Turkey's Israel-Palestine Opportunity

After several years of diplomatic setbacks, Kerry's peace bid offers a chance for Ankara to get back in the game.

For several years now, Turkey has been a major player in the rapidly changing politics of the Middle East. Recent crises in Egypt, Syria and Iraq have made Turkey a key pillar of stability in a region of constantly shifting ground. While its role in the region was once praised as both positive and constructive, in the course of the last year or so, Turkey’s reputation has suffered.

Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s grandly touted and formerly praised “zero problems with neighbors” policy has become a source of black humor and has now come to be known as the “zero neighbors without problems” policy. With a new round of peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians commencing in Washington, Turkey’s next step remains unclear. Will Turkey live up to the legacy of past policies and play a constructive role in the process, or will it continue with policies that undermine the legacy and spirit of the “zero problems” policy? The latter course of action risks Turkey being seen as a spoiler, left out in the cold at what could be a historic juncture in the politics of the Middle East.

The Legacy of Turgut Özal

Turkey has historically had a precarious and nuanced role in the Middle East. The legacy of the Ottoman Empire and Turkey’s own desire to pursue Westernization and Europeanization kept Turkey from being a major player in the region until relatively recently. Turkey was the first Muslim-majority country to recognize Israel in 1949 but was also a consistent supporter of Palestinian rights, frequently withdrawing its diplomatic representatives from Tel Aviv in protest and becoming one of the first countries to recognize the declaration of the State of Palestine.

During the late 1980s and early 1990s, under prime minister and later president Turgut Özal, Turkey aspired to play an active role in efforts to seek peace in the Middle East. In the mid-1980s Özal proposed the building of a pipeline to carry fresh water from Turkey to the Middle East, including Israel and the Palestinian territories, in the hopes that functional interdependence would help to foster peace. More ambitiously, Özal aspired to have the first Middle East peace conference following the first Gulf War held in Istanbul. Instead, Turkey settled for a more modest but constructive role in both the Madrid and Oslo processes until their collapse at the end of the decade.

Erdoğan and Davutoğlu Pick Up the Baton

Years later, with Davutoğlu’s “zero problems” policy, Turkey once again embarked upon an effort to reshape the region through constructive diplomatic action, this one even more ambitious. In the Middle East, the cornerstone of this policy was Turkey’s ability to talk to all parties involved in the region’s disputes. In Lebanon, Turkey was able to engage with Hezbollah as well as with the Christian and Sunni leadership. The same was true of Iraq where Turkey maintained close contacts with Sunni, Shia, Kurdish and Turkmen parties during much of the 2000s. Longstanding tensions with Syria over territorial disputes, water rights and the Kurdish issue were replaced by much closer and warmer relations. Furthermore, Davutoğlu, in the spirit of Özal’s legacy, embarked upon a regional economic-integration project.

But the true political prize was the beginning of Turkish-sponsored indirect talks between Syria and Israel. Turkish efforts reached their peak in December 2008, when prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan hosted Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert in Ankara for an hours-long dinner that ultimately produced a blueprint for direct talks with the Assad regime in Syria.

“Zero Problems” No More

But within weeks of the meeting, Turkish-Israeli relations were nearing an all-time low. Following Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s December 2008-January 2009 military strike against Hamas in Gaza and the January 2009 incident at Davos in which Erdoğan chastised and wagged his finger at Israeli president and longtime peace seeker Shimon Peres, Turkey’s relations with Israel entered a tailspin. Tensions were only exacerbated by the Mavi Marmara incident, in which nine Turks were killed trying to run an Israeli blockade of Gaza. While Erdoğan’s increasing truculence toward Israel made him a hero to the Arab street, it undermined his relations with many Arab governments who felt they were being shown up by the Turkish prime minister, and virtually destroyed any notion that Israel might be able to trust Turkey as an “honest broker” in future peace negotiations.