortionary. The government's entry into the housing market, and domination of education and health care markets are concerns.
On the whole, however, the situation is better than it used to be.
Is Turkey an inspiration and/or an example for other countries in the region throwing off dictators and trying to establish functioning democracies? What involvement do you expect Turkey to have in supporting this process in other countries?
When thinking about whether the experience of the people of Turkey can form an example for the peoples of mostly Muslim countries in the region, it is important to keep in mind that the standing of Turks in the region is a complicated issue, to say the least.
Since the arrival of the first Turkic tribes in Anatolia more than a thousand years ago, they have not been dominated by other peoples of the region —at least not for any significant duration— whereas most everyone else fell under Turkish domination at one time or another. Turks tend not to recall the final separation that fondly.
I have not interacted with many Arabs in my life, but most Arabs I have interacted with have voiced the opinion that the worst thing that happened to Islam was the Ottoman takeover of the Caliphate. The Republic of Turkey, the successor of the Ottoman Empire, abolished the Islamic Caliphate unilaterally.
It is hard to imagine a world in which the Italian prime minister could shut down the Vatican and kick the Pope out of Rome. In fact, in a tongue-in-cheek way, you can blame the Turks for every Arab dictator of the 20th century: In a wide open field, they all seemed to want to be the next Caliph.
All attempts at humor aside, there is also the fact that the Turks fought for their own independence after World War I whereas the Arab sovereigns sought to be dominated by Western powers.
Furthermore, given that the reform movements in the decaying Ottoman Empire started more than 170 years ago, the Turkish experience may not be that encouraging. After all, the people of Turkey went through the destruction of an empire, saw major wars, death and destruction, attacks on minorities, economic depression, military coups, suppression of individual liberties, central planning, and social and economic upheavals on an almost routine basis since the first reform attempts in mid-19th century.
As recently as in 1993, inhabitants of a Sivas got up and burned 37 people alive for allegedly insulting Islam. Precisely 33 years ago the inhabitants of Maraş got up and decided to slaughter each other over religious, ethnic and political differences.
And, after all that, there is still no clear separation of religion from the state. After all that, all forms of media are still routinely censored. The list goes on.
Clearly, among other majority Muslim countries, Turkey is the freest one with the greatest respect for human rights. Equally clearly, that is a very weak standard by which to judge a country.
Despite detours, progress has been made in the right direction. The Turkish experience shows the rest of the world, and other majority Muslim countries that it is possible for Muslims of many stripes to live together, usually harmoniously with each other and people of other religions or no religion at all.
The real question is whether the people who are rising up in places like Egypt and Syria really want that kind of a society. Or, do they want all other perspectives to be silenced?
There is no direct evidence that Arabs are toppling dictatorships because they aspire to the Western values Turks have been striving to adopt. It seems to me that people in those countries have simply had enough. Among them, I am sure, there are people who would like to be even stronger dictators than the ones they have removed or are trying to remove from power.
It is incumbent upon the rest of the world to be on guard and support the alternative.
What are the dangers and/or advantages for Turkey if it plays a leading role for some nascent democracies?
Neither Turkey nor the Turks can choose if they are going to play that role. First, there are no nascent democracies, yet. Second, it all depends on people in those yet to be formed nascent democracies whether they are going to look at the Turkish experience for guidance.
In the Western world, the notion that well defined rights for individuals can exist independently of the whims of the sovereign has been recognized in some form since at least the 13th century. A corresponding philosophical foundation upon which freedom and democracy can stand does not yet exist in majority Muslim countries.
Over the past decade, Turks have seen greater economic stability and wider freedoms. I doubt these happened because Turks wanted to set an example for anyone. The risk faced by every free democracy is clear: Such countries provide an environment where individuals who want to overturn the system can also freely organize and associate. Such an attempt cannot be ruled out in Turkey. The chances of a destructive and undemocratic change of government will be diminished if, and when, the opposition parties in Turkey can win an election on merits, and the party of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan dutifully surrenders power according to the rules.
How did Israel and Turkey get to be so close to begin with? Was this all due to the secular influence of the early power holders in the Turkish Republic? Or were there other factors that caused the population to be open to this sort of close relationship with the Jewish state?
I am not sure whether Turkey and Israel were ever really that close. Granted, Turkey was the first majority Muslim country to recognize Israel. And, most Turks look fondly upon the fact that the Sephardim were evacuated to safety by the Ottoman Sultan Bayezid II. Many Jews have flourished in business, academia, and the arts in Turkey.
There are some interesting contradictions in Turkish attitudes towards Israel and Jews: A lot of Turks, some I know, can spout all sorts of nonsense about Jews in general, but be completely docile when actually interacting with Jews. Such seemingly contradictory behavior is not confined to religious Muslims.
There is, and has been at least since the 70s, a strong anti-Israel undercurrent across the political and social spectrum. One can sense an assumption that "Palestinians are innocent and pure. The evil Israelis are beneficiaries of the evil, imperialist USA. Through their control of media, and political and economic institutions, the Jews have banished Palestinian Arabs to an awful existence." And, you can hear, "Hey, don't you know, Israel was given to the Jews by the Europeans to alleviate their guilt for the Holocaust." All in all, pretty standard fare for what you might hear at an OWS protest, or universities and other institutions of "higher" learning in the United States. When it comes to Turkey, these sentiments also end up combining with certain elements of Islam.
