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How anti-Israel Turkey really is

Countries cannot choose their neighbors. However, they can choose the sort of relations they will have with their neighbors

Ceylan Ozbudak

Published: Updated:

Countries cannot choose their neighbors. However, they can choose the sort of relations they will have with their neighbors. The Arab world has been vehemently opposed to Israel for the past 60 years, yet this still doesn’t change the fact that Israel is a Middle Eastern democracy and the latest fashion in policy towards this strongly unwanted neighbor is a secretive constructive diplomacy.

The Saudis have seen eye to eye with Israel on Iran because of the new nuclear threat, Egypt allies with Israel on Sinai matters, Turks have increasing trade and tourism ties with Israel and still have ongoing military agreements. Various Arab nations share Israeli intelligence and cooperate with Israel about matters concerning Syrian civil war. Why don’t we as Muslim nations do it in the open and say Israel is a Middle Eastern democracy and our neighbor?

After the “one minute” incident with Erdoğan during the Davos summit in 2009, Turkey seemed to have joined in with the ranks of those Middle East countries pitted against Israel. The Marmara flotilla incident in 2010 added fuel to the fire and many Turkish politicians garnered praise in the Arabic world with their harsh words for Israel after this incident. But how does Turkey really see Israel?

If we pay attention to only what is visible when it comes to international relations, we will be missing the real details forming the background and that will mean wasting time on unimportant details instead of seeing the larger picture and achieving real results. Most Arabs dislike the Turkish-Israeli relationship. They regard the two countries as Middle Eastern subsidiaries of Western civilization. A troubled historical legacy (colonial in Turkey’s case) leaves its mark on the Arab world’s relations with both Turkey and Israel.

Visa free travel to Turkey for Israeli citizens

Israeli citizens are not required to obtain a visa to enter Turkey, which is surprising considering how the media seems to be full of anti-Israeli sentiment. Americans, on the other hand, have to get a visa, even though Turkey has been a NATO member since its inception, while Israelis can travel to Turkey without any restrictions, as if they are in their own country. Although this is not very uncommon for Turkey, there are some special privileges given only to Israeli citizens.

In 1949, Turkey was the first majority Muslim nation in the world to recognize Israel

Ceylan Ozbudak

For instance, Turkey has no-visa agreements with more than 100 countries, however the citizens of those countries can stay in Turkey without a visa for a maximum of one month, while Israelis can stay for three months. This example alone is sufficient to prove that there is no war of intelligence between the Republic of Turkey and Israel. An Israeli citizen without a visa can perform many activities in Turkey in three months and the mutual trust agreements show that the Turkish people have no such problems. On the part of Israel, the reason for Israel to ask for visas from Muslim Turkish citizens is because Iranian citizens can also travel to Turkey without a visa. This proves that Israel, who feels alone in the Middle East, has an unspoken friendship with Turkey.

Military cooperation

Israeli-Turkish military cooperation touches upon many domains: Air, sea, land (both infantry and armor), intelligence, and the manufacturing of aircraft, armaments, and missiles. It is close, institutionalized, and structured, involving steering committees, regular meetings, and strategic dialogues. It includes a hierarchy of deliberations that reaches up to defense ministers and even higher. Cooperation involves financial dealings in the hundreds of millions of dollars, if not more.

Private initiatives for easier commerce activities

This is not the only recent activity of mutual trust between the two countries. This week, The Jerusalem Arbitration Center (JAC), which will solve the problems between Israeli and Palestinian businesspersons, officially started its work by holding its first meeting of its board of directors. As the entry and exit doors are controlled by the Israelis, and they face serious trade difficulties due to long waiting periods on goods purchased, Palestinian businessmen in particular feel the need for intensive contact with their Israeli counterparts. The JAC will solve commercial disputes between Israeli and Palestinian businesspersons. When the businesspeople of the two countries commit to the slogan “we accept the JAC in solving disputes,” they will have given their consent to the disputes being solved by the center, without having to resort to Israeli or Palestinian courts.

It is expected that the trade volume will increase, thanks to the mediation of the arbitration center. How does this relate to Turkey? This center to solve Israeli-Palestinian business problems is led by a Turkish president. The president of the Union of Chambers and Commodity Exchanges of Turkey (TOBB), Rıfat Hisarcıklıoğlu, is the head of the JAC, which has been established within the International Chamber of Commerce. Adil Konukoğlu, the head of the Gaziantep Industry Chamber, will serve on the seven-member board. While talking about the significance of the JAC, the former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who also participated in the opening ceremony said: “We could not have found a better country than Turkey to head the center.” Emergence of a de facto regional economy propelled by the cross-border activities of economic actors is lately what states see fit to pool resources. It is a very important sign if both Israeli and Arab businessmen feel comfortable with relying on Turkey to solve their problems of commerce.

The history of the Israeli – Turkish relationship

In 1949, Turkey was the first majority Muslim nation in the world to recognize Israel, and for three decades, remained the only such country to do so. The establishment of formal ties with Israel sent a strong message about Turkey’s international orientation and its desire to align itself with the West. Diplomatic missions were opened in 1950 at the legation level. But until the 1990s, relations were more symbolic than substantive. For the first forty years, Turkey withstood unceasing Arab diplomatic and economic pressure to cut diplomatic ties with Israel. The shift in Israeli-Turkish ties began in 1991 in the wake of the Madrid Peace Conference, when Turkey moved to upgrade relations to full ambassadorial status; but the real breakthrough occurred in November 1993, when Turkish foreign minister Hikmet Çetin visited Israel. During the visit, he signed a memorandum on mutual understanding and guidelines on cooperation with his Israeli counterpart.

Starting in the mid-1990s, many in Turkey found the anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic tone of discourse in the Middle East disturbing. Several months ahead of the formation of the right-wing Erbakan government, President Demirel offered the following comments in an address to the National Security Council:

“Are the Turks, who did not engage in anti-Semitism five hundred years ago, now to become anti-Semites? Was the Islam of five hundred years ago more progressive than the Islam of our time? Is that which was not done then to be done now?”

Despite some ups and downs, and occasional disagreements, the relationship between Turkey and Israel is far from breaking down. The long-standing friendship between the two nations will no continue going forward, and – as friends – Turks and Israelis will weather the storms that are currently buffeting the region. On the contrary to popular discourse on the media, Turkey in practice is not anti-Semite at all. Turkey should stand up as a courageous and honest actor in the region who can openly support Israel’s existence and cooperation for better regional integration rather than resorting to various back door policies like her Arab neighbors.

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Ceylan Ozbudak is a Turkish political analyst, television presenter, and executive director of Building Bridges, an Istanbul-based NGO. She can be followed on Twitter via @ceylanozbudak

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.