Turkey. Israel news photo: Flash 90

Turkey's foreign policy shift away from friendship with Israel and the West may be a ploy by the country's prime minister to gain popularity for his party, which stands to lose the next election in July 2011, says a top expert on the region.

The hostile stance taken by Turkey towards Israel is part of a major transformation of Turkey’s foreign policy, according to Begin-Sadat Center Director Prof. Efraim Inbar. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is turning away from the West, he explained, and moving closer to countries such as Sudan, Syria and Iran.

However, “it is not a foregone conclusion that Turkey will persist in this direction,” Inbar said in a position paper: “Among Turkish society many still support the secular parties, which are far from pleased with the rush towards the Muslim world. Even among moderate Muslim quarters there is a sense of unease regarding the government’s policy pushing Turkey to join radical Islamic elements such as Hamas and Iran. One should also recall that Shiite Iran was an historic rival of the Sunni Turks.” (For an article on Turkey under Erdogan written by an Iranian freedom activist, click here.)

Public support for the ruling Islamic party is in decline, the expert added, mostly due to corruption and abuse of civil rights. “Were elections held last week, the Islamist party would lose many seats, and two secular parties would possibly have made up the coalition. If current public opinion is held till the next elections, scheduled for July 2011, it is likely that Turkey will emerge with a new prime minister. It is possible that precisely due to his domestic situation as reflected in the polls, Erdogan has decided to exacerbate his relations with Israel in order to gain public support.”

Prof. Inbar concludes that Israel “should stand its ground on Israeli vital interests” vis-a-vis Turkey. “Moreover, Israel should not tolerate insults. This will only be perceived as a weakness. Israel should distinguish between the Turkish state and society, and the current government that deserves a strong riposte. Firm, level-headed responses will be of assistance to pro-Western Turks in their domestic debate.”