Over the 90s, to the credit of the Clinton administration, cooperation in the Middle East among Turkey, Israel, and the United States worked. However, that cooperation proved not to have been built on a strong foundation. First and foremost, the governments in Turkey during this period were hopelessly inept and corrupt. In the minds of the people, their distrust in the government was associated with the governments' close cooperation with the U.S. and Israel.
Secondly, the Clinton administration simply dropped the ball in Bosnia and Chechnya, leading to great discontent in Turkey. It was during this time that a lot of young Islamist leaders in Turkey rose to prominence, and a bunch of Turks actually went to Bosnia or Chechnya to fight.
It was the dismal economic situation and blatant corruption of the governments that ran Turkey in 90s that gave the AKP their first election victory. The rest of their victories since have been due to the fact that the economy improved incredibly during their time and other things did not get much worse.
What is the biggest criticism from the so-called secular, center-left opposition of Erdoğan these days?
You may be able to guess: "He is a tool of the USA and Israel." People have written books about how he is trying to hide the fact that he is, in reality, a Jew, hiding in plain sight. For example, there was one called "Children of Moses: Tayyip and Emine."
These books sell well for Turkey. The supposedly secular center-left leader Kılıçdaroğlu says Erdoğan is the "advocate of Jews," and asks "will he return the accolades he received from the American Jewish Lobby?" These days, such banter passes for legitimate political discourse by the Turkish opposition.
Most of the negative public stunts being pulled by Erdoğan are possibly attempts to buttress his support among the religious Muslims in Turkey because that's the flank where he is vulnerable. The rest of the political spectrum is weak not due to a conspiracy by him. They simply have not yet been able to replace what passed as leadership in the 90s with a new and effective crew.
So, when the prime minister goes "One Minute!" at an international meeting, using the resulting coverage, he manages to drown out his critics in Turkey. This does not justify the outward animosity displayed by the Turkish government towards Israel, but may point out whence the payoff from being belligerent against Israel may come in a world where the leadership in the U.S. prefers to "lead from behind" and publicly demands Israel to "get to the damn table."
What led to the, seeming, rapid deterioration in the relationship? Is the deterioration serious or on the level of optics? Is the nuts and bolts of trade and military collaboration continuing or is that breaking down as well? Is there an inherent reason to expect conflict between an Islamic country and the Jewish state?
The AKP supported OIF. Most in the United States remember that the Turkish Parliament did not allow the 4th Infantry Division to invade Iraq through its border with Turkey, but forget the political price the government paid for trying to clumsily pass a resolution to allow that in the face of widespread opposition from all segments of the society. They also neglect the cooperation between Turkey and the U.S. on other aspects of the war effort.
As I mentioned before, there has not been viable opposition to the AKP from the center-left and center-right of the political opposition. The AKP has been vulnerable only to attacks by harder line Islamists who hold the view (in agreement with the Turkish and American left) that the OIF was undertaken to keep oil resources out of the hands of Muslims to the benefit of the U.S. and Israel.
My theory as to the seemingly sudden deterioration in Turkish-Israeli relations relates to the fact that the 2006 conflicts in Gaza and Lebanon really mobilized Islamists in Turkey. The government, already in a precarious situation, possibly facing another military intervention, had to ensure that it did not lose its strongest supporters.
It is also no coincidence that the Bush administration was at the same time significantly weakened by domestic opposition to the Iraq war lead by the democrats, 9/11 conspiracy theorists and the popular media. Accounts of "massacres" by American troops or Americans urinating on the Koran etc served by American media to further their political agenda, inflamed Muslims everywhere. The AKP and Erdoğan simply could not afford to lose a major pillar of their support, and they had to at least project the image that they were opposing the U.S. and Israel.
Despite all impressions to the contrary, most Turks seem to value the strategic relationship with Israel. Merchants in the tourist towns of Turkey's Mediterranean region want to go back to the good old days when stores used to advertise their wares in Hebrew. An overt conflict between Turkey and Israel seems extremely unlikely to me. Of course, one cannot easily say the same thing about Egypt, Syria, or Iran.
What do you expect to see happen in the relationship between Turkey and Israel in the next 10 years if the various Arab Spring countries tend in the direction of democratically elected Sharia oriented governments? How will Turkey change in this new Middle East? What positive and negative pathways do you see laying ahead for the region and for Turkey and the relationship of both and all as a whole with Israel?
Ten years is a long time. At this point, all I can see ahead is turmoil. While it is entertaining to engage in this kind of speculation, I must confess fotunetelling is not my strong suit.
With that caveat out of the way, clearly, the greatest threat in the region are the Iranian mollahs. Given that the signals the Turkish government is sending through its stance against Asad in Syria and by being part of the missile shield, I consider a direct attack by Iran on Israel to be unlikely. However, Iranians showed in the 80s that they can also threaten the world oil supply. Indeed, there have been recent news stories citing Iranian threats to shut down the Hormuz straits. If and when Iran has a reliable supply of nuclear weapons, the mollahs would be able to wreak havoc around the world by threatening long term destruction of oil fields around the Gulf.
The resulting economic crises would be very destructive for all democracies, nascent or otherwise.
The changes in Turkey are mostly driven internally. Among Turks, I see a yearning for greater individual political and economic freedom, and hope, for everyone's sake, that the path does not lead to widespread social unrest and political violence.