Below is an article from a trip to Turkey in December of 2014.
During our trip we met with high level Turkish officials in the two main parties as well as the former foreign minister. Not all of the meetings were public, nor did we write about all of it.
One of the articles touched on Turkish-Israel relations.
With the recent comments by former Foreign Minister Yaser Yakis, this article below has more pertinence. Yakis told Today’s Zaman: “The world would not accept such interference [by Turkey’s military in Syria]. It would not allow the border to be redrawn unilaterally. What’s more, if the Turkish military faced defeat, Syria might reintroduce the claim that Hatay belongs to Syria…The North Atlantic Treaty Organization [NATO] may not invoke Article 5…Just as with the intervention in Cyprus, the US may leave Turkey alone…It is guaranteed that Russia will be the main actor in shaping the future of Syria.”
Our article from January 5, 2015, In The Jerusalem Post
By SETH J. FRANTZMAN and LAURA KELLY
As our flight arrived into Sabiha Gokcen International Airport in Istanbul, the sprawling hills of Turkey’s landscape stretch to the horizon. This giant of a country, which straddles both the European and the Asian continents, occupies a landmass of almost 800,000 square kilometers and boasts a population of 80 million.
The impetus for our visit – over the course of three days in late December – was to appear on the television show of the eccentric Islamic preacher Adnan Oktar. With a history as colorful as his studio set – which includes gold plated chairs with velour upholstery – Oktar has made it his mission in the last few years to not only repair Israeli-Turkish relations, but preach the necessity for cooperation and coexistence between Muslims and Jews.
A mention of Oktar’s name to the casual Turk raises eyebrows of curiosity, his reputation is well known. Sometimes writing under the pseudonym Harun Yahya, he has published 300 books in 75 languages, although many – like his manifesto The Atlas of Creationism, which is 800 pages and 5.5 kilograms – are distributed unsolicited. The books are usually light in substance and packed with glossy images and Koranic passages.
He makes his appeal to the young and wealthy, advertising a traditional Islam combined with playful modernity that mixes well with materialism.
Audience members on his show are described as “Gucci-clad” models.
He’s been embroiled in a number of legal cases and was sentenced to prison and a mental hospital under the previous government, a fact his supporters deride as a state-sponsored suppression.
He maintains his innocence and says he was a political prisoner. He and his followers align with the current ruling Justice and Development (AK) party, saying President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is a “protector of Muslims.”
Erdogan was hailed in 2012 by US President Barack Obama as one of his five closest international allies, saying the then-prime minister was an example of how a leader can be Islamic, democratic and tolerant. It was clear that Obama would encourage the Turkish leader to help usher in a new era of democracy to Arab countries in the Middle East.
For Israel, relations with Turkey are lucrative – even at the present nadir of diplomatic relations, the two countries still enjoy $5 billion in trade.
It is with this understanding that we sought to find voices in Istanbul and Ankara that could shed more light on what the future holds for relations between the two countries. Former foreign minister for the AK party, Yasar Yakis, was surprisingly candid with his criticism of both Turkish and Israeli officials in their shortsightedness, saying shortterm goals were obscuring long term strategy. In Ankara, Yasin Aktay, the AK party vice chairman in charge of foreign affairs, was steadfast in his support of the Palestinians and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. We also spoke to numerous Turkish officials, businessmen and locals who were not in the government. With them, criticism of government leadership and policies came easily, but only on the condition of anonymity. Some expressed fear of retaliation.
It provided a curious atmosphere: an incredibly modern country with a high standard of living and good infrastructure, but suspicion, enigmas, conspiracy theories and distrust.
Critics continue to argue that the country is turning in on itself, isolating itself from the international community, becoming more Islamized and ostracizing its minority population
FIRST IMPRESSIONS of Istanbul are of an extremely modern city. Expensive cars crowd the main thoroughfare heading towards the central city, passing organized and landscaped apartment blocks – high-rise after high-rise testify to a lucrative construction boom for a city now home to 15 million.
To a Westerner, Istanbul is familiar.
The downtown business district resembles that of Boston – a maze of concrete footpaths snakes its way through business towers as traffic passes around – and commercialism is encouraged. Giant Christmas trees decorate busy shopping malls, and fancy nightclubs and restaurants line the impressive Bosporus.
