Turkey’s shift spurs concern on Capitol Hill

Flotilla clash draws scorn

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Israel is worried. “Turkey and Israel used to have a very positive cooperative relationship,” Mark Regev, a spokesman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, told reporters. “Over the last year or so, there’s been a less positive atmosphere in the relationship. Some would even say a cloud.”

What happened? Critics of Turkey say the Islamic-rooted AKP has an agenda: Move Turkey away from its secular democracy. Supporters say Israel’s invasion of Gaza in 2008 and 2009 to end the firing of rockets prompted Ankara to be more critical and aid Hamas.

The AKP and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan have won two successive parliamentary elections and an increased voter share. Turkey’s constitutional court has warned the AKP about its growing anti-secular positions. The military in Turkey stands as a check against any political movement to abandon secular government. In 2000, for example, it purged Islamists from senior government posts.

Mr. Erdogan has sided with Iran in its dispute with Washington, which has worked to impose new economic sanctions on Tehran to stop its suspected nuclear-weapons program. Turkey voted last week in the United Nations against a U.S.-sponsored sanctions resolution that won Security Council support.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates was guarded in his response to Turkey’s vote.

“I’ll be honest. I was disappointed in Turkey’s decision on the Iranian sanctions,” he told reporters Friday. “That said, Turkey is a decades-long ally of the United States and other members of NATO. Turkey continues to play a critical part in the alliance. We have a strong military-to-military relationship with Turkey. We obviously have facilities in Turkey. So allies don’t always agree on things.”

But some see Turkey differently. “I think Turkey has been drifting away from the Western alliance and from Israel since Erdogan’s AKP party came to power,” said Jim Phillips, a foreign-policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation. “The AKP is an Islamist political party that seeks to undermine Turkey’s long-standing secular nationalism and replace it with an assertive Islamism that seeks better ties with Muslim nations and a reorientation from the West.”

Mr. Phillips said Turkey’s willingness to allow pro-Hamas activists to launch the flotilla from its ports is part of a new foreign policy strategy.

“When the Turkish Islamists successfully provoked a violent reaction from Israeli soldiers boarding the ship it aroused a backlash of Turkish popular opinion against Israel and the United States, which the AKP will exploit to further its Islamist goals in Turkey and the region,” he said.

Steven A. Cook, a Middle East analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations, said there is a “whole host of reasons” why Turkey is criticizing Israel and supporting its enemies.

“I think the most important one to remember is that the Turks don’t necessarily see themselves as realigning,” Mr. Cook said. “They see themselves as having a 360 foreign policy, that they are standing on principle when it comes to the situation in the Palestinian areas. This is their way of pressuring the Israelis into doing the right thing. There is a lot of debate about whether that is effective. My own sense is that it is not.”

A 2008 Congressional Research Service report noted that Turkey had begun to broaden its foreign policy ambitions.

“The AKP has drawn closer to Iran, partly because Turkey believes that it would be harmed by a possible conflict over Iran’s nuclear program and partly because it seeks to diversify its sources of energy,” the CRS said. “The AKP’s policies toward Iran, Syria, Hamas and Sudan differ from those of the United States and some in the international community. It acts in what it views as Turkey’s national interests, at times seeming to disregard the possible reaction in Washington.”

Turkey’s outreach to Iran was underscored last month when it announced, with Brazil, a proposal to exchange Iran’s enriched uranium for special fuel used in medical reactors.

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