After the Flotilla, will Turkey emerge as a force for Palestinian rights?

Turkish flags can be seen at protests around the world against the Israeli attack on the Flotilla. (Matthew Cassel)

After the bodies of the nine Turkish activists killed by Israeli forces on the Mavi Marmara on 31 May returned home, tens of thousands participated in the funerals and burials in two of Istanbul’s major mosques the following day and during Friday prayers. The anger toward Israel only intensified after surviving passengers began recounting the extent of the atrocities during Israel’s attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla and the abuse they suffered during detention.

Israel, with the usual support from Washington, continues to deny any wrong-doing and claims that the interception was fully legitimate and the loss of lives was the unfortunate result of acts of self-defense by its commandos who were “attacked.”

Meanwhile, Turkish flags and the posters of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan are prominent in demonstrations around the world. Erdoğan’s profile and popularity was already high in the Arab world due to his televised confrontation with Israeli President Shimon Peres at the World Economic Forum in 2009 over Israel’s attack on Gaza earlier that year.

After years of disappointment with successive Arab regimes, Turkey appears to be taking a regional leadership role. While better and closer relations between Turkey and the Arab world are welcome developments, and there is hope for a momentum building up for the Palestinian cause, the ambiguities of the Turkish stance are apparent and raise important questions.

Should the current crisis with Israel be interpreted as a singular event in which Turkey gave a strong response or as the inevitable culmination of a completely new foreign policy orientation?

In the midst of the heightened pace of activism, diplomatic activity and political maneuvering, it is important to analyze the dilemmas of the Turkish political scene, and distinguish rhetoric from political realities.

Within days of the flotilla crisis starting, influential Turkish newspapers such as Hürriyet, Vatan and Milliyet expressed reservations about escalating the tension with Israel.

Underlying these reservations are a variety of concerns from the economic repercussions of a prolonged political crisis to turning this tension into a permanent “blood-feud.” More importantly, the foundations of these cautionary remarks are based on the deep-seated convictions about Turkey’s foreign policy model.

Even though “peace at home, peace in the world” is said to be the guiding principle of Turkish foreign policy since the foundation of the republic in 1923, Turkey’s foreign policy has in fact consistently been Western oriented. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, seen as the most Westernized institution in Turkey and a leading force in Western-oriented aspirations of the Turkish Republic, has also continuously sought a significant degree of autonomy from domestic political changes.

In this context, the appointment of Ahmet Davutoğlu, a professor of International Relations and an intellectual figure close to the Justice and Development Party (AKP), initially created a good deal of tension and resistance within the ministry. Therefore, Ankara’s further involvement, let alone explicit claim for leadership in the Middle East, can be expected to be a cause of great concern for a considerable portion of the Turkish establishment.

Further aggravating this sense of urgency are long-established popular Turkish misconceptions about the Middle East, as backward, underdeveloped and uncivilized. Hence, the sense that Turkey’s turn to the East away from the West, will be seen as a step backward by some of Turkey’s elites.

Even though an undeniable shift in Turkish foreign policy has occurred over the past decade, it is still unclear whether these changes are truly substantial or if the anxieties of a complete reversal in foreign policy are the result of a world view which fears that Turkey can only be oriented in one direction or another.

A key element of Turkey’s new foreign policy is the search for more autonomy. As a result of the new power configurations in the region after the end of the Cold War (including wars in Iraq and the Caucasus), Turkey, especially under Davutoğlu’s tenure as Foreign Minister, has sought to assert its position as the major power broker in the region.

In this respect, neither Erdoğan’s confrontation with Peres at Davos in 2009, nor the recent nuclear brokerage between Iran and Brazil are singular events. Rather, they should be seen as expressions of a new-found self-confidence and willingness to act autonomously.

The fact that Israel found itself as the main “target” in these instances reveals more about Israel’s uncompromising desire to dictate its political and military will rather than a complete sea-change in Turkish foreign policy.

An ever more isolated Israel is prone to view any deviation from the norms that have been established in the region in the last 50 years as a major threat to its “security.” Given the context of the changing power dynamics, Israel’s brutal interception of the Flotilla could be seen as a planned strategy to teach a lesson to a new opponent, rather than a quarrel between old friends.