But this modern infrastructure belies the Turkey we hear about in the news.
Just in the first weeks of the new year, two terrorist attacks have occurred. On January 1, a man was detained after trying to throw grenades and attacking police officers with an automatic rifle at Dolmabahçe Palace in Istanbul. Then on Tuesday, a female suicide bomber detonated herself in front of a police station in the tourist area of Sultanahmet square. One police officer died later of his wounds.
Also on Tuesday, a Dutch journalist was detained for the accusation of spreading “propaganda for a terrorist organization.” While terrorism has shown to be a clear threat to the country, critics say the government is lashing out towards the wrong people, namely the press.
Erdogan says that Western media falsely portrays his country as undemocratic.
But critics continue to argue that the country is turning in on itself, isolating itself from the international community, becoming more Islamized and ostracizing its minority populations, with government rule being concentrated in one individual – Erdogan – and policies stemming from paranoia.
Dissent is bubbling under the surface; and one of the most surprising flash-points occurred in the summer of 2013, in a rather unremarkable green space in Istanbul. Gezi Park in Taksim Square – one of a baker’s dozen of central areas – is surrounded by five-star hotels usually occupied by visiting business delegations. When protesters staged a sit-in against the building of a new shopping mall on park grounds, police reacted violently and disproportionately.
Images of young, modern, secular-looking Turks with blood running down their faces or held captive by riot police drew ire and condemnation the world over. It also spurred young Turks to air more frustrations with the government, which hadn’t been covered in international media before: of a clampdown on freedom of expression and the press, and a threat to secular society.
Suddenly, the dark elements of Erdogan’s rule had come to light.
Hindsight of a civil servant Directly across from Gezi Park sits the grandiose Marmara Hotel. On that cold December day there was no inkling this had been the site of a raucous protest; where protesters had once fled for shelter from tear gas.
A short elevator ride takes visitors to the 20th floor; one’s ears pop on the way up. The elevators open to an immaculate restaurant, providing visitors with a breathtaking panorama of the Bosporus and the city. To the south is the Golden Horn, where the Ottomans ruled their colossal empire.
Former foreign minister Yakis scans the horizon: “Thirteen hundred ships pass here a day.”
He holds out his hand and it suddenly becomes clear – the pride he takes in the grandeur of the city and of the country whose foreign relations he oversaw in 2002 and 2003. “That bridge was built in 1974, and we call it the first bridge; the ‘second bridge’ was built later. They also opened a tunnel last year.”
Yakis, resplendent in an elegant suit, is an erudite and confident man. He is also frequently outspoken in the press. On December 24, he told Today’s Zaman, an English-language daily, that European-born foreign fighters for the Islamic State, who have been said to transition through Turkey, had abused his country’s tolerance.
In some ways, Yakis’s life story is that of modern Turkey. He was born in a rural area in 1938, the same year Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Turkey’s founder, died.
“I did my military service at a small border post, the farthest east one could be.
It was miles from even the smallest village.”
He spent a year and a half there.
“My family’s origins [are] from the Caucasus, from what is now Georgia.”
In 1962, he joined the Foreign Ministry and worked his way up its rungs, with consular postings in Nigeria and Syria.
Yakis holds out his hand and it suddenly becomes clear – the pride he takes in the grandeur of the city and of the country whose foreign relations he oversaw in 2002 and 2003.
By 2000, he was Turkey’s permanent representative at the UN.
“I had no interest and no political ambition at all,” he says humbly. “When I came back from Vienna, I was dreaming of purchasing a small piece of land or constructing a small hut in the middle of the gardens of my grandfather’s [estate].
And when I was lost in this dream, Abdullah Gül, the former president, called and asked if I would like to join them as a founding member [of the Justice and Development Party (AKP)].”
It was 2001 when Gül, a veteran politician who believed in combining Islam and modernism, came calling. In the 2002 elections, AKP won a sweeping victory. Yakis, who had been a foreign policy adviser to the party, became foreign minister.
A passionate believer in Turkish integration in the EU, he worked tirelessly on this front and as his proudest moment, he describes reports in 2002 and 2003 relating to Turkey’s progress on reforms that should have led to an accession agreement with the EU.
