Zeyno Baran Interview

March 20th, 2009

Zeyno Baran, Director of the Center for Eurasian Policy and Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute. (Military and Strategic Analysts, August 2006)

1. How would you characterize the political relationship between Turkey and Israel? Could you share with us your sense of how that relationship has evolved in the past years and where you see it heading?

Overall, relations between Turkey and Israel have been good. Moreover, this relationship has remained solid despite changes of government in both countries. This is not to say there have not been tensions. In particular, with the eruption of the second intifada and the election in Turkey of a ruling party that is more overtly Islamic in nature, there have been times in recent years when relations between Ankara and Jerusalem were strained. However, I believe things are better now.

Future relations depend heavily on the course that events in the Middle East take. Clearly, the region is unstable and its future path uncertain. If Israel supports a US strike against Iran—or engages in one itself—that will be a huge problem for Israeli-Turkish relations. And if Iraq continues to drift towards disintegration and Israel is perceived to be supportive of an independent Kurdistan, relations between Turkey and Israel would sour dramatically.

2. How would you describe common public perceptions or sentiment towards Israel?  In what sectors do you find the most support or hostility towards Israel?

Overall, public support for the Western world in Turkey has flagged dramatically in recent years. This includes the US and the EU along with Israel. Yet this drop in popularity has not corresponded to a rise in popularity for any other state or group. In general, Turks are going through tough times right now.

The most hostility towards Israel is found, unsurprisingly, among the Islamists and those in Turkey who believe that a neo-conservative agenda influenced by Israel is driving US policy. The most support for Israel comes from within the traditional secular elite, as they hold many of the same security concerns (such as terrorism from Hamas and Hizbullah, and the threat posed by Iran) that Israel does.

3. Could you summarize Turkish foreign policy priorities and goals in the Middle East?

Turkey remains oriented in a Westward-leaning direction; it is a long-time NATO member and continues to work for EU membership. Within the Middle East, its overarching goal is to maintain stability and establish good relations with all its neighbors. Since Turkey’s neighbors include countries like Syria and Iran, this goal creates some confusion in the West regarding Turkey’s loyalties. Recently, Turkey’s Middle East policy has become fixated on the concern of PKK terrorism and the looming specter of an independent Kurdistan.

Turkey enjoys good relations with its Black Sea neighbors as well as with the Central Asian States. In the Caucasus, Turkey is close with Georgia and Azerbaijan, although not with Armenia. This tension is unlikely to improve until the Nagorno-Karabakh issue is resolved. Moreover, the allegations of Armenian genocide levied against Turkey are still an extremely sore issue. Indeed, the fact that a number of Western countries’ parliaments are now passing resolutions that explicitly recognize the Armenian claims of genocide—as France has done and the US is considering—directly affects Turkish relations with those countries. Turkey also enjoys a relatively good relationship with Russia. Not only is Russia a key economic partner of Turkey, it shares Turkey’s goals of stability and maintaining the status quo in the region.

4. How has Turkey’s reaction to the new Hamas-led Palestinian government affected its role as an arbiter in the Middle East peace process? How has it affected its relationship with Israel?

I believe Turkish policy toward the Hamas-led government has led to considerable confusion. Traditional Turkish foreign policy establishment regards Hamas as a terrorist organization, and many in Turkey were surprised that the government would invite a Hamas leader to Ankara—and not even one of the elected leaders, but Khalid Mashal, who resides in Damascus and is one of the group’s most controversial leaders. I think this damaged Israel’s trust in the Turkish leadership. I am also not sure if Ankara’s efforts even helped the Palestinian side, especially in terms of relieving the tension between Hamas and Fatah.

In any case, I don’t think that Turkey plays a key role in the Middle East peace process. It does, however, desire and hope that there will be peace and stability for both the Arabs and the Israelis. But judging from recent Turkish statements, it looks like Turkey will not play an enlarged role in any future peace process. In fact, Turkey’s involvement may diminish in the coming months due to the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections.

5. If Israel and Turkey do agree to construction on an oil pipeline, how do you think this might affect the energy politics of the region?

This oil pipeline project would increase Israeli-Turkish cooperation, providing a link between the two countries—both figuratively and literally. Given the long-term nature of pipeline projects and supply contracts, the positive effects of this project would last for quite a while. Clearly, it is a smart strategic decision; the only question now is whether it is economically viable.