At the same time one of the most important questions is the extent to which these new foreign policy initiatives are merely political maneuverings for a domestic audience. Despite the harsh condemnations of Israel by the prime minister, the parliament as well as President of the Republic Abdullah Gül, Ankara has so far followed a careful diplomatic strategy.

Turkey’s ambassador to Israel has been recalled, and plans to transport water and natural gas to Israel have been put on halt and a couple of military maneuvers have been cancelled. Yet no major military deals have been revoked so far.

Even more than these discrepancies between rhetoric and reality, the AKP’s political discourse and practices reveal the structural dilemmas in Turkish politics and their impact on how the Palestinian cause is perceived and represented.

While the loss of lives understandably turned the attention to Turkey, it should be remembered that the Flotilla was not an active state policy, but was a civil and international initiative. Moreover, relations between the AKP and the human rights and relief group Insani Yardim Vakfi (IHH) which participated in the Flotilla have not always been cordial.

However, the AKP appears to be attempting to seize and ride the tide of sympathy and concern for the passengers. Although visiting the wounded activists in their hospital bed can be seen as an act of concern and support, the fact that senior party officials welcomed the returning activists at Istanbul airport can also be seen as an attempt to co-opt the movement.

Turkey, with its well-established state tradition, has masterfully followed the traditional diplomatic route of attempting to protect and defend its citizens from breaches of international law by working within the appropriate international institutions.

Yet this same state tradition weighs heavily on state-civil society relations, as the state almost reflexively seeks to dominate any autonomous civil initiative. In this sense, the AKP’s political maneuvers are not to be seen merely as party strategy, but are also manifestations of deeply internalized state discourses and practices of Turkish political culture.

In this respect, the widespread arguments in Turkish media and of political parties across the board that Israel has made its biggest mistake so far, and that relations have reached a point of no return, owe more to a nationalist discourse.

This nationalist discourse emphasizes (and exaggerates) the prominence of the Turkish state in place of offering a long-term analysis of Israeli policies in the region. It appropriates the popularity of movements initiated by nongovernmental organizations while at the same distrusting their independence. Thus it risks diverting attention away from generating tangible solidarity and understanding for the Palestinian cause and reducing the issue to a crisis between Turkey and Israel.

Thus, rather than taking part in the world-wide support for Palestinian rights, and supporting civil society initiatives, the AKP’s statist reflexes may actually serve to weaken the international dimension of the support and make it more vulnerable to propaganda attempts that portray Israel’s illegal acts as a righteous struggle against a radical Islamist threat.

In addition to these deep-seated features of Turkish political culture, there may also be more immediate reasons why the AKP government may want to use this crisis for its own political purposes. Despite the rhetoric of making changes and taking some reluctant steps, the AKP government has to date hardly delivered on its promises. Two major factors stand out: the perennial Kurdish problem and the recent change of leadership in the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP).

The resumption of attacks by the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) has left more than 30 soldiers dead in the last two months. As a result, the AKP has come under increasing criticism both from the Kurdish parties and groups as well as opposition political parties.

As the AKP tries to play the leadership card in the Middle East, those who are critical of the party argue that there are more pressing and immediate domestic problems and accuse the AKP of using foreign policy adventures to mask its failure at home. While this isolationist discourse is partly motivated by the above-mentioned prejudices about “backwardness” of Middle Eastern politics, and suspicions of a possible alliance between Israel and the PKK, it remains true that the Kurdish problem is the Achilles’ heel not only for the AKP, but also for the Turkish polity.

However, in spite of the AKP’s highly-dubious record, there is no reason why the two objectives, that is, further democratization at home, and a more active foreign policy in the Middle East, should be seen as mutually exclusive rather than compatible and reinforcing political objectives.

As for the most recent developments in the main opposition party, a sex scandal involving the former leader of the CHP, Deniz Baykal, led to a significant change in the party’s leadership. Although there was a wave of enthusiasm among the supporters of the CHP, it remains to be seen if the emergence of a new leadership also corresponds to a substantial change in party ideology.