Over a decade since Yakis left his post, integration to the Europe Union continues to elude Turkey. Yakis points to a number of factors, internal politics in the EU, with France and the Netherlands rejecting a European constitution in 2005; criticism by leaders as to whether Turkey belongs in Europe, in 2007 then-candidate for French president Nicolas Sarkozy said “Turkey has no place inside European borders”; and a switch in focus for Turkey to more internal issues all led to a culture of distrust on both the Turkish and European side.
Instead, an economic partnership between Turkey and Russia has developed very quickly, especially in the fields of oil and gas. “If it is materialized, it is a game changer for the region. It will strengthen Turkey’s hand in negotiating the transit route from oil and gas to Middle Eastern countries to be carried to European markets,” Yakis explains.
But what does Yakis think of Russia’s standing in the international community? With its invasion and occupation of Crimea, involvement in the Ukrainian civil war and its support for President Bashar Assad in the Syrian Civil War? “This closeness will materialize despite the fact that they have diametrically opposed positions in various important regional developments,” Yakis explains – in line with his belief that long-term strategy should outweigh short-term disagreements.
And he applies this logic to how relations between Turkey and Israel should play out. He speaks of Israel with high regard, saying the Turkish public is not fully aware of the difficulties the Israeli government faces and, as he describes, “the fragility of the political balance,” in reference to the upcoming elections.
Yakis doesn’t believe Turkey should, or could, play any role in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
When Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal visited Turkey after taking control of the Gaza Strip, Yakis says, “We told him that he had to give up armed struggle, but he didn’t want to,” and gives credit to Egypt for negotiating the cease-fire of 2012’s Operation Pillar of Defense, even while president Mohamed Morsi was in the process of being deposed.
“Egypt, at its weakest, was able to achieve more than Turkey could at its strongest.”
For Turkish-Israeli relations, Yasin remains optimistic. “Steps were taken and when I was in Israel, there were signs that [relations] would be mended… so I genuinely hope that the decision-makers on both sides value the importance of Turkish-Israel relations sufficiently, and perhaps let these relations develop as they should be.”
Turkey’s Jews It’s Friday night in Ankara, and while we wait to board our flight to Istanbul, a man behind us talks into his cellphone.
“Shabbat shalom,” we hear him say and both stand to attention. Could it be, in a country of 80 million people, from a community of fewer than 20,000, a Turkish Jew is standing right behind us? We tilt our ears; and he speaks more Turkish before we hear the word “hanukkia” and we know we’ve found a member of the tribe.
The Jewish-Turkish history is an interesting one, a community that in one breath embraced nationalistic pride but experienced, and continues to suffer from, anti-Semitism. One of the points of pride for many Turkish people and politicians is that their country was once a cosmopolitan empire which welcomed minorities from around the region – in stark contrast to the sectarian violence ripping the region apart today.
Jews fleeing the Spanish expulsion of 1492 were welcomed into the Ottoman Empire and this diaspora achieved economic success under the sultans.
During and after World War I, as other minorities in the empire were persecuted and mass population exchanges of Turks and Greeks took place, the Jewish community weathered the storm.
Jews remember the period of Atatürk as a time of hope. “Atatürk was close to Jews… he was positive about us,” recalls one Turkish Jew, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “He had a connection to Saloniki Jews… He had lived in the Jewish Quarter in Ankara for four months.”
Salonika – now Thessaloniki in Greece, where Atatürk was born – symbolized the sectarian tragedy that overtook the region. Once a city with large numbers of Jews and Muslims, the Muslims fled in the 1920s and the Jewish community was exterminated by the Nazis.
In the 1930s, many Jews supported the modernization of Turkey and embraced Atatürkism. Since the time of the expulsion from Spain they had spoken Ladino, a kind of Hebrew Spanish, but with Atatürk’s quest to embrace everything Turkish and turn away from cosmopolitanism, the Jews gave up their heritage.
“I spoke Ladino with my father’s mother until the day my father came home and said, ‘Atatürk said we will speak Turkish from now on at home,’” explains the Jewish insider. “He wanted us to speak Turkish and forget Ladino, and protect us from difficulties. In that period, Greeks and Armenians were speaking their languages.”
