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Turkish Democracy Gives Rise to Turkish Power

International attention to Turkey’s recent election reflects Ankara’s rising role not only in the Arab Spring but as a newly powerful democracy with broad regional influence.

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Perhaps the most significant new application of this “Davotoglu Doctrine” has emerged in the changing nature of Turkish-Israeli relations. Turkey has not rejected its strategic ties to Israel – indeed it has maintained troublingly high levels of arms and “security” purchases – but is no longer willing to give up support for Palestinian rights. Indeed, since the flotilla massacre of 2010, Turkey has maintained a firm demand for an apology and compensation as the condition for returning to its earlier close ties to Tel Aviv.  In the aftermath of the assault, Turkey demanded the immediate return of the ship, successfully negotiated the release of all who had been aboard, and issued the non-negotiable demand for full apology and reparations.  Ankara’s defense of its citizens – eight of the nine people killed on board the  Mavi Marmara  during the 2010 flotilla were Turkish nationals – stood in stark contrast to the absolute refusal of the U.S. to take any responsibility for the ninth (and youngest) victim, a U.S. citizen of Turkish descent.  The family of eighteen-year-old Furkan Dogan has had to file a U.S. court case to enforce the Freedom of Information Act just to find out what the U.S. knew or didn’t know about the killing of one of its own citizens.   

But again, the challenges remain. Turkey is still committed to rebuilding its relationship with Israel, and that has translated to several recent troubling developments, including the early pull-out of the Turkish ship from the 2011 anniversary Freedom Flotilla to Gaza. While the ship’s organizers claimed their withdrawal was caused by technical problems rather than government pressure, the Turkish government’s interest in rebuilding ties with Israel almost certainly played some role in the organization’s decision. (Following the lethal assault on the 2010 flotilla and Turkey’s firm response, Israel initiated a strong campaign to woo Greece, Turkey’s historic competitor, through financial and diplomatic assistance to Greece during its massive economic crisis. The result was the complete acquiescence of the historically pro-Palestinian Greek government to Israeli demands regarding the July 2011 flotilla – and the Hellenistic Coast Guard’s armed refusal to allow the humanitarian ships to depart from Greek harbors for Gaza.) 

The summer of 2011 is presenting a number of new problems for Turkish foreign policy.  The expansion of the Arab Spring to Syria earlier this year, and especially the escalation of violence against unarmed protesters by the government in Damascus, created a significant crisis for Ankara. Part of the problem is border security, as thousands of desperate Syrians have fled the violence over the border into Turkish territory, with the likelihood of a far greater refugee flow if the violence continues. But beyond the immediate situation, the threat of continuing instability in neighboring Syria, one of Turkey’s most important trading partners, means Ankara puts a greater premium on maintaining normal ties with everyone else. That means normalizing relations with Israel. And with the elections behind them, restoring ties with Tel Aviv becomes politically feasible. That will also win Erdogan’s government new support from Turkey’s military, which has longstanding close ties with the Israeli Defense Forces.  And the Obama administration’s hints that Turkey could be recognized as an important regional player no doubt are having some impact on decision-making in Ankara as well. 

So it is perhaps not surprising that just before the July 2011 release of the United Nations’ report on the 2010 flotilla assault, there were intensive high-level diplomatic meetings between Turkish and Israeli officials. They were trying to see if they could agree on a bilateral statement that would allow both governments to put aside the aftermath of the  Mavi Marmara  killings and rebuild their once-strategic relationship. To its credit, Turkey refused to accept an Israeli expression of “regret” in place of a real apology for the killings. But the effort to do so still highlights Turkey’s eagerness to rebuild its strategic ties to Tel Aviv, with all the potential challenges that poses for Erdogan’s and his government’s support for Palestinian rights.   

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