Turkey and Israel
I want to begin by fitting Turkish-Israeli relations within the context of the recent 1 November election, domestic policy and the overall foreign policy of Turkey. I begin with the elections. I had suggested last week that the increase in the vote for President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) was partly due to a shift in conservative religious Kurdish votes in the south-eastern part of Turkey back to the AKP when the war with the Kurdish rebels (PKK) resumed after the June elections. The motivation – a fear of instability and/or a belief that the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (HDP) was linked to the PKK and/or the Patriotic Revolutionary Youth Movement (YDG-H) that had been so active in constructing blockades in Kurdish urban areas when the Turkish army resumed the war against the PKK. That interpretation has since been strongly challenged by one of the leading polling firms in Turkey, Konda, and its CEO, Bekir Ağirdir.
If indeed that shift had really taken place, it could mean that Erdoğan .no longer needed a war against the Kurds and demonization of the PKK to rally support for the AKP. He might become more flexible. That, in turn, would mean that the close relationship developing between the Kurds and the Israelis would become less consequential. However, part of the increased support of 8.7% for the AKP may not have been due to a shift in support of the Kurds at all, even though the HDP vote declined by almost a million votes.
In addition to the explained shift in my previous blog of votes from Saadet (Felicity) and Büyük Birlik (Great Unity), two parties which did not run in the 1 November election, and from the AKP’s rival on the right, the MHP, whose thunder Erdoğan had stolen with his resumption of the war against the PKK, 4% of the increase in the AKP vote was attributed by Konda, not as a shift from the HDP, but from voters who did not vote in the 6 June elections and new voters. That would mean that Erdoğan had little incentive in terms of domestic political support to resume peace negotiations with the PKK and to cease its war also against the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in northern Syria, a party that receives a great deal of unacknowledged support from Israel. As stated in my blogs on Turkish domestic and foreign policy, Erdoğan’s greatest fear is the creation of a safe haven for Turkish Kurdish fighters in northern Syria. He has been more than willing to curtail his recent aggression against the Islamic State (IS) in Syria to concentrate most of his forces against the PYD.
In the aftermath of the IS terrorist attacks on Paris, will that policy shift as a result of the current G-20 meeting in Antalya with Erdoğan in the chair? After all, the recent aggression of IS, the refugees and the war in Syria threaten to overshadow the economic issues which were supposed to dominate the agenda. Further, Turkey has assured Hamas that Israel’s role in both Syria and the Gaza Strip will be raised in the discussions Though the emphasis was mostly on the war and the refugees in the statement issued by the EU before the attacks in Paris – “Meeting in Turkey in the midst of a refugee crisis due to conflicts in Syria and elsewhere; the G20 must rise to the challenge and lead a coordinated and innovative response to the crisis that recognizes its global nature and economic consequences and promotes greater international solidarity in protecting refugees,” – the priority given to conflict in the region and the refugees means that IS will definitely be at the top of the agenda.
After all, Turkey, in both its actions and its words, had signalled that its war in Syria will concentrate more and more on IS as a priority, a priority very much likely to increase in the aftermath of the Paris attacks. Turkey is a member of NATO. And in the aftermath of Paris, NATO is bound to have a much higher profile in the war against IS. Turkey will be pressured even more to play its part. Further, the EU badly needs Turkey’s cooperation in stemming the flow of refugees, particularly since Turkey promised to provide a safe haven for the refugees in northern Syria and invest there in container communities like those built so quickly in Germany.
Whatever the eventual policies, this shift in Turkish priorities will put a spotlight on Israel’s involvement in Syria. Just before the 1 November elections, IDF planes evidently bombed, not only IS sites on the Golan Heights and Hezbollah bases near Ras al-Ayn and Katifa along the Lebanese border, but also sent sorties towards the Damascus airport. Further, Turkey will have as much interest as Israel in driving a wedge between Iran and Russia. Russia and Iran may both be allies of Assad in Syria, but Russia focuses its energies on rebuilding the secular Syrian army while Iran tries to strengthen the religious Shiite (Alawite) irregular forces fighting for Assad, the parallel to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Numbering 200,000, with 20,000 volunteers from Iraq, Hezbollah from Lebanon and Taliban from Afghanistan, often led on the ground by seasoned Iranian officers – hence the almost 50 Iranian “adviser” casualties, most officers – Russia and Iran are setting the stage for the post war battle over succession, assuming Assad will be offered as a sacrifice for a deal with the West. But Iran, with boots on the ground, has the distinct advantage.
