In October 2000, the government of Turkey had a problem.
House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert had promised to bring a resolution commemorating the Armenian genocide to the floor for a vote, a move that Ankara said would be a slap in the face to a NATO ally.
The Turks called up Keith Weissman, a senior researcher from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, and asked him to intervene.
Mr. Weissman said in an interview this week that AIPAC lit up the phones and managed at the last minute — with the help of the State Department — to persuade President Clinton himself to write a letter to Mr. Hastert saying a vote on the resolution would cause strategic damage to U.S. interests.
The last-minute push worked. Mr. Hastert removed the resolution from the floor, and the full Congress has yet to take up the matter to this day.
But the American Jewish community is no longer helping Turkey, after a tumultuous deterioration of ties between Israel and Turkey in the past four years. The government in Ankara last week decried a botched Israeli raid on a Turkish aid flotilla, which claimed at least nine lives, as an act of “state terror.”
In some ways, the Memorial Day flotilla affair marks an end of Israel’s more than 20-year strategic alliance with Turkey, and the resulting support from the pro-Israel lobby in Washington.
Turkey, which has a secular constitution, was the first Muslim state to recognize Israel, in 1949. Israel has historically sought to form alliances with countries on the periphery of the Arab world such as Turkey, Iran and Ethiopia.
In 1982, when Israel invaded southern Lebanon, its army destroyed training camps affiliated with the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia, a terrorist organization responsible for the slayings of Turkish diplomats.
Turkey rewarded Israel’s counterterrorism operations with increased intelligence ties. The intelligence relationship soon blossomed into full ambassadorial relations, and increased commercial trade and closer military cooperation. In exchange for arms sales from Israel, Turkey allowed the Israeli air force to use Anatolian airspace for training purposes.
The relationship began to sour in the early 2000s with the election of the Justice and Development Party (AKP in Turkish), which is based on elements of parties that had been banned for Islamism.
Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said, “It’s not completely over. There are still close ties between many in Turkey and the community and there are still a lot of common interests.”
But Mr. Hoenlein added, “The Turks happen to have a government that is extremist, that has chosen a path that is violative of the past relationship. It has been a steady process, not just related to the most recent incident. This began with the election of this Islamist government in 2002.”
Barry Jacobs, the American Jewish Committee’s former director of strategic studies in the office of government and international affairs, also noted Turkey’s critical stance toward Israel’s 2006 invasion of southern Lebanon to root out Hezbollah terrorists attacking the Jewish state.
“This started in 2006 when I remember one Israeli diplomat complained that Turkish support for Hezbollah had ‘out-Arabed the Arabs,’” Mr. Jacobs said, adding that Turkey’s unconditional support for Hamas since 2007, combined with Jewish discomfort with defending the Turks on the Armenian issue, led to a dampening of support.
“The major Jewish organizations decided in 2008 that the question of the Armenian genocide resolution was so sensitive we would no longer take public and private positions to oppose it,” Mr. Jacobs said.
Abe Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said he thinks the Turks made a strategic decision to break with Israel during the Gaza war. He pointed to a heated exchange in 2009 at the annual World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland, when Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan walked out of a session with Israeli President Shimon Peres, telling him: “When it comes to killing, you know well how to kill.”
“We saw things deteriorating but it did not surface publicly until Davos,” Mr. Foxman said. “Until then, the trade continued, the military continued. It did not happen till the Gaza war. My feeling is that Turkey made a geopolitical decision before, but it needed an excuse to turn so dramatically.”
Mr. Jacobs and Mr. Weissman were in some ways the architects of the Jewish community’s support for Turkey in Washington that began at the end of the Cold War. Both men led delegations of Jewish community leaders to Istanbul and Ankara. Mr. Weissman said AIPAC’s leaders even offered training to Turkish Americans on how to establish a successful lobby.
In Congress, the Jewish organizations lobbied for an oil pipeline from the Azerbaijani capital of Baku to the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan, a pipeline that bypasses Turkey’s rival Armenia entirely. The Jewish lobby in Washington helped protect U.S. arms sales to Turkey, on which the Greek lobby often tried to block or impose conditions.
Henri Barkey, a former State Department Turkey analyst and senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, said, “The most important element of the relationship with Israel for the Turks in the late 1980s was improving relations with the United States through the American Jewish community.”
In the 1980s, Turkey often lost major fights in Congress to the Greek and Armenian lobbies.
“It made Turkey’s strategic value to the United States more visible and understandable when supporters of Israel would go to bat for them,” said Douglas J. Feith, a former undersecretary of defense for policy who represented Turkey when he was out of government in the early 1990s. “All of the sudden, you not only had strong support for Turkey in elements of the executive branch, you also had then some serious debate on [Capitol Hill] in favor of Turkey as well.”
Today, far from being an asset for Turkey, the American Jewish community appears to becoming a potent foe of Turkish interests in Washington.
On Tuesday for example, the Anti-Defamation League issued a press release calling on the State Department to designate the IHH, the Turkish charity that helped organize the free-Gaza flotilla as a foreign terrorist organization. In Turkey, the IHH has been praised as a group of peace activists and humanitarians.
“In terms of the Jewish community and Israel, neither one of us wants to throw it away and hope it is not over,” Mr. Foxman said. “But every day there is another provocation. Every day the Turkish government goes out of its way to be insulting to Israel and another link is broken.”
Morris Amitay, a former executive director of AIPAC who has also represented Turkey, was more blunt.
“If someone asked me now if I would try to protect Turkey in Congress, my response would be, ‘You’ve got to be kidding,’” he said.
The liberal Jewish organizations J Street and Americans for Peace Now declined to comment on the deterioration of Israeli-Turkish ties in Washington.