By Mehmet Nedim Aslan | Middle East Monitor
Turkish Ambassador made to sit in a lower seat and Turkish flag removed in front of Israeli media.
Turkey’s Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, has made his strongest criticism yet of Israel and its policies. After talks with his British counterpart David Miliband at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London, the two ministers held a joint press conference during which Mr Davutoğlu answered questions about his country’s lukewarm relations with Israel. Asked whether Turkey’s criticism of Israel was attributed to a policy of “Islamisation”, Mr. Davutoğlu denied the existence of any such policy and said that Turkey had worked actively for regional peace; indeed, until 2008 Turkey had had very good relations with Israel, even to the point of bringing it to the same table with Syria. The war in Gaza a year ago changed this, said Mr. Davutoğlu. “By attacking Palestinians in Gaza, Israel ruined our peace efforts and we cannot tolerate this. Attacking children and women is unacceptable,” he added.
Davutoğlu emphasised that his country’s relations would not be normalised as long as Israel is occupying and attacking Palestine. “If Israel ends its occupation and unacceptable treatment of Palestinians, then we will be ready the next day for normalised and good relations,” he said. “Turkey’s foreign policy is based on equality both with its neighbouring countries and others. A Jewish kid is not superior to a Palestinian kid. Both should be treated as equal. This is our vision for the region.”
Later, Mr. Davutoğlu gave a speech at London University’s King’s College on the topic “Converging Interests of Turkey and the UK in an enlarged EU and beyond”. Answering questions from the audience afterwards the Foreign Minister was asked why Turkey has close relations with “extremists such as Iran and HAMAS”. Emphasising again his country’s commitment to regional and global peace, Mr. Davutoğlu pointed out that HAMAS had been elected by the popular vote and those in the West who lecture the rest of the world on democracy should respect the Palestinians’ choice. He added, “The Palestinian election was the most democratic and transparent election held in the region and the Palestinians elected HAMAS. There is no such thing as ‘moderates and extremists’. When you occupy a land and kill its people you leave them no choice but hopelessness. One cannot call a country moderate which kills Palestinian children and women every day.”
Mr. Davutoğlu also criticised the US former President George Bush’s Middle East policy that labelled Iran and Syria members of the ‘axis of evil’. “We don’t want a Cold War in our region. We don’t believe that the use of military force and a policy of isolating countries will bring peace. The only way to bring peace to the region and the world is to be inclusive, not exclusive, and this is what Turkey has been working on. That’s why Turkey has good relations both with HAMAS and Iran. Anything that happens on our doorstep affects us, so our vision is to minimise tension and bring countries together politically, socially and economically.”
There is a common belief in the Muslim world that US foreign policy is biased towards Israel thanks to the Israel-Jewish lobby. Ever since the foundation of the state of Israel on Palestinian land in 1948, all US administrations have been ardent in their support of Israel, both politically and economically. In a practical sense, therefore, there appears to be very solid evidence for such a belief; indeed, some would say that the influence exerted by the Israel-Jewish lobby and the resultant Israel-bias by successive US administrations is, quite simply, a fact.
The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy by American professors John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt makes it very clear, in an objective way, how the Israel-Jewish Lobby goes about its work in this respect. In Britain, a Channel 4 documentary film, Inside Britain’s Israel Lobby, showed how Britain has been kept on a short rein in terms of its relationship with Israel. The situation in the UK is not as serious as in the USA, but it was still shocking to see how some British politicians are bankrolled by the Israel lobby to support Israeli interests at the expense of the Palestinians. One of many important points raised in the programme was the very subtle ‘threat’ to the Guardian newspaper for its report on ‘Israeli crimes against Palestinians’.
Israel maintains a formidable “hasbara” (propaganda) campaign worldwide to develop good relations within the media so that empathic coverage of the conflict caused by the Israeli occupation of Palestine favours Israel and ignores, covers-up or seeks to justify Israeli crimes against Palestinians. The hasbara campaign to lobby politicians and the media does not exist only in the west. Surprisingly, the Israel lobby also operates in Muslim countries to such an extent that in some places it influences the policy-making process. One of those countries, without doubt, is Turkey. It is true that the AK Party in government has, unlike previous governments in Turkey, demonstrated its opposition to Israeli policies, cancelling a military exercise with Israel, for example, and PM Erdogan’s public condemnation of the assault on Gaza 12 months ago. This is countered, of course, by the fact that Turkey was the first country with a majority Muslim population to recognise Israel.
The unofficial but very strong Israel lobby in Turkey has always been a hot topic of discussion among Turkish politicians, intellectuals, media and ordinary people who follow political affairs. As in many other countries, when the subject of Israel is debated, the ultra-secular mainstream media in Turkey has condemned critics of the Zionist state as being biased against Jews or Israel, and try to downplay the severity of the Israeli occupation and killing of Palestinians. Conversely, when rockets are fired into southern Israel from Gaza, the news in the mainstream media focuses on the suffering of Israelis at the hands of Palestinians without mentioning the historical and political context that Palestinians are resisting Israel’s illegal occupation, as they are legally entitled to do.