Israel is directly affected by this rivalry. Israel is the arch-enemy of Iran, and Iran has no interest in strengthening any force linked to Israel. On the other hand, Assad (assume the Syrian army) and Israel had established a modus vivendi over the last few decades. More recently, Israeli officials met with Russian representatives to ensure that Israeli and Russian warplanes do not clash over the skies of Syria. Further, Russia assured Israel that Hezbollah would not get Russian arms. This Israeli-Russian connection has been built on a foundation of increased trade between Russia and Israel, including advanced military equipment and military exchanges.
Of course, the primary source of friction between Israel and Turkey has been the Palestine issue, with the single main source of friction Israel’s attack against the Mavi Marmara in which Turks were killed. More particularly, Turkey has been a strong supporter of Hamas in the Gaza Strip. So it should be no surprise that when the election results were approaching a clear win for the AKP, almost the first voice of congratulations delivered to Erdoğan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu was from Khaled Meshaal, head of Hamas’ political bureau and the deputy chair of the political bureau, Ismail Haniyeh. Erdoğan, promised both that he would put Israel’s violations of its historical role on the plaza of the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount on the agenda of the G-20.
However, Khaled Meshaal does not belong to the extreme wing of Hamas. Meshaal was the one who, in July 2014, aborted the planned attack by Hamas’ military wing using the tunnels that would have sent a seismic wave through the Middle East, perhaps as great as the recent IS attacks on Paris. Like Paris, the Hamas-planned attack was a highly sophisticated, coordinated and simultaneous one by three different 10-man teams from its elite force through three different underground tunnels, involving one detail infiltrating Israel to attack and kill residents of Kibbutz Kerem Shalom and return with civilian hostages, a second team to control the perimeter and a third to set a booby trap for the IDF when they rushed to the defence of the kibbutz. The goal was to trade Israeli hostages for Hamas members in Israeli prisons. Meschaal vetoed the plan in fear that the Israeli response would be so overwhelming, so much more even than the results of the 2014 Gaza War, that it would have left Gaza totally devastated with European voices silenced because the violence was triggered by such a daring Hamas initiative.
On the other hand, the link between Hamas and Erdoğan has become more important since the 4 November announcement that Hamas was seeking a unified Palestinian command in the current 3rd intifada against Israel that he hoped would facilitate Fatah-Hamas reconciliation. “Hamas believes in all of the resistance’s choices and in the importance of coordinating efforts under a united command to increase the intifada’s efforts.”
But to really understand Turkey’s actions and policies, it is necessary to shift from Gaza, which is a sideshow in the conflicts in the Middle East, to Israel’s relations with the Kurds (Ofra Bengio “Surprising Ties between Israel and the Kurds,” Middle East Quarterly Summer, 21:3, 2014), and Turkey’s response to that connection. Historically, the Kurdish move to separatism had been labeled the New Israel. As Christians and other minorities are cleansed first from Iraq and then other Middle Eastern countries, one stream of the Muslim response was to label the tendency of Kurds to seize independence and create a “Yahudistan” as another naqba. The slander went beyond defining a parallel, but suggested that Israel had a more nefarious role. The very recent effort of the Kurdish offensive to retake the city of Sinjar from IS should be read with this in mind.