The rise of Ismet Inönü, who succeeded Atatürk in 1938, changed Jewish fortunes forever. Inönü attempted to guide his country through the tumultuous period of the Second World War, signing a non-aggression pact with Hitler in 1939, then joining the West after the war to oppose Soviet Communism. Jews and other minorities bore the brunt of his nationalism, including a massive wealth tax in 1942 that destroyed the finances of Jewish mercantile families. “We were suffering during the unjust taxation of minorities; my father was taken to the mountains to break stones. The regime broke our family, they broke us.”
The party line of the present government is to remember Turkey as a refuge.
AK party vice chairman in charge of foreign affairs Aktay notes, “We proved that Turks and Muslims have always opened their gates and lands to Jews; from Spain and the Nazis. Many Jewish people found shelter.”
But Jews with a memory of the period note it was a refuge in name only after the death of Atatürk. “Here they made us suffer, but they didn’t take our lives,” the Jewish insider explains. “They were insulting Jews; they were brainwashed to insult the Jews and the Armenians. It was under Inönü; it was ‘better’ than in Germany, but I still I hate him [Inonu].”
The hardships resulted in around half the Jewish community leaving after the creation of the State of Israel. The community dwindled to under 50,000.
“We had many who left because they had suffered during the war; my uncles left in 1935, my sister in 1968, then my nephews,” the Jewish insider continues.
But some stayed on out of a sense of Turkish pride. “I wanted to prove they had made a mistake.”
Today’s Jewish community, which is very secular, is often said to number 25,000, but most of those we interview say the true numbers are under 17,000 and shrinking. One man posits, “There is no future for us here. The economy is bad, there is anti-Semitism, the statements against Israel make us feel uncomfortable.”
Although there are strong Jewish institutions such as schools, youth groups and a Jewish newspaper called Shalom, and one can see pleasant small synagogues such as Etz Hayim tucked into the winding streets of Istanbul’s Ortakoy neighborhood, many seem to feel uneasy, even as they take pride in their Turkish identity and history.
Olmert was in Ankara for two days while Erdogan was talking to [Syrian President Bashar] Assad; he thought he would make a deal between Israel and Syria.
THE DECLINE in relations between Israel and Turkey is often mentioned in discussions with Turkish Jews.
Turkey had been an ally of Israel, and the first Muslim country to recognize the Jewish state. They had seemingly common values, both secular nationalist nation-states, both non-Arab and confronting terrorism.
That relationship began to change after the election of Erdogan. A source who once worked with him recalls, “I came to the conclusion that it started with the visit of [then-prime minister] Ehud Olmert [on December 22, 2008].
Olmert was in Ankara for two days while Erdogan was talking to [Syrian President Bashar] Assad; he thought he would make a deal between Israel and Syria. He felt that he was doing it; then Olmert left and two days later the Gaza bombing [Operation Cast Lead] began.
“[Erdogan] felt personally offended and insulted; he felt it was a slap in the face and cheating his efforts. He had spent so much time trying to be a hero, making peace between two antagonists, and thought he would get a Nobel Peace Prize.”
This turning point led to personal animosity between Erdogan and Israel, which the Turkish leader saw as duplicity.
“He then became an avowed enemy of anything that emanates from Israel, he felt it was treason.”
The colleague continued that in January 2009, three days before Erdogan left for the World Economic Forum in Davos, he gave an interview to a newspaper in which he stated his intention to ask former president Shimon Peres to explain Israel’s actions in the Gaza Strip. At Davos, Erdogan stormed off the stage of a moderated panel with Peres, expressing his frustration at the then-president. “I find it very sad that people applaud what you said,” he fumed. “You killed people, and I think that it is very wrong.”
Former foreign minister Yakis compares the breakdown in Turkish-Israeli relations to the Greek tragedy of Sisyphus, condemned to push a stone up a hill again and again. “Each time we raise our hopes, something happens.”
A major downturn was caused by the Mavi Marmara raid on May 31, 2010. The 4,000-ton converted ship set sail from Turkey at the head of a flotilla, with the intention of breaking Israel’s blockade of Gaza, along with several smaller European- skippered ships. Almost 600 activists with a hard-line Islamist charity were on board. At 4:30 a.m., after shadowing the craft for seven hours, Israeli commandos boarded the ship from Black Hawk helicopters. The ensuing melee with around 50 of the activists resulted in the deaths of eight Turkish citizens and one American.
