What’s Next in the Eastern Mediterranean for Regional Powers Post Pandemic
When: Thursday, 11 March 2021
Senior Lecturer in the Politics of the Middle East at the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent, Yaniv Voller, hosted the discussion about the rising tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean and how regional powers could strategise to fulfil their objectives over the next year.
Voller started the event by introducing the speakers of the panel discussion, all of whom have extensively studied the region. The first speaker was Dr Louis Fishman, an Associate Professor in the History Department at Brooklyn College, City University of New York. Dr Selin Nasi, the second speaker participating in the panel discussion, is the London Representative of Ankara Policy Center, having gained a PhD degree in Political Science and International Relations from Bogazici University in 2020. The final speaker was Dr Gallia Lindenstrauss, a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, Israel, with a specialisation in Turkish foreign policy.
After offering thanks to CEFTUS for hosting the discussion and allowing him to speak, Dr Louis Fishman shared a PowerPoint presentation with the audience titled “What’s Next in the Eastern Mediterranean.” Fishman expressed that what sparked his interest in the topic is if this discussion was happening a decade ago, it would most likely have been around the Middle East, but today, in a (post)pandemic world, it has been about the Eastern Mediterranean. Fishman reminisced his first visit to Turkey in 1999, recalling that the “big talks” back then were mostly about bilateral talks and meetings between Israel and Turkey that revolved around Turkey selling water to Israel. On this issue, Fishman pointed out the daily water outages that would happen almost daily in Istanbul and Ankara, causing the researcher to question how Turkey could sell water to another country. The conclusion Fishman drew on this memory was that despite ‘talking big’, very little comes out of situations like these.
Fishman, as a historian, began his slideshow by moving back in time between 2011 and 2021. By 2011, Erdogan stood up to present himself, especially in Egypt, as the new regional leader. Fishman referred to this period as “The Erdogan Effect”, when Turkey implemented a pro-active foreign policy supporting democracy throughout the Middle East. After referring to a speech given by Erdogan during his time in Cairo that criticised Israel’s human rights record. Fishman agreed that Israel does indeed need to change its behaviour and fix it’s human rights violations against Palestinians, but ten years later now it is Turkey that needs to improve its behaviour and respect human rights to act like a normal country, which is the only way it can free itself from isolation, especially in the Eastern Mediterranean. To offer an example, Fishman brought up the establishment of the intergovernmental organisation East Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF) by Egypt, Israel, Greece, Cyprus, Italy, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority in a virtual ceremony hosted by Cairo. The EMGF excluded Turkey and further isolated it in the region. Then, Fishman recalled numerous misleading articles published between 2014 and 2016 that promised Turkey and Israel would put their differences aside and reconcile their energy-related issues.
“So Why the Situation Today” was the title of Fishman’s next slide, which delved deeper into Turkey’s tense and alienated position in the Eastern Mediterranean today. The direct, if not the blunt, answer offered was that Turkey’s “hardball” foreign and domestic politics had failed time and again, leaving many analysts and researchers with little optimism for Turkey. The second point made on this was the instability and persistent change in Turkey’s diplomatic outreach. Furthermore, Fishman explained that conflict is one of the most successful ways Turkey has made itself relevant, which refers to the history of hard politics in the nation-state, which has led to the rise of Turkey’s prestige in the region, especially with Libya. According to Fishman, Turkey’s recent possible admission to the EU has contradicted internal and foreign decisions. As he exemplified, Turkey’s human rights issue is in constant flux (i.e., Turkey has presented an extensive human rights package, it has also insulted the LGBTQ community).
To follow, Fishman concentrated on Israel and Turkey’s relationship and started with ambassadors’ removal after President Trump decided to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem. The next issue highlighted was Turkey’s complete miscalculation of the potential of Israel in the region. However, following the renewal of ties between the two Middle Eastern countries, Fishman outlined that it is Turkey, not Israel anymore, that needs the other in a greater capacity. This is explained by all of Israel’s new relationships with Bahrain, Morocco, Sudan, and the United Arab Emirates, so Turkey is not valued as much as it once was. What has been timely in all of this is, despite Turkey’s constant attempts to reach out to Israel for assistance, Israel is having multiple elections, proving the country’s instability have only served to hinder Turkey’s efforts.
To close his slideshow, Fishman made some predictions for the post-pandemic future. To him, the outlook for Turkey’s future is more or less the same. He said that Turkey may or may not succeed, but the pro-government press will exaggerate the success if it does. Another issue that Fishman touched upon is the gradual deterioration of relations with the US, as Turkey has, time and again, missed opportunities to sign deals with Trump back when he was still in power. Lastly, Fishman explained that Turkey’s internal state of affairs is not a hopeful one, ending on a pessimistic note that calls for more attention to its domestic issues.
