Turkish Jewish Lobbying in the Crosshairs

In the perspective of enhanced Turkish-Israeli relations, 4 answers to 4 questions on Turkish Jewish Lobbying with Denis Ojalvo...
Turkish Jewish Lobbying in the Crosshairs

By Dr. Gökhan Çınkara*

Dr. Gökhan Çınkara interviewed Denis Ojalvo, who wrote a master's thesis at Galatasaray University in 2005 on the subject at hand.

The issue of normalization in Turkey-Israel relations, which has recently gained currency, brought up the issue of lobbying in general and Turkish Jewish Lobbying in particular.

In 1992 the PR occasion was the quincentennial of the arrival of Spanish Jews to Ottoman Turkey. And the Turkish-Jewish Quincentennial Foundation was established in concert with the Turkish State in 1989 to serve as the vehicle of Turkish lobbying activities targeting the United States.

Whereas in 2022 the gathering of Rabbis from Muslim majority countries in Istanbul provided the stage and the rabbis enjoyed a presidential welcome in Ankara. The Oiknine couple’s arrest on account of espionage was but an anecdote in this episode.

Before tackling the subject, it is crucial to understand and know how Turkey-Israel relations reached the level of strategic alliance in the 1990s.

The circumstances of that development are known by the state organs as they are in Turkey's archives. However, the role played by the lobby of the Turkish Jewish establishment, namely  The Quincentennial Foundation, in the restoration of Turkish American and Turkish Israeli ties, is not well known or understood by Turkish, Israeli, and American academics.

The fact that these bilateral relations have developed to that extent is generally attributed to the positive atmosphere of the 1991 Madrid and 1993 Oslo Israel-Palestine peace process and justified as such.

However, it is easy to acknowledge that the development process and calendar of Turkish-Israeli bilateral relations have been independent of the Israeli-Palestinian peace pursuits and date well before these.

Indeed, the myth of the linkage between improved Turkish Israeli Relations and the Israeli Palestinian Peace Process proves anachronistic since the Quincentennial Foundation was established in 1989; BEFORE the Madrid and Oslo talks. Moreover, the idea of establishing that foundation dates long before 1989.

Therefore, whatever the understandings reached during President Herzog’s visit may be, conditioning the improvement of bilateral ties to “progress” on Palestinian matters, or making artificial linkages between the two, are susceptible to derail the re-discovered need for a strategic dialogue between the two countries.

1. What is 'Turkish Jewish Lobbying'?

From "Turkish Jewish lobbying" (TJL), one should understand the mobilization of the Turkish Jewish establishment, that is, the institutional structure of the Turkish Jewish Community in Turkey, for achieving the foreign policy objectives of the Turkish State.

The targeted instances by TJL include the Executive Power under the U.S. President and the Legislative Powers, which is the U.S. Congress. That activity is primarily focused on accessing lobbies that can influence members of the U.S. Congress, who have the potential of limiting the Administration's actions in favor of Turkey.

The lobbying activity has various aspects and uses several tools.

One of the tools is professional lobbying firms whose scope of operations is defined by U.S. law. (See Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) dd. 1938)

The agents of these firms cooperate with the staff of the U.S. Congress members to influence the outcome of voting results on laws that are desired or undesired.

This is the purpose of lobbying activities, as far as Turkey's interests are concerned.

Let's provide an example:

The Presidential Administration needs the approval of the U.S. Congress to materialize the sale of the F-16 upgrading equipment requested by Turkey.

Moreover, there are limits to the influence the lobbying firms can exert on the Members of the U.S. Congress in this regard. For a positive outcome, courting the voters of these Members of Congress is necessary.

It is to be noted that Members of Congress wouldn't support any law their electorate might oppose, as it would jeopardize their re-election.

Here, the public diplomacy and public relations activities that Turkey should undertake in the USA become indispensable.

To be successful, cooperating with various American NGOs and winning their support for Turkey's causes is an essential requirement.

