Monday, November 24, 2008

The Paradox of Turkish-Israeli Relations

Today offers a good lesson in how paradoxical Turkish-Israeli relations can be. On the one hand, in a front-page article headlined "Scandal in the Rector's Office," the Turkish daily Hurriyet reports about an incident in which the rector of Istanbul University kicked out of his office both the Israeli ambassador to Turkey and consul general in Istanbul because he was offended by the presence of their armed bodyguards. It's the kind of event that certainly adds to the sense among some that a certain frost has settled over the once warm relations between Turkey and Israel (perhaps because of the election of the liberal Islamic Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2002).

On the other hand, if we dig a little further in Hurriyet, we also find this article, which tells us about Turkey's plans to bring together its energy minister together with his Israeli and Indian counterparts to talk about joint projects in the energy field. In particular, the meeting would discuss the creation of a underwater pipeline that would link the Turkish port of Ceyhan with the Israeli port of Ashkelon. The new pipeline would carry oil from the Caspian region brought to Turkey via the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline. From Ashkelon, yet another pipeline would take the oil to Eilat, where it would be loaded onto tankers and shipped to India. (Confused? If so, you can read more about the project in an article I wrote for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.) The pipeline, if built, would be a very concrete link joining Turkey and Israel on a number of levels.

What we have here is the continuation of a dynamic that's been going on for at least the last decade. On the popular level, Israel's image in Turkey keeps dropping. Recent public opinion surveys, for example, found that Israel is one of the countries least liked by Turks. On the political and economic level, though, the ties between the two countries keep deepening, with trade relations continuing to grow and the two countries looking for other ways to cooperate, beyond the Ceyhan-Ashkelon pipeline. In many ways, the relationship has normalized, moving away from one based almost exclusively on military ties to one that's more multi-dimensional (and perhaps more stable). But the split between the popular and official view of Israel is one that -- save for a peace agreement with the Palestinians and Israel's integration into the wider Middle East -- is likely to continue.

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