6. How has the Armenian Genocide Bill in US Congress impacted the nature of Turkey’s relationship with Israel and the US?

It goes without saying that allegations of genocide are a serious matter. Thus, it should come as no surprise that if this bill passes, it would seriously damage US-Turkey relations. (It was not brought up, as many expected, before April 24, although it could still be raised at a later date.) However, the passage of this bill will also damage relations with Israel. American-Israeli lobby groups have typically been some of the strongest allies for the Turks on this issue. The successful passage of an Armenian Genocide Bill would signal a failure on the part of those lobbyists, or, more likely, a policy shift. Turks would feel betrayed by such a move as they have long felt that the Jews understood that genocide and ethnic cleansing operations are not in the Turkish historical makeup. It was, after all, Turkey who gave refuge to the Jews when they were facing ethnically-motivated violence during the Spanish Inquisition.

7. What are your thoughts on the role of political Islam in Turkey and the AKP party? What do you make of the common characterization of Turkey as a moderate Muslim country and what challenges may Turkey face in the future? What suggestions might you have for European countries recently coming to terms with the need to integrate immigrant, often Muslim, populations?

Globally, political Islam is on the rise. Although the AKP is a coalition party that includes Islamic groups, its leadership has evolved to become less Islamist than it was 10 or even 5 years ago. It is becoming more of a conservative democratic party than an Islamist one. But because political Islam is rising within Turkey, it is becoming increasingly difficult for the AKP leadership to distance itself from the movement’s groundswell of support. This has led to greater tensions within Turkey.

Turkey should not be labeled as a “moderate Muslim” country but as a “secular democratic country with a Muslim majority.” This is an important distinction as the title “moderate Muslim” has been hijacked by Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood. This creates confusion when the term is later applied to Turkey. Furthermore, it is both factually and politically incorrect to refer to Turkey as a Muslim state since it is not defined as such in its constitution; in fact, Turkey is explicitly described as a secular country.

For over four decades, European countries have largely ignored the issue of integrating their ever-growing Muslim populations. Nearly 20 million Muslims live in Europe, yet only recently (particularly after 9/11) have their European leaderships realized that integration should be a priority. Thus, even 2nd and 3rd generation European Muslims largely feel ignored by their new states—and it is these Muslims who often feel the greatest discontent. There are very diverse concerns within the various Muslim communities across Europe and thus distinct policies need to be developed to address those concerns. For example, a French citizen of Algerian descent mired in poverty and living in a Parisian ghetto might be more concerned with just finding a job than with identity. But for a British-Pakistani man with a college degree living in London, the issues of identity and integration are of the utmost importance. Thus, it is impossible to develop a single “European” response because there is no single “Muslim” alienation. The specific grievances the various communities have need to be understood better before significant progress can be made.

8. You traveled to Israel on an educational seminar in August 2006.  Could you share with us some of most people you met and places you found most interesting or memorable?

I was most struck by my visit to Kiryat Shmona. We stayed the night there, heard the rockets pass by overhead, and spoke with the people who actually lived there. This was extremely interesting for me and allowed me to really understand the mood of the inhabitants of this border city. Over the course of the week, we met with a very impressive group of people from the government and academic community as well. In addition, the delegation I traveled with in Israel was, itself, very interesting; I learned a lot from them and I hope that they were able to learn from me.

9. Project Interchange is based on the premise that personal travel and experience in Israel can significantly advance and expand participant’s understanding of Israel.  How did your experiences and those of your colleagues support this notion?

I wholeheartedly agree. Traveling in Israel, seeing how Israelis framed the issues, and hearing their views and concerns firsthand is an incomparable learning experience. It really gives one a much deeper understanding of the country and its people.

10. Do you have any suggestions or advice for Project Interchange as we develop future programs from Turkey?

Future programs should definitely continue to include a visit to Yad Vashem. Many Turks have little knowledge of Jewish history and do not realize that some of the things they have grown up believing are wrong and—in some cases—anti-Semitic. It would be helpful to have organized discussions on Judaism and these prejudices. Also, it would be extremely valuable for Turks to have the chance to visit some of the Islamic and Christian Holy Sites during their time in Israel.