News from and about the Middle East in recent months has been dominated by two undeniably crucial developments. The unprecedented upheavals in countries ruled over the years by oligarchs of different stripes have exposed not just a strong distaste for the old ways of governing but also, it is to be hoped, both a growing desire on the part of the oppressed to participate in government and recognition that Islam and democracy need not be incompatible. Secondly, the decades-old argument over how Israel and the Palestinians can co-exist seems to be as far from resolution as ever, as attention focuses on the supposed differences between the views of Israel’s right-wing rulers and President Barack Obama’s unexceptional recent promotion of 1967 borders tempered by land adjustments.
Turkey straddles Europe and the Middle East, is a major military power in both, and has demonstrated over the past ten years that electoral democracy can easily co-exist with Islam even where Muslims account for well over 90% of the population, while the military establishment, once ready to overthrow democracy at will, stays in the barracks. Other than Israel and Iran, neither of which can pretend to offer assistance as others in the area struggle for their freedom, Turkey stands apart as a non-Arab, democratic, Muslim yet secular society that has the potential to lead by example in that historic struggle. At the same time and every bit as important, Turkey is in a unique position to bring both its hard and soft power – the latter both economic and diplomatic – to a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
With the U.S. highly suspect on both sides of that conflict, the European Union not inclined to risk offending either, and Egypt having surrendered its credentials as a go-between with its opening of the border with Gaza, Turkey may indeed be the best and only choice despite the frigidity that has marked its relationship with Israel since the murderous Gaza war of 2008/9 and the bloody Israeli interception of the Turkish Gaza aid flotilla last year. Only last month, Turkish President Abdullah Gul wrote in the New York Times that a “dignified and viable Palestine, living side by side with Israel, would fortify Israel’s security” and that, because Turkey would benefit from a peaceful Middle East, his country stands “ready to use our full capacity to facilitate constructive negotiations.” It is worth recalling that Turkey was the first Muslim country to grant recognition to Israel and noting that today Turkey conducts more trade with Israel than any other Middle Eastern state.
Concerning Turkey’s potential role as a power broker in the Middle East in general, its most recent effort failed when Ankara’s offer to negotiate between Iran and its accusers with respect to Tehran’s nuclear program was turned down brusquely by the West, already aggrieved by opposition to Security Council sanctions on Iran by Turkey and Brazil. As a regional power increasingly influential in the Arab world, an applicant for EU membership and a NATO stalwart since 1952, Turkey would seem to be perfectly positioned to play a key diplomatic role, whatever Israel and its supporters in Congress might think. NYT columnist Roger Cohen put it succinctly last October 25: “Turkey can be the West’s conduit to the Muslim world if Washington can bury its pique. The new Turkey won’t abandon NATO or its American alliance: If NATO wants to talk to the Taliban, or the West to Iran, it can help.”
It is not, however, Washington’s pique that presents the gravest problem. That distinction goes hands down to blatant racism within the EU couched in terms of geography, religion or social integration: France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy spoke of the dangers of having Iraq as a neighbour of the EU; Valery Giscard d’Estaing, a predecessor, echoed the Pope in calling the EU a Christian club; and German Chancellor Angela Merkel has pronounced attempts at multiculturalism a failure in the context of polls that indicate that one-third of Germans believe that their homeland is overrun by foreigners, whether they mean Turks or Muslims. Turkish-EU accession talks go on, however, and one can only hope that in the end – and not too late – the EU will concede in the face of a quartet of dangers: growing and undifferentiated hostility among Turks toward the West; freedom for the Turkish establishment to continue current policies with respect to EU member Cyprus and sea and air use in and over waters in dispute between Turkey and EU member Greece; a challenge to secularism within Turkey; and/or a lifting of self-imposed restraint on military intervention in the affairs of state.
None of the above should be taken to excuse or overlook Turkey’s sins. On the contrary, EU accession would solidify democracy and institutionalize civilian rule while obliging the new member to release its grip on Cyprus and come to terms with international norms pertaining to the law of the sea. Moreover, the EU and the West in general could have no more effective or devoted point man in dealing with the multiple challenges facing the Middle East today. American national security interests are surely in play.
By Alan Berlind.