Ironically, there is some ground for suggesting a connection between Israel and the movement towards independence. There are also many historical differences. After WWI, while the Balfour Declaration in 1917 promised a homeland for the Jewish people in Palestine, dividing up the Middle East in the Versailles Treaty after WWI denied granting the Kurds in Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey the status of an independent state for 30 million Kurds. In the early 1960s, at the height of the Cold War, Kurds, beginning in the autumn of 1961, once again saw their chance to rise up in Iraq. The Kurdish activist, Ismet Sherif Vanly, went to Israel to meet Prime Minister Levi Eshkol and Shimon Peres, with a result that Israel and the Kurds exchanged permanent representatives, an arrangement that secretly survived that crushing of Kurdish aspirations. The Kurdish leader, Mulla Muṣṭafa al-Barzānī, visited Israel both in 1967 and 1973. As a result, in 1967 he Kurds opened another front against Iraq, thereby preventing Iraq from joining the other Arab states in the Six Day War. Kissinger and the CIA blocked a similar attempt in 1973. (Hasan Kösebalaban (2011) Turkish Foreign Policy, Nationalism and Globalization, 181)
Only in 1980 did Prime Minister Menachem Begin disclose the humanitarian and subsequent arms support and dispatch of military advisers that Israel had given the Kurds during the 1965-75 Kurdish uprising. In the aftermath of the Kuwait War in the beginning of the 1990s, once again the Kurds rose up in Iraq to set up an independent state, an initiative that was totally crushed by Saddam Hussein as the West refused to come to the aid of the Kurds, even though Prime Minister Shamir of Israel made a plea to the West on behalf of the Kurds. Israelis became even more convinced that they could only rely on themselves.
What survived was an Israeli-Kurdish Friendship society which worked diligently to reinforce relations between Iraqi Kurds and Israel. A Kurdish-Israeli journal was even started – Israel-Kurd. The Kurds, unlike the Arab world, even invited Israelis to conferences in Kurdistan. In spite of these links, there have never been any formal relationships between the Kurdish leadership and Israel, partly so that the relationship would remain under the radar and not attract even more attention to the Kurds. American Jews also tried to serve as intermediaries between Kurds and the American government through the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and its links with the Washington Kurdish Institute (WKI).
Israel’s relationship with the Iraqi Kurds was one thing, with the Turkish Kurds another, partly because Turkish and Israeli foreign policy had been aligned in the latter half of the twentieth century, at least until Erdoğan was elected Prime Minster, and the Kurdish PKK was viewed as a radical terrorist organization allied with Syria and the PLO. In Lebanon in 1982, volunteers from the PKK fought against the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, and, with the defeat and departure of the PLO from Lebanon, the PKK were given a safe haven in Syria. Netanyahu, when he was first Prime Minister, publicly supported Turkey in its fight against the PKK. The Israeli government was even accused of capturing Abdullah Öcalan, the founder of the PKK in 1978. Israel was accused of turning him over to the Turkish authorities, especially since Israel regarded him as a persona non grata after his anti-Semitic remarks. In fact, his capture in Nairobi in 1999, was a combined effort of the CIA and Turkish military intelligence. (Victor Ostrovsky, “Capture of Kurdish Rebel Leader Ocalan Recalls Mossad Collaboration with Both Turkey, Kurds,” Washington Report on Middle Eastern Affairs, April/May 1999)
When the war of the Kurds in Turkey resumed against Erdoğan in the 21st century and Erdoğan had become an outspoken critic of Israel, a rapprochement took place between the PKK and Israel. By 2005, Barzani openly defended Kurdish relations between Kurdistan in Iraq and Israel and Jalal Talabani, the President and head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and President of Iraq at the time, openly shook the hand of Israeli Defence Minister, Ehud Barak, in front of Mahmoud Abbas in Greece in April of 2008. It seemed clear that the two men had met before. Seymour Hersh even claimed that Israel had been arming and training the Kurds in Iraq, a claim echoed by Yedi’ot Aharonot which insisted it had evidence of Israeli military advisers training the Peshmerga.
Once the peace process initiated by Erdoğan in 2013 had been ended by him in June 2015, the relations between Israel and the PKK, and between Israel and Syrian Kurds, went up several notches. The Free Life Party of Kurdistan (PJAK) had close ties with the PKK and operated in both Iran and Kurdistan; Israeli ties with the PJAK deepened. For the first time, Israeli relations with the four very different parts of the nationalist Kurdish movement in Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey had become, more or less, aligned. How much was Israel willing to antagonize Turkey further by realigning its relations with the PKK? How willing is Erdoğan to bury the hatchet with Israel and perhaps even re-establish an exchange of ambassadors with Israel to give him a freer hand in fighting both the PKK and the Kurds in Syria? How willing are Putin and Obama to push Erdoğan towards such a reconciliation?