To engage in such an activity, due diligence is required: Which groups or what situations hamper legislation favourable to Turkey at the U.S. Congress?

Unfortunately, since Turkey's image/reputation with the U.S. administration has become ambivalent, these are quite a few. Among these: Turkey's purchase of S-400 missiles from Russia, diverging attitudes regarding the Kurdish presence in Syria, and the boundaries of Turkey's Exclusive Economic Zone in the Eastern Mediterranean...

In the context of Turkey, analysts use the term "Frenemy, which means friend and foe at the same time. In other words, if Turkey wants to get results, it needs to convince the Presidential Administration beyond any doubt that it is a friend and an ally of the U.S. This alone is not enough. After convincing the Administration, it needs to persuade the Legislators, namely the Congress. And to convince Congress, it must first convince the public opinion. Here, Turkey's detractors become visible across the Greek, the Cypriot-Greek, Armenian, Kurdish, and Human rights lobbies.

In the past (in the course of the 1986-2002 period), Turkey managed to attract the sympathy of the American Jewish public, through the influential Jewish NGOs, in return for good relations with Israel. That was possible because Jews and Turks didn't have conflicts trailing from the past. On the contrary, Ottoman Turkey has always been receptive to Jews' misfortunes and allowed them to find refuge in its territory. Hence, Turkey had no problems enjoying the voluntary mobilization of the Jewish Community of Turkey for its charm offensive in the West and the United States in particular.

2. When did Turkish Jewish Lobbying begin? If you wanted to make a chronological breakdown, how would you go about it?

It is possible to trace the roots of this "not yet named activity" back to the Ottoman period. The doors of the Ottoman Empire remained open to persecuted Jews in Europe; first, owing to the trading, industrial and intellectual skills of the Jewish refugees and at a later period thanks to the low-interest loans provided by the Jewish bankers of Europe for the wars and development efforts of the Ottoman Empire.

The contribution of the Jewish element to the modernization of the Empire, primarily through Thessaloniki (Ottoman Salonica), was significant.

Moreover, as evidenced by official records, Ottoman Jews and Muslim Turks shared the same fate both during the period of the Union and Progress government when Salonica fell to the Greeks and during the Turkish War of Independence under Allied-occupied Istanbul and Greek occupied Western Anatolia.

It is known too, that the Jewish element, along with other minorities, have been subject to xenophobic policies during the establishment of the Turkish republican nation-state. However, their woes have been softer compared to those suffered by various minorities in what was called "civilized" Europe at that period.

In the context of Jewish-Turkish relations, the fact that Turkey has been the first Muslim majority state to recognize Israel, the nation-state of the Jews already in 1949, is of great significance for Jews all over. In addition, a good note should be taken that many Syrian, Iraqi and Iranian Jews who were persecuted in their home countries managed to reach the West and Israel via Turkey.

It is possible to date the contribution of American Jewry to Turkish foreign policy efforts to the post-World War II era. President Truman's relations with American Jewry were excellent, and he recognized the State of Israel from its very inception.

During his tenure, the doctrine that bears his name and the Marshall Aid Plan were applied to Turkey. It is known that American Jews took a positive attitude towards Turkey's entry into NATO in 1952. During his trip to the United States, which lasted about a month in 1954, Turkish President Celal Bayar was enthusiastically welcomed by the graduates of the Jewish Alliance Schools, of which he was an alumnus.

The positive effects of all this on Turkey-U.S. and Turkey-Israel relations highlighted a network of relationships that grew stronger as Israel became an important country in the Middle East. The discreet Peripheral Alliance of the 1950s, which enhanced strategic cooperation between Israel, Turkey, Iran, and Ethiopia was the outcome of Israel's unique prestige as a Western ally.

Turkey took conscience of the importance of the lobbying phenomenon when it faced the American arms embargo following its 1974 incursion in Cyprus. The odds created by the U.S. Congress to successive U.S. Administrations made it difficult for the latter to manage its foreign relations with Turkey.