This caused an outpouring of anger in Turkey, especially from the ruling party, which saw the killing of citizens as an attack on Turkey itself.
“I was sorry to see that it was happening.
Mavi Marmara could have been avoided, in my opinion… by not letting the ship sail the way it was planned,” explains Yakis. “I would have proposed that since the intention was [to deliver] medical supplies and food to Gaza, to do it in cooperation with the Israeli customs officers, then do it through Egypt.
All these things do not justify what Israel has done, which is to attack the civilian ship of a friendly country in international waters. Both sides could have done more to avoid what happened.”
Aktay recalls, “We hoped for [the ship to pass in] a peaceful way; we didn’t expect it [Israel] would violate international borders. But then the flotilla was attacked by Israel, and an attack on a Turkish citizen is an attack on Turkey. It was then we became part of the conflict; it was not a government project.”
Others familiar with the build-up to the fiasco claim it was not an accident or disaster. “It was a clumsy and unintelligent program or scheme that was probably prepared by [then-defense] minister Ehud Barak. If you prepare commandos with machine guns to raid a ship, the intention is to confront. You could… [get] a dinghy and put an explosive on the rudder,” says one person familiar with the situation. “It was a hell of a blunder.
It was an unnecessary lesson; Barak and the others thought they would ‘teach a lesson to the Turks,’ playing into his [Erdogan’s] hands, so he will increase his crescendo,” the insider says.
According to this account, there were interlocutors between Israel and Turkey who were informed and tried to stop the ship from sailing. “I spoke with friends in the Foreign Ministry, but there was a force behind it that wanted this confrontation.”
In this narrative, “both colluded unknowingly so it would become a disaster and blunder.”
Jewish community members describe Turkish-Israel relations after that as “a precious vase that fell and broke, and is put back together with glue but leaks. It looks OK, but it is not OK and it will not hold water. It is a broken vase – for many years, or a generation.”
The concrete metropolis and the seat of power Flying into the capital city of Ankara – the seat of the government – the small but super-modern airport welcomes visitors. As passengers exit the plane and walk down the concourse, they are greeted by a long decorative pool of water that winds through the terminal.
Duty-free shops sell Jack Daniels and Coca-Cola; yet another reminder that despite the notion that Turkey has become more Islamist, this is not Saudi Arabia – or even Egypt.
The city is laid out as a classic modernist metropolis, with wide avenues and buildings that echo that 1950- 1970s brutalist concrete style. There is a muscularity to Ankara; where Istanbul is cosmopolitan, it is stodgy and businesslike. Not far from the center of town, Erdogan has constructed a new presidential palace with 1,100 rooms – rivaling the grandeur of Romania’s Palace of the Parliament, built by Communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu. For some Turks this is an embarrassment, a symbol of the megalomania of the government; for others, it is a point of pride.
This dual nature was on display when the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, visited Erdogan during our time there. Many were glued to their televisions as he was met by Erdogan on the palace steps. It is perhaps no surprise that the show Muhtesem Yüzyıl (Magnificent Century), a popular series about Ottoman sultans, is advertised across the capital.
At Anitkabir, the mausoleum of Atatürk, a former foreign minister from Slovenia is visiting and hundreds of Turkish high-school students are celebrating their graduation. A 260-meter pathway leads to a grand ceremonial plaza. Turkish soldiers with an honor guard march in sequence back and forth. Inside, a museum details the greatness of Atatürk – his military career and his support for women’s rights.
So, what is this riddle of modern Turkey? Atatürk, Erdogan – whose vision is triumphing?
THE SEA change in Turkish politics has often centered around the personage of Erdogan, who became prime minister in 2003. A mayor of Istanbul from 1994 to 1998, he was much admired in his early years by a diverse group of people. A businessman who worked with him recalled that “it began with a great friendship, but was a disappointment.”
Those who remember those days describe someone who was gentle and seemed to present new politics, free from the shackles of the stagnant past.
“He needed the support of the West so he would be able to have a shield against ‘the deep state,’ because [they] were looking at him as an Islamist.”
The people with whom we speak mostly concur with this narrative.
