The IHH and Israel

An interesting essay by historian Howard Eissenstat about the influence of the IHH, a Turkish Islamist organization (best known abroad as the Turkish group on the Mavi Marmara flotilla boat) on Turkey’s relations with Israel. The full essay is here. An excerpt is below.

…The IHH initially developed as a response to the targeting of Muslims in the breakup of Yugoslavia. Despite harassment by the Turkish government and early controversies regarding use of funds and its relationship to militant Islamist groups, it has, since the 1990s, become one of the most effective and influential Islamic NGOs in Turkey…

The IHH played an even larger role in the dissolution of the Turkish-Israeli alliance, which the AKP has inherited from its predecessors. The close relationship between Turkey and Israel was largely the product of the Turkish military’s determination, in the 1990s, to define Turkish foreign policy. From the perspective of the AKP, a cooling of this relationship was attractive in terms of domestic politics (demonstrating that the civilian government had the final say over all matters of policy), electoral politics (Israel’s standing with the Turkish public was never high and declined precipitously after the Second Intifada), and for Turkey’s standing in the wider Middle East. In order to be an effective regional player, Turkey needed to be able to interact with Israel without appearing to be merely a U.S. proxy. Ideologically, politically, and strategically, the Turkish-Israeli alliance was an unwelcome inheritance for the AKP and grew increasingly sour over time. By 2009, Erdoğan was loudly berating the Israeli government for “knowing well how to kill,” while at the same time increasing Turkey’s contacts with Hamas and Hizbullah.

Although the IHH had facilitated these shifts, both by lobbying in Turkey and through its contacts in Lebanon and Palestine, its most dramatic contribution has been its participation in an international “Gaza Freedom Flotilla,” in 2010, which aimed to weaken the Israeli blockade of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip by transporting humanitarian aid directly to the Port of Gaza, bypassing Israeli controls. Despite claims that it had no role to play, there is little question that the Turkish government supported the flotilla, facilitating the IHH’s purchase of the Mavi Marmara ferryboat from the AKP-controlled Istanbul Municipal Government…

Although the flotilla was certainly designed to prompt a confrontation that would embarrass Israel and weaken the embargo of Gaza, it seems unlikely that anybody had foreseen Israel’s clumsy attack on the flotilla, which left nine activists killed and dozens injured. Despite the high human costs, however, Turkey had the excuse it needed to finally end an awkward alliance with Israel, while its moral stature in the region was now unparalleled. Turkey’s economy, its cultural output, and the broad model of a Muslim democracy all are important elements of its improved standing in the Middle East. Nonetheless, the assertiveness with which it has positioned itself as a critic of American policy in the region, along with its increasingly vocal support of Palestinian rights, has put it in a class by itself. According to recent polls, Tayyip Erdoğan is the most admired foreign political leader in the Arab world and most Palestinians see Turkey as their best regional ally.

Nonetheless, the AKP seems to have calculated that, while it has no particular interest in a warming of relations with Israel, it also has little to gain from further heightening tensions. The AKP successfully persuaded the IHH to forego a second Gaza Flotilla in 2011. Diplomatic ties will continue to be cool, but Turkey has a strong enough tradition in multi-party talks to serve as a mediator if the opportunity arises. In the meantime, Turkey can enjoy the independence and prestige of a public estrangement. Israel, in turn, is left painfully aware that it needs Turkey far more than Turkey needs it. Official apology or no, hopes in Israel that the estrangement with Turkey is temporary are simply wishful thinking…

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