The new CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu hinted at broadening the party’s base from the mostly urban middle, and upper middle classes to the underprivileged groups of the suburbs. Yet an initial rise in popularity has been short-lived in the face of the recent crisis. Instead, the AKP has tried to make the most of Erdoğan’s charismatic leadership and wrest the momentum away from the CHP, at least for now.

It is only natural to expect the AKP to turn the recent crisis to their advantage. It is also an opportunity to test the leadership qualities of those in power. However, it is worth noting that the charismatic leadership easily turns into a cult of personality, and as such, can become an impediment for a more democratic and participatory political culture as can be learned from examples such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin or Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi. Erdoğan is also quick to assume the role of undisputed chief and personalize politics rather than act as the leader collective decision-making. The personalization of politics and the cult of personality have rarely been helpful in establishing the foundations of a solid and viable political structure.

As an Islamist political party and movement, the AKP also faces a dilemma in its contradictory attitudes towards Egypt and Sudan, to give only two relevant examples. While Israel’s policies towards Gaza are harshly condemned both by the state and civil initiatives, there is silence over Egypt’s blockade. While the rhetoric of solidarity and humanitarian aid against Israel’s oppressive policies in Palestine fly high, no major statement has been made or protest held against Egypt’s own contradictory policies toward Israel.

Furthermore, while the Sudanese government has been accused of genocide by the International Criminal Court, the AKP’s policies towards Sudan have been accommodating to say the least. In this respect, critics are quick point out that conservative and Islamist movements in Turkey have not displayed the same degree of sensitivity when it came to a variety of human right violations either at home or in other countries in the Middle East. In this regard, many warnings have already been voiced in order not to turn an important occasion to mobilize mass support against Israeli state policies into an anti-Semitic discourse, which, taking into consideration past practices toward minorities in contemporary Turkey and widespread ignorance about the historical background of the Palestinian plight, is always a present danger.

Finally, another tendency prevalent in both the Turkish media and the political discourse of the AKP is the reduction of the Palestinian problem to the predicament of Gaza by exclusively concentrating on conditions in the besieged territory. Since the specific purpose of the Freedom Flotilla was to draw attention to the Israeli blockade in Gaza, it is only natural that Gaza has been the center of attention in the last week. However, the exclusive emphasis on Gaza is not confined to the latest developments, but is the culmination of a longer process that was only intensified by the latest events.

In this sense, it should be recognized that unless the question of “who speaks for the Palestinians” is always kept in mind and discussed unfailingly, the broader dimensions of the Palestine issue — in all its aspects from the right of return, the realities on the ground in the West Bank, to the crisis of Palestinian leadership — can be replaced with reductionist views and expectations.

Many people hope that loss of lives on the Flotilla was not in vain, that they mark an new phase in a worldwide mobilization to put more pressure on Israel to end its occupation and oppression of the Palestinian people.

What is at stake is to preserve this hope, building on the momentum gained through painful sacrifices, and turn them into concrete policies. While nurturing hope it is even more important not to fall for false promises, and to be alert against the excesses of political rhetoric.

It is true that Turkey’s involvement can prove to be highly valuable to further the Palestinian cause. But Turkey’s involvement and potential are preconditioned on recognizing its own internal dilemmas. Apart from taking the necessary steps for further democratization and creating the conditions for a more participatory public sphere at home, this means refraining from appropriating civil initiatives for narrow party interests, moderating statist reflexes, strictly nationalist discourses and resisting the cult of the leader.

Turkish involvement must be constructed in terms of cooperation and solidarity, and must be seen as a learning process rather than one-dimensional help of a regional power seeking to play a leadership role. Instead of reviving the anachronistic and useless rhetoric of an Ottoman golden age, which can easily give way to the condescending attitude of those who see themselves as the heirs of a great empire, it would be more promising to demonstrate genuine willingness to learn from Palestine and the Palestinians. The Palestinian mirror is, after all, a litmus test for those who really want to engage in a struggle for justice, peace and equality.

Murat Dagli is a PhD candidate in Middle East History at the University of California, Berkeley.