Jerusalem - Istanbul

Mordechai Amihai. Photo: Bethsabée Süssmann
By Roland S. Süssmann
Bulgaria – Greece – Georgia – Armenia – Iran – Iraq – Syria – Black Sea to the north and the Mediterranean to the south, with a presence on Cyprus. That is what directly surrounds Turkey, which today perhaps more than ever is a key nation in political developments in this region, given the jockeying for influence of the powers here. Located just a few hundred kilometers from Israel, its relations with the Jewish state are of prime importance. Jerusalem is not putting a foot wrong, and exchanges at the highest ministerial and military levels are frequent. What’s more, at least two daily flights link Tel-Aviv and Istanbul, quite independent of Israeli tourism to Anatolia.
In Istanbul we met the Israeli consul, Mordechai Amihai, a career diplomat who has been there since 2005, so that he could sketch for us the relations between the two countries.

What are the main points that characterize exchanges between the two nations?

It is important to recall that Turkey was the first Muslim state, admittedly secular and modernist, to have recognized Israel immediately upon its independence. For a very long time, in fact practically until the beginning of the 1990s, relations were kept at a very low, almost minimalist level. At the beginning of the last decade of the 20th century, the Turkish government of the time decided on a radical change, to give a boost to relations between the two countries. That was when the military cooperation and defense treaties were signed. At the time, business between the two countries stood at about $100 million annually. Today it stands at $2.5 billion, not including military transactions and tourism, whose figures are either not published or difficult to come by. Let us not forget that every year about 400,000 Israelis come to Turkey. To this must be added the very high level of direct investments between the two countries.

At first sight, this all appears to moving in the right direction, but what is Turkey’s political position towards Israel?

Following the election of Hamas, the organization’s leader, Ismail Haniyeh was officially invited to Turkey, even though the invitation was somewhat subtle since it was not a government one. The gesture displeased not just Israel but also the United States. During the Second Lebanon War the atmosphere in Turkey was very anti-Israel, both in the press (particular in TV reporting) and among the population. At no time was Israel’s point of view or the suffering of the people forced to live in the shelters ever mentioned, even in passing. There were daily demonstrations outside the consulate, clearly egged on by highly tendentious, one-sided press reporting and the anti-Israeli talk of Arab leaders, especially the Egyptians, Jordanians and Saudis. But what was certainly crucial were the statements by the Turkish Head of State, which were much more virulent than those of the Arab leaders I just mentioned.

How do you explain that?

It is possible that this was the open expression of the true thinking of this country’s elites. It should not be overlooked that the Turkish population feels very close to the Islamic movements and the Palestinian cause, and that we are in an election year. However, contacts were not broken and our Prime Minister spoke with the Turkish President. It is also interesting to note that this difficult, hostile atmosphere in no way impacted on trade between the two countries. Turkey also offered its good offices as mediators for our kidnapped soldiers, which did not come about. The business community has understood very well that the two economies stand to gain a great deal from a mutual boost to trade. Today we are back to the status quo ante from before the war, and I can unhesitatingly state that this proves there is a very clear separation between politicians and the business world. Having said which, the political world is very much aware that are various, very important points in common between Turkey and Israel. First of all, we are the only two democracies in the Middle East; Turkey is member of NATO and wants to join the European Union, with which it has already signed several major agreements. So the situation is not totally black and white. Despite the existence here of a pro-Western elite, the overall atmosphere is very anti-American and therefore anti-Israeli. Anti-Americanism is above all continually boosted by the American presence in northern Iraq, where the Kurds and their oil are located. The Turks want the Americans to act against the PKK (the Kurdish armed opposition), or even better to leave them a free hand to take military action, which they simply will not do. By the way, during the Lebanon war it was not uncommon to hear commentators pose the following question, “How come the USA lets Israel intervene in Lebanon but forbids Turkey to act against the Kurds”. It must also be understood that one of the Turks’ big fears is to see the creation of a Kurdish state in northern Iraq, since almost 15 million Kurds live in Turkey, which is almost 25% of the population. To this can be added a couple of other, not insignificant items. You must remember that in Iraq the major oil reserves are in the north of the country in the hands of the Kurds and in the south in the hands of the Shiites. In the center, where the Sunnis are, there is practically none. Further, about one million Kurds live in Iran, which in a way strengthens relations between Turkey and Iran. These were always rather ambiguous, swinging between alliance and belligerence.

What is Israel’s position in this whole political and geopolitical game, in which at the end of the day the Kurds are but one element?

You have to understand that for several years, for Turkey Israel has represented a pro-Western counterweight in the Middle East with which it was interested to have as good relations as reasonably possible, particularly in the defense field. Turkey believes that the key to opening the important doors in Washington goes through Jerusalem and the powerful Jewish-American lobby. Good relations with Israel allow Turkey to show the Europeans that it is respected in the Middle East by both Israelis and Arabs, which might in the medium-term help advance its application to join the EU. This is greatly coveted by Turkey, which is not so well liked in the Arab world, which has not pardoned it for having been partially colonized by the Ottoman Empire. To conclude this chapter, I would say that relations with Israel are the result of very careful political calculations, which in the final analysis are beneficial to both countries at various levels.

An envoy of Israel, whether consul or ambassador, is not just a representative in the country to which he is posted, but also to the Jewish community. How do you see the Turkish Jewish community?

The fact is that we have an ageing and declining community. As throughout Turkey, the middle- and upper-classes have few children and many young Jews are leaving the country. Today there are around 25,000 Jews in Turkey, of whom almost 20,000 are in Istanbul, 2,000 – 2,500 live in Izmir and the rest are spread about in other towns. However, all religious activity may be carried out entirely freely, so long as it is not officially Zionist. Even though there is no Zionist teaching in school and there is never an Israeli flag in the synagogue or in the office of a community official, Turkey’s Jewish community is deeply attached to Israel and we have the very warmest relations with it. As far as anti-Semitism goes, there are several interesting issues. Firstly, during the Second Lebanon War, the press and all those promoting the anti-Israel atmosphere freely mixed up Israelis and Jews. However, there were no real anti-Semitic acts, at least no physical violence. However, anti-Semitic caricatures started cropping up in bookshops, and since there is a long-standing tradition of fear of conspiracies, many books of the ilk of Protocols of the Elders of Zion that explained Jewish worldwide hegemony were openly on sale. What’s more, Mein Kampf translated into Turkish has been a best-seller for many years.
To conclude, I would say that the Jewish community is well integrated into Turkish life, and since it knows pretty well how things work it can avoid those pitfalls that would create needless difficulties.