Erdogan and his associates had been victims of what in Turkey is called the deep state – the state institutions and allied elites who grew up under the shadow of Atatürk, and saw themselves as protecting the secular order. Each time that order felt threatened, it struck out at its opponents, with military coups in 1960, 1971 and 1980. The 1980 coup was the most bloody, with some 50 executions and 500,000 arrested.
Society was polarized at that time, between radical leftists infused with Communist ideals and the radical secular Right, as well as Islamists and others. The radical secularism of Atatürk brought many rights to women and empowerment that was absent from the Middle East, but it was accomplished through coercive laws, such as bans on wearing the head scarf among civil servants, parliamentarians and lawyers. Eventually, in the 1980s, university students were also not permitted to cover their hair. The Arabic- language call to prayer was banned because of Atatürk’s interest in weaning Turkey from its Arabic orientation; the alphabet was Latinized and Arabic characters discarded. The Kurdish language and Kurdish institutions were suppressed.
The rise of the AKP occurred against a long backdrop of Islamic-style parties being banned in Turkey – such as the Welfare Party, which was founded in 1983 and banned in 1998. Erdogan had been a leading member of that party and his triumph in 2002 was thus initially seen as a triumph for democracy, against militarism and the coup-ridden country.
SINCE ERDOGAN and the AKP have come to power, they believe they have faced threats from this deep state. From our discussions with individuals who ask to remain anonymous, it is clear there is a very real fear of this shadowy conspiracy that seeks to undermine the government. Evidence of it is provided by the “Sledgehammer” coup plan, which allegedly dates from 2003.
In 2007 the army’s General Staff – the traditional guardians of secularism – posted an online memorandum that condemned the prospective election of Gül, accusing him of violating Atatürk’s principles. That same year investigations were launched into a shadowy agency called Ergenekon, and by 2009, 149 people had been charged with being a member of this “terrorist organization.”
In a show of force against the supposed deep state, in 2010 the police began rounding up members of the secular military order. Eventually 365 people were charged, accused of being involved in a coup plot.
After the neutering of the military, Erdogan turned his attention to an Islamic educational organization run by Muhammad Fethullah Gülen, an exiled Turkish cleric who lives in Pennsylvania.
“The Gülens” and “The man in Pennsylvania,” as they are often referred to by officials, are seen as pernicious and having an octopus-like control.
Erdogan is outspoken in the press, talking about how his one-time ally Gülen had betrayed him. “You have witnessed it. You cannot guess from where the attack will come. You cannot predict from where betrayal will come. You cannot see who stabbed you in the back.”
What stands out most in Erdogan’s mind are the events of December 17, 2013. Secret wiretaps appeared to reveal corruption by Erdogan’s family and friends, and when newspapers like Today’s Zaman reported it, the scandal was seen as a Gülen conspiracy; the paper is one of his holdings.
But many people see the accusations as a distraction. “He [Erdogan] is shadowboxing against fake enemies he has created,” says one person familiar with the matter, who asked to remain anonymous.
“Gülen has no aspirations and is accused of shenanigans.”
Strikes at Gülen’s holdings reached a peak on December 14, when police raided the offices of Today’s Zaman and arrested editor-in-chief Ekrem Dumanli.
In response to the arrests, speaking at a conference of civil servants, Erdogan said that the journalists were criminals, involved in supporting and founding illegal organizations. Dumanli was released six days later because of lack of evidence.
When European officials criticized the journalist’s arrest, saying Turkey was not acting as a European state would, Erdogan lashed out and told Europeans not to meddle in his country’s affairs.
“We are definitely not a country that Europe can point its finger at and scold.
Instead of criticizing us, Europe should find a solution to increasing racism and Islamophobia.”
TURKEY WILL go to elections in July; Erdogan’s supporters expect he will receive two-thirds of the votes for president.
At that moment, an even greater shift in Turkish government is expected to take place. Erdogan plans to amend the constitution to transfer whatever legislative power, which remains with the prime minister, to the presidency.
Since leaving the Foreign Ministry, Yasin has kept a close eye on developments in the country and the region.
Responding to criticism that Turkey is becoming less democratic, he notes: “Turkey is not a paradise of democracy, but is more advanced than many countries in the Middle East. I thought part of the votes we got in the 2002 elections were votes borrowed from liberals, neutrals and secularists; in the policy followed at present, we risk losing these borrowed votes.”