Turkey, a democratic and secular Muslim country occupies a special place geographically. Located strategically in western Asia and southeastern Europe, Turkey is a major regional power and one of the closest allies of the US. Turkey joined NATO in 1952. Turkey, whose population is 99% Muslim, was the first Muslim majority country to recognize Israel as early as in 1949.
So what is the problem? Of late, to be more accurate – since the start of Iraq war, Turkey has been unhappy with the US. Turkish people view the Iraq war as a threat to their own sovereignty as destabilization of Iraq can lead to Kurdish minority in Turkey demanding a separate country. This is understandable and with American troops slowly being withdrawn, relations between Turkey and the US should normalize.
But not so fast.
Turkey is upset that it is not yet part of the European Union (EU). Turkey has been an associate member of the European Economic Community, a predecessor to EU, since 1963. All former socialist countries including Bulgaria, Czech, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia enjoy full membership in EU but Turkey is still not a member. If Turkey’s request for membership is successful, it may still take a decade for Turkey to become a full member. Obviously this is not the fault of the US but unwillingness of the EU to include Turkey pushes Turkey away from West. When you move away from one part of the world, you move to another part closely, namely, in this case, the Middle East.
Now add to this the insult curled on Turkey by Avigdor Lieberman, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister of Israel, who has no regard for any diplomatic protocol. Turkey and Israel have enjoyed an unusually friendly relationship since 1949. Just a few months ago after calling the Ambassador of Turkey for a meeting, Lieberman made the ambassador wait in a corridor, then seated him in a low chair and did not offer him anything to drink. Such was the courtesy extended by the Israeli Foreign Minister to the only friendly country with a predominantly Muslim population.
Instead of nurturing friendship when differences occur such as when Israel invaded Gaza right after the US Presidential elections, Israel’s hawkish foreign minister took a warpath. Turkey responded, not necessarily in their own best interests, by aligning more towards Iran and Hamas. This is a natural reaction based on a very simplistic approach, enemy’s enemy is friend. The recent attack by Israel on the Turkish owned flotilla, in which nine Turkish citizens were killed, aggravated the situation even more.
Turkey and Israel are two important partners for the US. Turkey has been one of the closet allies to the US since World War II and yet only 10% of Turkish citizens view the US favorably today. The relationship between the US and the Israel has reached an all time low. And now the relationship between Turkey and Israel is also at its worst.
President Obama visited Turkey in April 2009 making the Muslim NATO country one of the first foreign visits of his presidency. The President created tremendous amount of goodwill in the Middle East and generated enthusiasm. It is amazing to see how countries such as Turkey and Israel behave like high school kids trying to fight each other without regard for their own long term strategic interests. When two friends fight, the important thing is not to take a side and alienate one of them but bring them together and make them shake their hands. President Obama should invite Prime Ministers Erdogan and Netanyahu for a retreat or beer summit party and clear the air.
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