This Commentary first appeared as an op-ed on BitterLemons-International.org, October 22, 2009
Syria could not be more ecstatic at the row that has recently developed between Turkey and Israel. Turkey, once among Israel's staunchest allies, now sees eye-to-eye with Syria regarding the difficulties in dealing with Israel and Israel's abusive treatment of Palestinians.
Turkey began to feel uneasy with Israel when, following four promising rounds of Turkish-mediated indirect peace talks between Syria and Israel in 2008, Israel went on a rampage in Gaza. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who personally intervened between the two conflicting parties to try and seal a peace deal between Syria and Israel, is said to have felt stabbed in the back when, on the eve of the fifth round, Israel launched its murderous war on Gaza, effectively killing the Syria-Israel talks.
But even before Israel's Gaza adventure, Erdogan is said to have been miffed at the gruesome images of an entire Palestinian family mowed down by Israeli fire while picnicking on a Gaza beach in June 2006. The mark this massacre left on Erdogan was deep enough for him to cite it in his public rebuke of Israeli violence toward Palestinians during the January 2009 World Economic Forum in Davos. To further show Turkey's displeasure with Israel, Erdogan's government cancelled Israel's participation during this October's "Anatolian Eagle" exercise--a joint NATO air force war game in Turkish skies.
Israeli practices explain Turkey's displeasure, but only in part. After all, Israel's continued occupation of Arab territories, its foot-dragging on peace and its brutality against the Palestinians are nothing new. The other part is the product of a shift in the foreign policies of both Turkey and Israel. With regard to Turkey, two dynamics seem to be at work: the end of Turkey's role as a pillar in the post-Cold War era western alliance on the one hand, combined with European insistence on the democratization of Turkish politics as one pre-condition for EU membership on the other. These have weakened the Turkish army's stranglehold on Turkey's domestic and foreign policies, strengthening mainstream political parties in the process.
The second dynamic has to do with the EU's foot-dragging on Turkey's bid for EU membership--a catalyst in cementing Turkish national identity and pride. Even the most Europeanized among Turks have come to revile the condescending way in which Europe has treated them. Given Turkey's rich imperial history, along with a relatively large population of 72 million and an economy that dwarfs those of its Middle Eastern neighbors, it was only a question of time before Turkey would opt for the leading regional role it now enjoys rather than the marginal one Brussels would assign it.
With regard to Israel, once a component of the same anti-Soviet western alliance, Israel's accumulation of power across time has enabled it to act unilaterally and with impunity, so much so that Israel now defies its own superpower patron, the US, not least on the issue of the expansion of Jewish settlements in occupied Arab territories. In brief, Israeli jingoism is radicalizing the Middle East and, in the process, jeopardizing the regional stability Turkey seeks to promote through its "zero-problem policy"--a new Turkish regional approach in which regional rivals would now burry the hatchet. In these circumstances, the opposite trajectories that Turkey and Israel embarked on were bound to collide.
Despite Syria's elation with Turkey's snub of Israel, it would be in everyone's interest, including Syria's, for Turkey and Israel to restore some calm in their relations. Turkey has proven to be an effective mediator between Syria and Israel and, if the interrupted peace talks are to resume, Turkey must be present, like it or not, in the room and at the table alongside the US, which, as things stand, has shown itself to be no more of an impartial broker than Turkey.
Assertions and opinions in this Commentary are solely those of the above-mentioned author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Middle East Institute, which expressly does not take positions on Middle East policy.