Ah, The Good Old Days When Turkey Liked Israel and the NY Times Liked Me; Now: Turkish Rulers' Ambitions Take a Hit
By Barry Rubin
Yes, there was a time not so long ago when Turkey wasn't ruled by Islamists and the New York Times wasn't ruled by far leftists.
Turkey has just had a major earthquake. Israel offered help; the Turkish government refused. Yet it was Israel's generous help at the time that was the breakthrough event for the close relationship between these two countries.
This is from the 1999 New York Times:
''Israelis are absolutely obsessed with the earthquake,'' said Barry Rubin, an Israeli scholar who has written extensively about the Turkish-Israeli relationship.
''There's a psychological as well as a political reason for this,'' Mr. Rubin said. ''Jews and Turks have historically been thought of as outsiders, especially in Europe. They are two peoples who are extremely conscious of who their friends are. But even though I've been following this subject for 10 years, I'm amazed at how many messages I've received since the earthquake. Israelis want to know what they can do to help, and Turks want to say how grateful they are.''
There's a story behind this quote. I was at a conference in London, and the Turkish delegate and I stepped out of the room at the same moment, looked at each other, and burst into laughter because we felt so patronized as second-class people. It reminded me of what a German lady once said to Sigmund Freud as a spa: "Your children are so well behaved as not to be Jewish. They seem almost Italian1"
The occasion for this reminiscence is that Turkey has had another earthquake and the Islamist regime there tried to avoid accepting Israeli humanitarian aid (perhaps because Turks might notice that while the regime sent terrorists to Israel, Israel sent hospitals and doctors to Turkey).
Today, Turks and Jews are still "outsiders" but the new solution of the regime in Ankara is to overcome this by making the prime Turkish identity as Muslims rather than as Turks. For a few months, this seemed to work as Arab Islamists were thrilled that Turks were sympathetic to Hamas, (Shia) Hizballah, Assad's Syria, and Iran. But now the Sunni Arab Islamists have their own heroes taking over in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, and perhaps Syria. When Turkey's stealth Islamist Prime Minister Recep Tayyib Erdogan came calling in Cairo--and spoke too openly of his leadership ambitions for the region--the Islamists suddenly remembered that he was a Turk and not really one of them.
The upheavals in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, and Libya did some important things to undercut the Turkish regime's leadership ideas:
--Sunni Arab Islamists are on the move. They are no longer beleaguered opposition groups that need to look up to Turkey; they have their own serious ambitions now.
--As Egypt becomes more radical, it may also regain regional ambitions, as it had in the 1950s and 1960s, since it is the single most important Arab country.
--Egypt is now Hamas' patron so Turkey is less important as a sponsor for it.
--By siding against the Syrian dictatorship, the Turkish regime undercut that relationship and also its own alignment with Iran.
--The choice made in Syria, which also alienated Turkey from the Shia Islamist side, also undercut Turkey's relationship with Hizballah.
The one gain for the Turkish regime, courtesy of the United States, has been to become patron of Syria's opposition.
But with no solid place in either the Shia Islamist alignment (led by Iran) or the Sunni Islamist coalition (led by the Muslim Brotherhood), a Turkish Islamist regime is far less needed on the regional level, though it can still do lots of damage.
As for Turkish democracy, arrests continue daily. A retired general was just sentenced to almost a year in prison for criticizing Erdogan in a conversation with a villager.
Some democracy! Some model for the region!