The second speaker, Dr Selin Nasi, also expressed her pleasure for being present with the other speakers during the CEFTUS talk and sharing and exchanging opinions and ideas. Starting with the question ‘why do we arrive at this point today?’, Nasi’s opinion slightly differed from that of Fishman’s because she does not believe Turkey should be held responsible for everything unravelled. Nasi did this by focusing on the course of developments that have occurred since last December. In the past, at least for the previous few months, there had been a deescalating of political tensions and quite a few mediation efforts by Germany, NATO, etc., leading Turkey to recall the exploration vessel. After five years, Turkey and Greece resumed exploratory talks, friendly exchanges between Turkey and France, and 5+1 talks in April to discuss Cyprus.
Nasi further observed that as of late, Turkey had adopted a more friendly and tolerant attitude and perception of Western countries in the EU and the US, commentating that hard politics has been subverted in exchange for more dialogue for diplomacy, which Nasi explained by several factors. The first one was that the pandemic aggravated Turkey’s already unstable economy, as Turkey is in constant need of foreign investment. The second was Biden’s entrance into the White House because the new administration favours stronger relations with transatlantic allies for tackling foreign policy issues. Nasi also briefly pointed out Ankara’s contentment with the EU’s decision to postpone sanctions that worried the Turkish capital that it could ultimately be confronted with an EU-US block if the crisis in the Eastern Mediterranean spurs out of control. As a result, Turkey has moderated its stance towards the West and is more eager for communication with Egypt and Israel to normalise bilateral relations. Nasi stated that the outcome of these negotiations would likely stabilise and balance power in the region. The unilateral gestures, as Nasi outlined, would offer only temporary relief. Therefore, hopes should not rise too much.
Nasi proceeded with the discussion by highlighting that the most significant handicap Turkey could face in the future revolves around devising the right approach, which the researcher herself confessed to still feeling undecided over. Political will and enforcement capacity were other issues that Nasi explained were on the agenda for the Eastern Mediterranean issue. Returning to the observance of Turkey’s recent return to a hard sort of policy that Fishman had touched upon earlier led Nasi to express that she believes Turkey should make more room for a more constructive kind of diplomacy. While inflammatory rhetoric may help mobilise masses in the country, it also undermines diplomatic efforts and is therefore self-destructive in a way. However, Nasi pointed out that Turkey’s behaviour has also motivated foreign powers to communicate and try to settle the Eastern Mediterranean, such as in Cyprus’s debate.
Today, as Nasi observed, there is an installed accession process. The EU-Turkey ties have been frozen for a long time now, with neither side demonstrating much hope, which Nasi referred to as a “patient.” The only real hope at the moment is that the patient isn’t lost on the operating table. As Nasi wisely stated, the EU sees Turkey as instead a neighbour today and no longer as a candidate country, which is answered by Turkey’s moving away from fulfilling EU criteria. The accession process remains in place but in a pessimistic kind of a coma. During this time, the EU underwent several changes that had led it to ultimately lose the political leverage to turn Turkey towards a more democratic political system. Nasi concluded that this transactional effort has hurt both Turkey and the EU and that the only tool left would be economic sanctions, but even that would prove detrimental to both parties.
Finally, on who might play a constructive role to solve such problems in the Eastern Mediterranean, Nasi predicted that it would be too challenging for the EU because it would not likely be the honest broker in the deal since both Greece and Cyprus are EU members. France’s interests in the Eastern Mediterranean and Africa, which clash with Turkey’s, also hinder the EU’s effect and the elections in Germany, resulting in a lack of partiality on the part of the EU. In terms of the will and political enforcement capacity, Nasi stated that the US and NATO could take on a more constructive role because, compared to the EU, the Biden administration has greater leverage on Turkey. To Nasi, a solution, especially in terms of the Cyprus issue, would contribute to more peace and stability in the Eastern Mediterranean region, helping to reinvigorate the Turkey-EU relationship. To conclude, Nasi emphasised the need for more dialogue and a need to learn to live with the possibility of contradictions and uncertainties because there are no easy fixes to large and complicated problems that need permanent solutions.
The last speaker, Lindenstrauss, likewise thanked CEFTUS and the previous two speakers. The Republic of Turkey and Cyprus were the two countries that Lindenstrauss believed play the most active role in the Eastern Mediterranean. As a small state, Cyprus has used all its measures to have a strong influence, noted by the exclusive economic zone agreements (i.e. Egypt, Lebanon, Israel), which Lindenstrauss pointed out as a catalyst for much that has happened since. Lindenstrauss listed the number of factors that led to Turkey becoming a very active agent in the Eastern Mediterranean, such as Turkey’s current two-state solution to the Cyprus issue.
