Apologies for my prolonged absence. I have been in Washington and Los Angeles these past two weeks and have been busy with other projects, including a serious re-dedication to sampling different wines from different regions in California. (A luxury I cannot afford in Istanbul – Turley’s Zinfandel was the best, by the way.)
In the early days of the Republic, Mustafa Kemal is known to have gathered his cabal of advisors around a large table, drink copious amounts of Raki, smoke a lot of cigarettes, and debate policy decisions. Turkey’s centralized system, while not democratic, did allow for Mustafa Kemal to make sweeping and radical decision quickly. Turkey’s penchant for centralized decision-making did not end after the decision to move to multi-party elections.
The AKP’s sustained efforts to centralize power, therefore, is not out of the main stream of Turkish politics. Sadly, they are but one in a lineage of successive governments who have sought to maximize political power by taking advantage of Turkey’s weak governmental institutions. Thus, I found myself in complete agreement with Steven Cook, when he wrote that “A decade after assuming power, Prime Minister Erdogan is the sun around which Turkish politics revolves—a fact he both knows and seems to relish. He seldom seems to wrestle with a decision, enjoys swatting away questions from observers who clearly ‘do not pay close enough attention,’ and brooks no criticism from an opposition that he does not take seriously.”
The AKP’s political dominance has also had a tangible impact on governmental transparency. For example, I recently asked an AKP insider how Erdogan and his advisors make policy-decisions. The person, despite proclaiming to know a great deal about how the Party works, told me that he had no idea. This lack of insight into AKP decision-making is pervasive in Turkey. The dominant belief, which I share, is that the AKP’s upper echelon, along with their pollsters, gather in the Prime Ministry and chart out the country’s legislative agenda. The group is tight, does not leak information to the press, and makes it decisions behind closed-doors. The marching orders are then filtered through out the Party and then released in bits and pieces in television interviews and well placed leaks. It appears – again nothing is for certain – that the AKP then takes stock of the public reaction and then modifies or changes its talking points. The underlying policy, however, rarely changes. This pattern, however, does allow the AKP to distract the voters when a policy is a bit too controversial. Erdogan, therefore, is known to raise, from time-to-time, divisive wedge issues for public debate when he deems it to be politically prudent.
Erdogan tends to use his speech to Parliament on Tuesday to set the week’s political agenda. Thus, us AKP outsiders can get a sense of the Party’s priorities from the issues discussed during the speech. For example, Erdogan has recently devoted substantial time to the Kurdish peace process and the efforts to re-write the constitution. The two issues are, far and away, the government’s top political priorities.
Erdogan has, however, totally ignored the Israeli apology. Erdogan’s silence is good news. The AKP had, since the Mavi Marmara raid, used Israel to garner populist support from certain segments of Turkey’s voters. Turkey, even during the late 1990s and 2000s, always kept its ties to the Jewish state quiet. Hugh Pope eloquently made clear in an interview that:
Israel would do well to remember that Turkish policy toward it is not indexed to either U.S. pressure or any Turkish leader’s personal leanings. Rather, the main factor is Turkish public opinion of whether Israel is ready to make peace with the Palestinians. Successive Turkish governments took exception to the six-day war of 1967, the 1973 war, the 1980 declaration of Jerusalem as Israel’s eternal capital, and the 2002 attacks on West Bank cities. It was only after Israel engaged in the Middle East peace process in the early 1990s that Turkey sent its first ambassador to Israel; and it was only after Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005 that Erdoğan first visited the Jewish state.
The narrative that paints a picture of a close Israeli-Turkish political alliance simply does not jibe with reality or the history. Israel should, therefore, prepare for an icy relationship with Turkey in the future. The prospects for peace with Palestinians are dismal and Likud’s policies are antithetical to Turkey’s policies. Israel, however, is not a central issue for the vast majority of Turkish voters. Erdogan, therefore, has an incredible degree of flexibility in how he chooses to frame Turkey’s relationship with the Jewish state. Erdogan’s approach, since the apology, has actually been to ignore Turkey’s relationship with Israel. He has, as I mentioned earlier, devoted almost all of his time to talking about the PKK peace process and the proposed Constitutional changes.
Thus, Israelis, who seem to hang on every word uttered by Turkish politicians, should rest a little easier tonight. The most important Turkish citizen, Erdogan, is largely ignoring you. Erdogan has, however, stuck to his pledge to visit Gaza. The incessant focus on the trip, however, has overshadowed a subtle shift in the AKP’s framing of the Israeli-Palestinian issue. The AKP, which has sought to cultivate ties with Hamas, has been keen to re-invigorate ties with Abu Mazen’s Fatah. The internal narrative has, therefore, shifted from championing an anti-Israel message, to one that focuses on Palestinian reconciliation. The subtle change is also indicative of Turkey’s coming to grips with the fact that it has little, if any, real influence over Hamas.
Turkey’s Israel/Palestine policy has, therefore, changed in a number of important ways since the apology. However, the AKP’s opaque decision making structure has deflected most from full appreciating the shift. According to Murat Yetkin’s reporting, the main thrust of the current policy is to support the Egyptian led effort to promote Palestinian reconciliation because “If any agreement between Abbas and Mashaal is secured, if Mashaal will agree to host Abbas with Erdoğan, then the three of them might get into the territory from Refah gate with Egypt, without stepping onto Israeli soil. That could be a game-changer move by Erdoğan, and if he also secures the ‘right to exist’ of Israel from the Hamas leader, that would please not only the U.S. administration but many others from Russia to the European Union.”
Turkey is, therefore, working to re-establish itself as a player in the Middle East peace process. This strategy necessitates that Ankara have a relationship with Israel. Thus, Turkey watchers should expect Ankara to remain committed to normalizing its relationship with the Jewish state. The relationship, however, will continue to be icy. Moreover, the fruits of the apology will likely be confined to quite cooperation on the Syrian threat. The AKP will, without a doubt, continue to pretend that they are not cooperating with Israel about Syria. In reality, the two sides are rumored to be cooperating extensively, in order to ensure a desirable post-Assad outcome. Hence, the two sides are likely to rapidly conclude their current talks about compensation and try to move on. Afterwards, look for Turkey to very quietly drop its objections to Israeli participation in NATO exercises. The process will is likely to take place over months, consist of numerous steps, and not be widely talked about in glowing terms by the Turkish government.
To quote Ahmet Davutoglu, “this is normal, natural even.”
Stay tuned . .
As always, if you comments or criticisms tweet them @aaronstein1