It doesn’t take an expert to realize that the current breakdown in Turkish-Israeli relations will likely prove bad for Turkey; bad for Israel; bad for America; and, ultimately, like so much else, bad for the Palestinians. Still, one need not forgive the mistakes made by either side in order to acknowledge that the Turkish-Israeli alliance always rested on a troublesome foundation. It drew on the worst instincts in each country’s political culture. Yes, Turkish secularism helped make the alliance possible, but so did a shared sense of encirclement and a commitment to crushing terrorism through military force alone. Both Israel and Turkey are regional powers that still see themselves as vulnerable countries surrounded by implacable foes. Many Americans can understand why Israel might feel this way, but the sources of Turkey’s fears are more obscure. Turks, no less than Israelis, have often viewed their neighbors as an existential threat. This view developed largely in the aftermath of the First World War, when European powers proposed dividing what is now Turkey between the British, Greeks, Italians, French, Kurds, and Armenians. More recently, it was sustained by the Cold War, when Turkey was surrounded by the Soviet Union to the north and east, Soviet-bloc Bulgaria to the west, and Soviet-supported Syria and Iraq to the south. The result of these experiences is an unfortunate, if understandable, sense of national paranoia. A 2009 poll revealed that more than 80 percent of Turkish citizens believe that the United States and the European Union are working to destroy Turkey’s territorial integrity. In the last parliamentary election, a nationalist party suggested that, if elected, it would defend Gallipoli against future attacks.
Much as Israelis’ sense of insecurity has created domestic support for militant anti-terror policies, Turks have long seen Kurdish separatism as a threat so severe that it must be defeated by force before the country can entertain liberal ideas about human or cultural rights. The belief that external support sustains Kurdish terrorism has justified support for repressive policies that in turn fuel terrorism and increase Turkey’s sense of insecurity. In the 1990s, for example, the Turkish military cooperated with Israel to combat Syrian support for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). It also burned Kurdish villages accused of sheltering terrorists, thereby employing the same logic of collective punishment Turks are now quick to criticize in Lebanon or Gaza. Consistency has never been a strong point of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan—since being elected he has accused Israel, America, and China of genocide while defending the president of Sudan—but at least his attacks on Israel are matched by a desire to challenge Turkey’s traditional approach to Kurdish terrorism. More than any of its predecessors, Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (JDP) has emphasized the importance of l...
For just $19.95 a year, get access to new issues and decades' worth of archives on our site.
Print + Online
For $35 a year, get new issues delivered to your door and access to our full online archives.