The subsequent decision to vote against American-led sanctions has exacerbated American frustration with Turkey, compounded by Erdogan’s rhetoric that continually asserts that Iran’s nuclear program is “peaceful and humanitarian.” Yet here too, Turkish policy may be led by a degree of pragmatism; namely their belief that regardless of the choice of coercive tools, neither the U.S. nor Israel will be able to permanently stop the Iranian nuclear program. Engagement then becomes a necessity to avoid a nuclear-armed enemy along the Southern periphery. This quiet appreciation of Iranian intentions has been voiced by Turkish President Abdullah Gul who privately stated, “I do believe their final intention is to have a nuclear weapon, because it is related to their national pride.”
Despite controversy over the exact intention of Turkey’s Middle Eastern policy, what is abundantly clear is that Israel will be the sacrificial lamb to help in its realization. Turkey was once one of the first countries to recognize Israel and saw it as a strategic ally critical for ambitious defense modernization aims and a source of solidarity against troublesome neighbors. The winds have shifted substantially since then, with many of those same neighbors becoming the benefactors of Turkish courtship. As a result the utility of the Israeli alliance has diminished considerably, leading the Israelis to correctly lament that Turkey is “seeking to integrate with the Muslim world at Israel’s expense.”
With the primacy of economic interdependence foremost in the AKP’s foreign policy mindset, Turkish-Israeli bilateral trade has declined 30% from the record high of $3.5bn in 2008 to stand at a relatively measly $2.5bn in 2009, two thirds of which constitute Israeli defense exports. Here, too, strains have emerged, as Turkey grows increasingly dissatisfied with Israeli military tenders, leading a former Israeli Ambassador to profess concern that “military ties will fade away.”  Technical issues, delayed deliveries, and failed commitments have all been problems, seen most recently in the failure of Israel’s IAI-Elbit to deliver the Heron system in line with the Turkish Air Force’s specifications. Even without this lingering discontent, quite simply put, the economic costs of severing ties with Israel are vastly outweighed by the benefits of rapprochement with its enemies. The specialized nature of Israeli defense technology is an issue, but the United States remains Turkey’s largest arms supplier, and Erdogan has dismissed any ideas that its tensions with Israel affect its U.S. relations, stating, “America’s policy in the region is not dictated by Israel.”
On broader strategic issues too, Israel and Turkey have diverged. Scarcely a decade ago, common hostility towards Syria helped glue an alliance together. In 1998, as Turkey threatened Syrians with military intervention for their intervention of PKK rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan, Turkish editorials conveyed their sense of solidarity with Israel, famously stating, “We will say shalom to the Israelis on the Golan Heights.” Today, with normalized relations and growing trade between Turkey and Syria, the divergence in Israeli-Turkish strategic sync is palpable, and Erdogan has not shied away from declaring Israel “the principal threat to peace” in the Middle East. In an indication of the times, it was from the Syrian city of Aleppo that Davutoglu launched a blistering criticism of Israeli policies in October 2009. Turkish overtures towards Israeli arch-nemesis Iran have not helped matters either. Tel Aviv has frostily met Erdogan’s linking of Iranian nuclear ambitions with Israeli nuclear capability and Gazan policies, while staunchly opposing any action besides diplomacy in tackling the Iranian nuclear issue.
Erdogan’s ideological slant has also resulted in a re-assessed understanding of the Palestinian plight, as has the colder recognition of the issue’s resonance across the Muslim world. Viewing Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in Gaza as a betrayal of his attempt to broker mediation between Israel and Syria, Erdogan has since shown little regard for Israeli sensibilities. He termed the Gaza incursion as “genocide” and publicly lambasted Israeli President Shimon Peres at the World Economic Forum in Davos, calling him a “liar” and declaring “when it comes to killing, you know well how to kill.” Days later, in an unprecedented development, Turkey abruptly disinvited Israel from Anatolian Eagle, a joint air-force exercise. Adding insult to injury, the Turks then promptly invited Syria for joint military exercises and urged the creation of a joint Strategic Coordination Council.
Erdogan has shown a penchant for solidarity with Hamas, comparing it to the AKP and its own history of being banned and sidelined from mainstream politics. Turkey was a prominent supporter of Hamas after its electoral victory in 2006 and has hosted Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal in Ankara, granting him an audience with then Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul. Furthermore, the AKP has called Western-backed Mahmoud Abbas, the “head of an illegitimate government.” Erdogan has defended this outreach, stating Turkish beliefs that Hamas is a political reality whose sidelining is counterproductive.
Thin skins on both sides have not allowed the tension to ebb. The new Netanyahu government has often reacting to Turkish provocations, such as Erdogan’s description of the city of Jerusalem as the “apple of the eye of each and every Muslim” with undiplomatic and unnecessary snubs of their own. They include the public humiliation of Turkish Ambassador Oguz Celikkol by Israeli Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, who seated the Ambassador in a much lower chair in full view of news cameras. The Israeli raid on the Gaza flotilla has further widened the Gulf between the two countries. The Turks have termed Israeli actions “state terrorism” and “banditry”, while a recent opinion poll in Israel demonstrated 78% regarding Turkey as an “enemy state.”
Another source of Western concern has centered around the Turkish embrace of Russia, ignoring that it is driven less by ideology than whole-scale Turkish dependence on Russian energy exports. As Turkey’s single largest trading partner, constituting 11.4% of the Turkish trade balance, Russo-Turkish economic links are on the upswing with protocols signed to bring the trade volume to $100bn over the next 5 years. Currently, however, the Turkish export share is a small $3bn slice of the aggregate $22bn trade volume, with the vast majority centering around the 64% strangehold that Russia exerts on Turkish energy imports. The Russians have also agreed to build Turkey’s first nuclear power plant in Akkuyu. Consequently, Turkey has found itself in a tough bargaining position, with its energy needs forecasted to double over the next decade and price renegotiations due in 2011 with a supplier not averse to manipulating prices for political reasons. The point was hammered home in the aftermath of the Russian invasion of Georgia. Pushed hard to act by the West, Turkey found itself on the receiving end of Russian anger, with Russian-imposed customs checks and export restrictions as well as the closure of the BTC pipeline imposing significant economic costs upon the Turks.
Resultantly, when it comes to the Russians, Turkish overtures are less an attempt to re-balance eastward than an attempt to mitigate their dependence. But historical mistrust lingering from Turkey’s NATO allegiance and its frontline anti-Soviet role during the Cold War is an obstacle. Moreover, Russia has rarely hidden its intention to thwart Turkish ambitions in reinventing themselves as a major energy transit corridor for Caspian and Middle Eastern energy exports to Europe. Turkish-sponsored pipelines such as Nabucco would ease the Russian monopoly on European energy enhancing price competitiveness in an arena that upends much of the Russian budget. In past years the Russians have gone as far as making attractive offers to Azeri energy suppliers in an attempt to tweak them off Nabucco.
Despite this hierarchy in relations, Turkey and Russia do have a level of strategic sync in their relations that they have attempted to leverage. They shared an interest against the Bush Administration’s promotion of democracy in Central Asia, worrying on it being potentially destabilizing. They also share an interest in retaining the Black Sea as a ‘Turkish lake’ without NATO intrusion. And both see in each other sizeable markets ripe for exploitation. With these interests in mind, Erdogan has made several trips to Moscow and in 2004 hosted President Putin, the first visit by a Russian head of state in 32 years. Subsequent visits have resulted in the mutual lifting of short-term visas to facilitate tourism and trade.