The 1980 military coup in Turkey provided the ethnic lobbies hostile to Turkey, yet with a renewed tailwind to pursue their grievances on account of human rights violations, followed by Armenian Genocide recognition pressures and the protracted Cyprus contentious between Turkey and Greece.

The relative status of indispensability enjoyed by Turkey owing to the Cold War continued until 1989 and faded away with the disappearance of the Soviet threat. Consequently, Turkey acknowledged that it needed to strengthen its soft power through public relations and diplomatic means. 

The restoration of Turkish Israeli ties was a sine qua non-condition set by the American Jewish establishment for endorsing Turkey’s interests, improving its image in the USA and curtailing the activities of ethnic lobbies hostile to Turkey. These, namely the Greek, Cypriot and Armenian lobbies, used to block any legislation favourable to Turkey at the US Congress and constituted a threat to Turkey’s national security. Hence, the Turkish-Jewish Lobby, known as The Quincentennial Foundation (Q.F.) was established in 1989 for commemorating the quincentennial of the arrival of Jews exiled by the Spanish Inquisition in 1492 into Ottoman lands. The Q.F. successfully met its duties for a long time and provided Turkey with valuable leeway in its aforementioned odds at the U.S. Congress.

3. How did these lobbying activities benefit Turkey?

- Turkey's positive image with the American public was established through the promotional and public relations activities organized in the framework of the Quincentennial Foundation's commemoration activities.

- The power of the lobbies hostile to Turkey at the U.S. Congress was curtailed and Turkey managed to get the military equipment necessary for its national security without any problems. Meanwhile, the U.S. Executive Branch learned its lesson from the Congressional embargo attempts and enjoyed the possibility of using Israel to meet Turkey's urgent equipment needs.

- Successive Armenian Genocide bills that reached the U.S. Congress were blocked for many years.

- Turkey and Israel elevated their bilateral relations to the level of a "Strategic Alliance". In this context, joint exercises, training, and intelligence exchanges have enabled both countries to consolidate their respective regional standings and strengthen their security.

- Turkey's defense industry has used the experience it gained through the Heron UAVs supplied by Israel for the development of its own domestic Armed Unmanned Aerial Vehicles.

- Turkey has become the undisputed regional leader in the Middle East owing to its military strength, the international relations it has developed and the reputation it has earned in the Western world, including the United States.

4. In addition to the usual trilateral contacts between Turkey, Israel, and the USA, could a revived Turkish-Jewish lobbying endeavor be efficient today?

The lessons learned from past experiences are undoubtedly helpful. However, history doesn't repeat itself. Every situation offers solutions or opportunities to deal with problems under its conditions. The current conditions are conducive to finding solutions to regional problems within regional cooperation.

In this context, I think it would be wise to approach the problems with reverse engineering to get tangible results. Let me provide a hypothetical example:

Let's assume that our goal is to secure the rights of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) in the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of the Cyprus island.

Assuming that the optimal gain for the TRNC in an eventual agreement would be 33%, the steps to achieve this objective should be determined.

We can as well posit that it will be in the interest of ALL parties involved to route the natural gas line to Europe via Southern Cyprus - Northern Cyprus - Turkey so that the natural gas deposits in the region are efficiently tapped.

If each country builds its pipeline, it will also be interested in keeping it open. In other words, all parties will have a common interest in keeping the tap valves open.

Well, how can this be achieved?

Israel could attempt to convince the Greek Cypriot Administration and Greece to cooperate with Turkey on this issue.

There is no reason why the U.S. and the international energy companies should not take this issue head-on.

Here is an excellent opportunity to test the strength of lobbying efforts!

Let’s hope that the delegations from Turkey and Israel, have discussed this possibility.

*Dr. Gökhan Çınkara, Political Analyst and Researcher, Israel and Palestine Studies, Geopolitics, Comparative Politics @gcinkara

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