Davos Exchange May Damage Ankara's Standing in Arab World as Well as Israel

Article excerpt

WHEN THE prime minister of one country says to the president of another, "You know well how to kill people," many might think it's fair to assume that relations between the two states had taken something of a nosedive.

Indeed, when this is followed up by accusations of hypocrisy, genocide and barbarism, flung like dinner plates about the diplomatic kitchen, one might be forgiven for thinking relations could scarcely get worse.

Yet many both in Turkey and in Israel are looking at recent heated exchanges between their two countries as signifying a lot less than they seem to. At the same time, however, they may have some unforeseen consequences for recent diplomatic moves by Ankara around the Middle East.

The current crisis between Turkey and Israel first publicly surfaced when Turkish Prime Minister Recip Tayyip Erdogan stormed off the stage at the World Economic Forum in Davos. This came after Israeli President Shimon Peres had defended Israel's attack on Gaza, and Erdogan had not been given what he felt was enough time to respond by moderator David Ignatius of The Washington Post.

This was followed by an escalating series of insults, which by mid-February saw the commander of the Israeli army headquarters, Major General Avi Mizrahi, saying that Turkey should "look in the mirror" before criticizing Israeli actions in Gaza.

Mizrahi then referred to the 1915 massacres of Ottoman Armenians by Ottoman Turks and Kurds, a slaughter known to most of the non-Turkish world as the Armenian Genocide. This is perhaps the most taboo subject possible from Ankara's perspective, signalling a major low point in relations. (Indeed, AIPAC and other elements of America's Israel Lobby have worked hard to ensure the defeat of every congressional resolution referring to the Armenian Genocide.)

Erdogan's walk out at Davos, meanwhile, has made him into something of a hero both in Turkey and the Arab world. Hamas praised his actions, and, on his return from Davos, thousands of supporters from his Justice and Development Party (AKP) turned out to greet him.

Yet, as Professor Iltar Turan, head of the International Relations Department at Istanbul's Bilgi University, points out, "Street politics is not the driving force behind actual foreign policy. Like many, the prime minister is very sympathetic toward the plight of the Palestinians, but he also knows that policy cannot be indexed to the plight of Gaza. Since the walkout, we haven't therefore seen any concrete changes in relations with Israel."

These relations exist on many levels. Primarily, they have been military, with pilots from the Israeli air force regularly training at Turkish air bases. There have also been a number of significant arms deals between the two countries, including most recently the purchase by Turkey of Israeli drones. A great deal of Turkish weaponry, including tanks and planes, also gets refurbished in Israeli weapons plants.

This made the outburst by Major General Mizrahi particularly damaging, while also drawing a sharp rebuke from the Turkish General Staff. The two countries' armed forces had been the strongest element of the relationship.

There are also more peaceful links, with much Israeli investment in Turkey and visa versa. Agriculture and tourism are particularly important Israeli interests in Turkey, while many Turkish construction companies are active in Israel.

At the same time, there has also been a degree of diplomatic cooperation between the two countries.

In 1998, when Abdullah Ocalan, the head of Turkey's Kurdish nationalist PKK rebels, was living in neighboring Syria, a combination of military and diplomatic threats from Ankara, backed up by an implicit threat from Israel, forced Ocalan's expulsion from Damascus. …