Turkey, Israel’s former peripheral ally, is in the process of an extensive shift in national geopolitical and geostrategic orientation. There are many plausible reasons for Turkey’s new orientation, which could include: its slim chances of becoming an EU member, a growing economy that could soon turn sour, dramatic shift in domestic demographics, and opportunism to fill the power vacuum left after an US withdrawal from Iraq and a destabilizing “Arab Spring”. All of these factors are important, yet neither is strong enough on its own to force a more hawkish Turkish foreign policy. One thing is clear, Turkey is playing ball and its first opponent is Israel.
For Turkey, Israel is a convenient and easy target. Currently, Turkey and Egypt’s hostility towards Israel leaves the Jewish State rather isolated in the region, while at the same time experiencing many diplomatic and security problems. Although media outlets constantly cite the Gaza Flotilla as the casus belli of a Turkish-Israeli rift, the reality is that tensions existed well before and even prior to Operation Cast Lead. Turkey surely realized that Israel would not apologize for the raid, thus the aim was most likely to apply enough stipulations for Israel, so its government would never agree to terms for reconciliation. The point was to escalate the crisis, which enables Turkey to bask in the glory of the Muslim world, a strategy not unheard of in the Middle East. Most likely, there is nothing Israel could do short of government suicide that would have ended the crisis with Turkey. Turkey needed and found a reason to improve its reputation in the Muslim world as the leader of the resistance against Israel. PM Erdogan’s Arab tour is evidence of this policy: confront Israel, denounce its policies, threaten war, and reap the benefits from the Arab street. This policy appears to be working to the East, but will it work in the West?
Geopolitically, Turkey is aligning to the East. It has concluded that its chances of EU membership are slim, and frankly, EU membership isn’t what it once was and is no longer in Turkey’s interest. Turkey has changed. Despite the cosmopolitan aspect of Turkish society, mostly in the West, its rural and more traditional population has grown exponentially. Thus, there is more pressure and support to act on issues that are of more importance for conservative Muslims, such as improving ties in the Muslim world and confronting Israel. This is Erdogan’s political base and his actions punctuate Turkey’s demographic shift. In addition, a waning American influence in the region, along with weakened Syria, Hezbollah, Egypt, and Greece allow Turkey to maneuver aggressively. Of equal importance is the discovery of vast natural gas reserves off Israel’s coasts and its agreements with Cyprus on the issue. While Turkey has no legitimate claims to these reserves, it would not like Israel to gather all the benefits from becoming energy independent. This could potentially alter the balance of power in the Middle East. Despite Turkey’s proclamations in support of the Palestinians in Gaza, this is likely a ruse to expand Turkey’s influence in the Eastern Mediterranean. Last week, Turkey sent three warships in the region to, in their words, protect future ships to Gaza and halt Israeli activities in the sea. However, this is clearly a message to Israel that Turkey intends to resist Israel’s energy extractions. Israel, although deeply concerned with Turkey’s actions, is unwilling to have such a major energy discovery disrupted by Turkey. Turkey is trying to get Israel to back down, but given the benefits from these gas reserves, Israel will dig in and so will potential buyers.
Turkey’s aggressive foreign policy could also be a sign of domestic problems at home. Turkey is facing increasing conflict with Kurdish rebels in Iraq and South Eastern Turkey as well as, as recent reports show, an economy that could burst. Turkey’s economy simply grew too fast and loans were given too liberally, thus many who received loans won’t be able to pay them back. Erdogan, who won the election largely due to an improving economy, might be trying to divert attention from an economic crisis by confronting Israel. It is an old tactic, but one that is very risky. To much of an aggressive stance towards Israel and issues in the Mediterranean could diminish Turkey’s ties in NATO and more specifically, with the United States. Greece’s deficit, which is now around 10% of GDP per year is closely followed by Turkey with around 9% of GDP per year. A fact that must certainly worry Turkish leaders.
Behind the fiery rhetoric, Turkey is in a difficult place. Its leadership knows this and is trying to compensate with an aggressive foreign policy. The ball is in Turkey’s court and ramifications from its actions are unknown, however, one thing is clear, Turkey has altered its geostrategic positioning and Israel should prepare so.