Because Lindenstrauss is based in Tel Aviv, she offered a stimulating Israeli view of this debate, explaining that it has taken Israel quite a bit of time to understand Turkey’s change of treatment towards it. An example of the shift in relations that Lindenstrauss brought up was that the Israeli air force used to train in Turkey, which is no longer the case because now Greece has opened its airbase for Israeli jets. What was once temporary alternatives for Israel became more rigid and unchanging. To add a general light on the matter, Lindenstrauss claimed that this tension caused Israel to rediscover its western border, the Eastern Mediterranean. With the water matter, it was understandable that Israel would continue to build fruitful and lasting relationships with its neighbours in the region. The growing linkages between the Eastern Mediterranean’s security structures and that of the Middle East is a topic Lindenstrauss returned to, which was earlier touched upon by Fishman. The linkages have led to increased relations between the Atlantic states and the Arab Gulf states and created complications such as some debates and conflicts taking place in recent talks in the EMGF. To conclude, Lindenstrauss stated that to not get to crippling strife in the Eastern Mediterranean that would be close to impossible to return from, it is concentrated on more environmental efforts, such as the water issue that Fishman had mentioned at the beginning of the panel discussion. The other aspect that Lindenstrauss leaves the audience with is the post-coved impact and that so many countries in the East Mediterranean are, in fact, dependent on tourism and how to find solutions.
The talk proceeded to questions and further discussions that summarised and analysed the thoughts and opinions of the three-panel speakers, allowing for participation from the audience.
Louis Fishman is an associate professor in the history department at Brooklyn College, City University of New York. He is the author of the book, Jews and Palestinians in the late Ottoman Era, 1908-1914: Claiming the Homeland (Edinburgh University Press, January 2020). His academic work focuses on late Ottoman Palestine, the Jews of the Ottoman Empire, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He also is a regular contributor for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, where he writes mostly about Turkish and Israeli politics. He divides his time between New York, Istanbul and Tel Aviv.
Gallia Lindenstrauss is a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies and specializes in Turkish foreign policy. Her additional research interests are ethnic conflicts, Azerbaijan’s foreign policy, the Cyprus issue, and the Kurds. She has written extensively on these topics and her commentaries and op-eds have appeared in all of the Israeli major media outlets, as well as in international outlets such as National Interest, Hurriyet Daily News, Turkey Analyst and Insight Turkey. Dr. Lindenstrauss completed her Ph.D. in the Department of International Relations at Hebrew University. She formerly lectured at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya, and was a postdoctoral fellow at the Leonard Davis Institute for International Relations at the Hebrew University, and a visiting fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington D.C.
Selin Nasi is a contributor to Karar Newspaper. She is also one of the regular foreign policy commentators to Femfikir-an all-female TV debate- broadcasted weekly on Medyascope TV, an independent media outlet. Formerly, she worked as a columnist at Hürriyet Daily News (2015-2018) and Şalom (2013-2018), the weekly newspaper of Turkey’s Jewish community.
Ms. Nasi received her PhD in Political Science and International Relations from Bogazici University in 2020. Her doctoral dissertation, “Turkey’s Israel Policy in the Post-Cold War: The Struggle of Identity over Realpolitik” analyzes the ups and downs of Turkish-Israeli ties in relation to the transformation of the international system, along with structural changes in Turkish politics.
She received her BA from Marmara University’s Department of Political Science in 2000 and her MA from Istanbul Bilgi University in 2006, with her thesis “Turkey-American Relations Under the Shadow of the March 1 Resolution.”
Her most recent publication is a book chapter she co-authored with Soli Özel titled “How the Syrian War shifted the balance of power in Turkish-Israeli relations,” in Israeli-Turkish Relations in Comparative Perspective, edited by Ayşegül Sever and Orna Almog. London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2019.
She is the London representative of Ankara Policy Center.
Yaniv Voller is a Senior Lecturer in the Politics of the Middle East at the School of Politics and International Relations, University of Kent. His research broadly concerns the geopolitics of the Middle East, separatism/liberation, insurgency and counterinsurgency. He is the author of The Kurdish Liberation Movement in Iraq: From Insurgency to Statehood, which was published in 2014. His articles have appeared in such journal as International Affairs, Democratization, Terrorism and Political Violence and the International Journal of Middle East Studies. Recently, Yanivhas been exploring the role of militias in politics in the Middle East and Africa.