On the first day of the Gaza attack last year, when Israel bombarded the police academy compound in Gaza, Hurriyet (which is similar to Egypt’s semi-official Al-Ahram newspaper in terms of its connection with the state’s ideology and is the most influential Turkish newspaper) commented: “After 200 rockets fired by Hamas into Israel, Israeli forces have fought back.” This gave a clear message to its readers that Israel was “forced” to resort to violence, but ignored the fact that a Hamas-Israel truce had been broken by Israel in November 2008, prompting a Hamas response, to which Israel’s murderous assault was the response.
When huge rallies were held in Turkey to protest against the deliberate targeting and killing of Palestinian civilians by Israel’s war machine, in Hurriyet and its sister newspaper Milliyet, Posta and Radikal there was little coverage. Hurriyet’s editor-in chief, Ertuğrul Özkök, once called ‘the most influential journalist’ in Turkey, wrote in his daily column that he feared these protests might result in arousing anti-Jewish sentiments.
Anyone who does not know Turkey well may find this surprising, even shocking, but it is a reality that the most influential media organs in Turkey are indifferent to the plight of the Palestinians but very enthusiastic about Israel. This enthusiasm for Israel among Turkey’s ultra-secular establishment is rooted in their campaign against Islam, which they see as an obstacle to the hegemony of the country’s founding Kemalist ideology. Israel is, in their eyes, a natural ally in the fight against their common enemy.
Because the foundation of modern Turkey was based on the removal of religion from public life – by coercion or ‘coerced consent’ if necessary – while anything connected with Islam was rejected as backward and an obstacle to the development of the state and society, this ultra-secular ideology used very subtle methods so that its indoctrination was not counter-productive. Hence, the word ‘Islam’ was not used in their campaign of secularisation. Instead, they used the terms Arabs, Sheikhs, Sherif Hussain, and Mullahs to indicate where the blame for what happened to the Ottoman Empire should be lodged; they overlooked the fact that the secular establishment was hostile to the Ottoman Empire too. Following the Gramscian concept of hegemony, in which the state, through building state-funded civil and bureaucratic institutions to control society, the Turkish establishment attacked, and continues to attack, religion using all of the apparatus at its disposal.
As Islam was suppressed by the establishment of modern Turkey, so was the ideology of “Turkishness” promoted by the state. The idea was that if people have the political nous to take pride in being a ‘Turk’ as a member of a superior race, then religion would disappear altogether. Looked at in the current context, it is interesting to note that some Jewish politicians have been among those who were promoting the new anti-Islam ideology. For example, Moez Cohen, a member of the Jewish community in the early years of modern Turkey, changed his name to a pre-Islamic Turkish name, Tekin Alp , was a leading member of the Turkish nationalist movement and once said “Down with Islam”.
In the 1990s the Turkish army generals backed a media campaign supporting Israel and Israeli interests. In 1996-97 Necmettin Erbakan’s government brought together eight Muslim countries to form the ‘D-8’ (Developing Countries) organisation aimed at tackling political, social and economic problems faced by Muslim nations. This alliance of Muslim countries was seen as a threat to Israel so the Turkish media started a campaign intended to provoke the generals by claiming that this move could take Turkey back to the ‘dark ages’ and Erbakan’s agenda was to impose shari’ah law. As a result of this campaign, Israel’s friends in the media succeeded in bringing the government to its knees.
After the 2002 general election in Turkey friends of Israel in the media and politics were cautious about the newly-formed AK Party government, adopting a “wait and see” policy. The AK Party took on a heavy agenda, from the EU reforms to the collapsed economy, so did not get involved immediately in the Palestine issue, with the result that the media seemed to be friendly towards the government. In turn, as its self-confidence grew, the government found its voice against Israeli attacks on Palestinians. The reaction of Dogan Media – owning newspapers, including its flagship Hurriyet, TV channels, weekly and monthly magazines and about 50% of the whole media sector in Turkey – was a campaign claiming that opposition to Israel would damage Turkey’s goal of joining the European Union. Some commentators went further, saying that it was not Turkey’s business to get involved in the Israel-Palestine conflict. Those who were against such Turkish involvement were, at the same time, and for the sake of Israel, upset at the Turkish government’s decision not to allow on its soil US troops involved in the occupation of Iraq.
An ‘official partnership’ between Israel and Turkey’s Dogan Media was uncovered when tax investigators discovered this year that Dogan had evaded taxation on its share sales to German media company Axel Springer AG in 2006. This prompted journalists working for other companies to investigate further the details of Dogan’s sales to its German partner. Yener Donmez, working for Vakit newspaper, found that Axel Springer’s employees must adhere to five main principles, one of which is “support for the vital rights of the State of Israel”; the journalist wrote that since Dogan was Axel Springer’s partner, the same principle would require Dogan’s journalists not to report anything against Israel. The newspaper also claimed that the Israeli state had shares in Axel Springer, making Dogan and Israel partners.
Releasing a statement about its partnership with Axel Springer and the claims that Israel is immune from criticism across its media output, Dogan did not deny its partner’s principle of supporting Israel, but said “Axel is a German company and even if the claims in Vakit were true, this would not affect their publishing policy.”
Today, whether Dogan Media is directly linked to Israel or not, it still owns almost 50% of the Turkish media sector and has not withdrawn its subtle support for Israel. However, its voice is not as powerful as it was a few years ago and may disappear altogether in the light of the tax evasion charges. Be under no illusions, though, for ‘the lobby’ will plan new strategies and find new friends, such is its influence.