Gaza flotilla: Turkey's stance is a lesson to the west
Gaza flotilla: Turkey's stance is a lesson to the west
Op-Ed / Middle East & North Africa 2 minutes

Gaza flotilla: Turkey's stance is a lesson to the west

Growing strains in Turkey's relationship with Israel, which reached a nadir this week over Israel's killing of Turks on the aid flotilla to Gaza, are raising new questions about the balance Turkey is striking between its long-standing western allies and its status as a rising power in the Middle East.

Leading members of Turkey's ruling party have indeed given at least moral support to the Turkish activists who organised the flotilla. And it is true that activists have staged rallies numbering in the thousands in Turkey to condemn Israeli actions, chanting Islamist slogans and burning the occasional effigy of the US president. Israeli spokesmen have gone so far as to accuse these activists of links to al-Qaida, an unproven claim.

A dispassionate overview of what Turkey has been trying to achieve in recent years shows that such analysis and accusations miss the mark. Yes, Turkey is trying to change western policies, especially those that turn a blind eye to the human consequences of the Israeli blockade of Gaza. But it is using legitimate channels, such as its hard-won seat on the UN security council.

The strain in ties with Israel is not a function of the Turkish government's ideology. Just over two years ago, Turkey hosted promising proximity talks between Israel and Syria, broken off only when Israel launched its winter 2009 assault on Gaza. Indeed, crises have always followed a perception among the Turkish public that an injustice is being done to the Palestinians, whether during the six-day war in 1967, the declaration of Jerusalem as capital of Israel in 1980, or the occupation of West Bank towns in 2002. The golden era in Turkish-Israeli relations in the 1990s coincides exactly with the years of the Oslo peace process.

Such attempts by Turkey to add stability to its region are characteristic of its efforts in the past decade. One by one, Turkey has agreed with Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Libya to implement visa-free travel, to open new road, rail and communications links, to integrate energy infrastructure, to sign free-trade accords, and to hold regular joint cabinet meetings. Similar arrangements are being entered into with other countries in the region. Turkey is explicitly imitating lessons from the EU that proved how such convergence can end cycles of conflict.

This is not just a Middle Eastern or "Islamic" policy, since these ideas of greater openness and integration have been applied to ties with Russia and Greece. And nor does it mean any fundamental change in Turkey's basic stance towards Europe and the west. More than half of Turkey's exports go to Europe. EU states account for 90% of foreign investment in Turkey, and more than four million Turks already live in Europe. By comparison, Middle East states take less than 25% of Turkey's exports, account for just 10% of its tourists, and contribute at most 200,000 in immigrant workers.

It is true that Turkey's EU negotiations have stalled, and not for the first time in a half-century of convergence. This time, however, the primary responsibility for pushing Turkey away lies in attacks on the process by populist politicians in France, Germany, Austria and the Greek Cypriot government.

Turkey's dispute with Israel is therefore not evidence of a Turkish animus against the west. Turks may have been the main organisers of the Gaza flotilla, but they were joined by activists, vessels and supplies from more than 30 countries, including several politicians from EU states. There is nothing un-European about protesting against Israel's punishment of the inhabitants of Gaza. All that is uncharacteristic of today's European states is that Turkey is actually doing something to end it.

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