Not enough, evidently. On 24 October, Erdoğan claimed that the PYD in Syria remained an existential threat to the unity of Turkey, even while the U.S. was lending increased indirect support to the PYD and direct support to Iraqi Kurdistan’s Peshmerga in the fight against IS. The militant arm, the YPG (People’s Protection Units) of the PYD, collaborated with both the Free Syrian Army in the fight against both Assad and IS. However, Turkey was critical of American support for Syria’s Kurds and took umbrage at American concerns about human rights and freedom of the press in Turkey as four thugs, three of them open members of Erdoğan’s AKP, beat the popular columnist of Hürriyet, Ahmet Hakan, to a pulp. Erdoğan not only escalated the war against the PKK, but against the YPG as well.
But Erdoğan is now fighting a five-front war, against the secularists within Turkey, Güllenists within Turkey, and a more militant war against the PKK and the PYD, and, now against IS as well, the latter especially since two police were killed on 26 October in the raid against an IS hideout in Turkey. The West really only identifies with the latter war, but Turkey failed to take advantage of that when IS allegedly bombed the Kurd-dominated rally in Ankara and over 100 were killed. But the outpouring of sympathy for Turkey from the West was subdued compared to the response to the over 130 dead in Paris following the IS attacks there. Virtually no one takes Erdoğan’s claims seriously that the PKK and IS were allied in perpetrating the Ankara bombing.
In conclusion, as much as the West needs Turkey’s cooperation in the fight against IS, Turkey’s antagonism towards the Kurds in general and the PYD in Syria in particular, will keep any rapprochement with Israel at bay, especially since Israel is continuing to provide ammunition and arms, military training and diplomatic support to the PYD and, indirectly, the PKK. Where will Turkey end up now that the West is, or soon will be, in an all out war against IS? If Turkey aligns its policies more with the West and Israel reconciles to some degree with Turkey, will the West and Israel, more particularly, sacrifice their relations with the Syrian Kurds to rebuild its relations with Turkey? As long as the West has no troops on the ground, as long as Turkey continues to see the Kurds in Syria and the PKK as its main foe, in spite of joining the fight against IS, as long as the West needs Turkey in its fight against IS, then Israel will continue to be left out in the cold and will also likely continue strengthening its ties with the Kurds.
I suspect now that IS will be defeated in Syria, but that IS will also go underground more extensively in both Turkey and Europe. With the open battles between the police and IS terror cells in Turkey in October when Davutoğlu pronounced IS as ungrateful, presumably for all of Turkey’s previous covert support to IS, IS terrorists will continue to infiltrate Turkey as well as European states engaged in supporting the fight against Assad. However, because of Turkey’s resumption of war with the Kurds in both Syria and Turkey, Israel will continue to support the Kurds and Turkey’s animosity against Israel will remain intact. This is especially true since the public in Turkey still refuses to see IS as a mortal danger in contrast to the militant Kurds. Only about 15% of Turks believe that IS is a real danger to Turkey. And almost 60% of Turks believe that, even if IS was at the bottom of the two suicide bomber attacks in Turkey in October, IS is not a real threat to Turkey. 20% (see Gezici Research) even believe that the Turkish military intelligence was really behind the October suicide bombings, even if the perpetrators were from the IS.
Further, Turkey even denies the existence of significant numbers of Kurds in Tell Abyad, 5% instead of 40%. Of 250 Armenian families that escaped to Aleppo, only 50 have returned to Tell Abyad compared to the almost total return of the Kurds. Yet Erdoğan in October 2014 still claimed that, “I don’t want to argue whether Kobani is Kurdish or Arab. But its real name is Ayn al-Arab.” “Tell Abyad,” he recently added, “belongs to Arabs and Turkmen.” With such mindblindness, any effort to deepen relations between Turkey and Israel seems highly unlikely.