Photo Gallery: Turkey Turns Away


The Anatolian Tiger How the West Is Losing Turkey

A frustrated Ankara is turning away from the West and looking east toward Hamas and Iran. For decades, the Turkish people served as a strong ally of the Jewish state and pursued membership in the European Union as chief foreign policy goal. Now, Turkey is economically strong, enjoys considerable regional power and can call its own shots. Will this be the end of Ataturk's legacy?

At the summit of the European Union in Copenhagen in December 2002, then German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and French President Jacques Chirac were sitting in a room with Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a newcomer in Europe.

The German and the Frenchman had bad news for the man, who had just achieved a historic election victory at home. The Turkish prime minister was expecting to be given a concrete date, 15 years after Turkey submitted its first formal application, for negotiations over his country's accession to the EU to begin. This was the leverage Erdogan hoped he could use to turn his country around. But, said Schröder, the EU wasn't ready to begin those negotiations yet, and Erdogan would simply have to wait a little longer.

Erdogan sat up in his chair and said: "Hop hop!"

Chirac didn't understand the Turkish phrase, which translates into a combination of "wait a minute" and "you must be out of your mind." But he had served as mayor of Paris long enough to recognize immediately that this man had a very short fuse and didn't take disappointment well. European statesmen, he lectured his Turkish counterpart, had their differences. But they also had established ways of discussing these differences. Erdogan said nothing. It was not a good beginning.

Turning the Tables in Ankara

Now, seven years later, Erdogan has indeed turned Turkey around. He has embarrassed everyone who once treated him as a religious simpleton. He has forced Turkey's all-powerful military against a wall, demoralized the republican establishment and transformed his country on the Bosporus, once known for its coups and crises, into an Anatolian tiger. While neighboring Greece struggles with national bankruptcy, the Turkish economy is expected to grow by more than 5 percent this year.

At the same time, the country is growing into a role that modern Turkey has never played: that of a loud and arrogant regional power that is triggering international uproar as it jettisons a fundamental principal of its foreign policy.

It is a historic change of course. "The Turks have always gone in only one direction," Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish republic, said, "toward the West." But now, after seven years under Erdogan, Turkey is shifting its direction toward the East.

An Alliance Shattered

The most obvious indicator of this shift is its relationship with Israel. As long ago as the 1940s, Turkey was a refuge for Europe's persecuted Jews, and in 1949 it was the first primarily Islamic country to recognize the Jewish state. It is an alliance of convenience and values that the secular elites of both countries have supported and that has been in place for almost 60 years.

But that alliance came apart two weeks ago, after months of mutual provocations and the bloody incident  over a flotilla off the Israeli coast. Erdogan accused Israel of "state terrorism," withdrew his ambassador and even went so far as to claim that the world "now perceives the swastika and the Star of David together." "Today is a turning point in history," he said in a speech in parliament, referring to relations with Israel. "Nothing will be same again."

The turnaround is also reflected in the relationship with Iran, a country Ankara has eyed with suspicion since the 1979 Islamic revolution. A sign that has been posted at the Turkish-Iranian border since 1979 reads: "Turkey is a secular state." It is a statement of Turkey's opposition to the theocracy in neighboring Iran.

Last Wednesday, however, the Turkish ambassador raised his hand in the United Nations Security Council and voted against the package of sanctions with which Washington, London, Paris and Berlin -- and even Moscow and Beijing -- hope to stop Iran's controversial nuclear program.

The West is shocked. A country that covered the southeastern flank of NATO for 60 years, and that stood by the side of the United States and Europe, with the second-largest army in the alliance -- from the Korean War to Afghanistan -- is suddenly a friend of the mullahs? The State Department in Washington calls it a "disappointment," while some in Israel, the United States and Germany are already predicting a new "axis of evil."

Who is to blame for Turkey's political shift? Erdogan? Israel? The Europeans? Who lost Turkey?

'Pushed By Some in Europe'

If the country straddling the Bosporus appears to be moving eastward, says US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, it is "in no small part because it was pushed, and pushed by some in Europe refusing to give Turkey the kind of organic link to the West that Turkey sought."

Gates' argument is hard to refute. In the Association Agreement of 1963, the EU countries offered the Turks a clear prospect of membership, and Ankara made its first application in 1987. But even after negotiations officially began in 2005, Brussels continued to stall the Turks, while one former Eastern-bloc country after another was accepted.

Nevertheless, Erdogan continued to hold on to the prospect of EU membership, and with this trump in his hand, reformed the country like no other Turkish premier had ever done before. He took risks, relaxed relations with the Kurds and generally tried to impress the Europeans. He was determined to go down in history as the Turk who brought his country into the "Christian club."

Waning Enthusiasm for Europe

But then, about halfway between German Chancellor Angela Merkel's assumption of office in 2005 and that of French President Nicolas Sarkozy in 2007, Erdogan's enthusiasm waned. If there is one issue on which these two leaders agree, it is their opposition to full EU membership for Turkey.

Erdogan understands that he doesn't stand a chance in Europe for the time being, and he is instead redirecting his energy toward the East. It isn't a particularly masterful way of releasing political frustration, but neither is it entirely surprising.

A precise date can be assigned to the beginning of Erdogan's disappointment over Israel: Dec. 27, 2008. For years, Turkey had brokered indirect peace talks between Israel and Syria. Erdogan wanted to settle the conflict over the Golan Heights, which has been unresolved since 1967, a role that would also have secured him a spot in the history books.

Erdogan Felt Betrayed

The Turkish prime minister imagined himself on the verge of a breakthrough around Christmas 2008. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert traveled to Ankara on Dec. 22, but he provided no indication during that visit that he would issue orders to launch Operation Cast Lead just after his return to Jerusalem. The military strikes -- launched in retaliation for Hamas' constant bombardment of Israeli territory with rockets from Gaza -- caused the deaths of 1,400 Palestinians. Erdogan first found out about the operation when it appeared in the news.

To this day, says a confidant, the Turkish prime minister sees it as a betrayal that Olmert kept him in the dark over his war plans. Four weeks later, Erdogan stormed out of a debate with Israeli President Shimon Peres at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. As he walked out, he shouted at Peres: "You kill people. I remember the children who died on beaches." From then on, the Turkish-Israeli relationship was shattered.

Since then, ultra-conservatives have dominated the rhetoric in both countries: the prime minister himself in Turkey and, in Israel, men like Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who says: "The entire blame, all of it, from beginning to end, is that of Turkey."

A Surge of Nationalism -- in Turkey and Israel

For the time being, it seems as if the two countries, which have always prided themselves for being the "only democracies" in the Middle East, have lost their opposition camps amid a surge of nationalism.

In Turkey, at least, Kemal Kiliçdaroglu, new opposition leader, is criticizing the government. Europe and the United States, says the Social Democrat, view Hamas "as a terrorist organization. Therefore, we should be careful."

In Israel, so far, the criticism has been limited to intellectuals like author David Grossman, and to commentators like Aluf Benn, who wrote a melancholic swansong  to two countries in the newspaper Haaretz, noting that even in the deepest of rifts, there is more that unites them than divides them.

Both countries, Benn writes, have the wrong attitudes towards their minorities and a far too influential military, and both are highly modern and yet infiltrated by fundamentalists. Both governments, according to Benn, are busy destroying the legacy of their founders, David Ben-Gurion and Ataturk -- and the people of both countries are saturated with prejudices. "But we," the Israeli Benn writes, "are not a country of liars and murderers, as Erdogan claims, and Turkey is not an Iran that seeks to wipe Israel off the map, as Lieberman believes."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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